If you are in the UK you might have watched the tv adaptation of The Miniaturist on the BBC on Boxing Day. It is a two-part series, based on the book of the same title by Jessie Burton. The Miniaturist was published in 2014. I read the book last year and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to watch the tv adaptation this Christmas. I was not disappointed. We were served beautifully lit genre scenes making us feel like we were inside an old Dutch master painting. The lighting and the costumes were wonderful and the film followed the book fairly closely.
“Nella climbs onto her giant bed and sits with the parcel. Bulky, the width of a dinner plate, it has been wrapped in smooth paper and string. A sentence has been written round the sun in black capitals: EVERY WOMAN IS THE ARCHITECT OF HER OWN FORTUNE Nella reads it twice, puzzled, a feather-thrum of excitement in her belly. Women don’t build anything, let alone their own fates, she thinks.”
Burton, Jessie. The Miniaturist
The story is set in Amsterdam 1686. Petronella, or Nella, a poor young and inexperienced but resilient girl, marries a rich merchant by the name of Johannes Brandt. At first her arrival in the Brandt house seems strange and eerie. Her husband is never there and does not consummate the marriage. Her new sister-in-law, an intriguing, complex and intelligent woman called Marin, is running the household and does not seem to want to hand over the reins. There are two servants, Cornelia, a warm hearted and loyal girl, and Otto, a former slave, bought, freed, and employed by Brandt.
Nellla receives a huge dolls’ house (a miniature copy of the real house) as a wedding present from her new husband. She starts to furnish it with beautiful miniature items, ordered by post. The miniaturist (whom she had not met) soon starts to send her items she did not order. All these items are perfectly matched to the real thing (her house and the people in it) and the items become more mysterious with each new delivery. A crib, a wound on the miniature dog, and a sharp knife on one of the dolls, frighten and worry Nella.
In the mean time we learn that Brandt is not only a very wealthy and successful trader, but also gay and only married Nella to keep up appearances. He has made enemies however and they are out to ruin him, in which they succeed by accusing him of raping a boy. He is found guilty and drowned in the sea for punishment. Nella is left to pick up the pieces of the Brandt household as it is quickly unravelling into chaos.
There are some wonderful topics in this story; topics of today as well as the 17th century. Being gay was, of course, a mortal sin in 17th century Europe and no doubt a major cause for much suffering. The legal system is clearly full of holes as the accused Brandt stands no chance of being heard or taken seriously.
Women Rule the Story
But the book is really about the women and their roles, rights and freedoms. Nella, Marin, Cornelia and others (trying to not give away too many spoilers) are what this story is all about. Nella is as good as ‘sold’ (her words) to her new husband to save herself and her family from debt and ruin. But she knows where her duties lie and is ready to take on her new role.
Her position as the lady of the house, however, is undermined by Marin who has taken it upon herself to run the house and protect her brother. We learn she consciously chose her position of relative freedom but in the end she pays a heavy price for it. The young and scared little Nella grows up fast, and is the one who ends up having to save what she can save and take charge.
The BBC Adaptation
The two-part series by the BBC stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Nella and Romola Garai as Marin. The photography of the series is just beautiful. The producers clearly aimed to recreated Dutch old master paintings and succeeded in this. We can look through hallways into rooms, tiled with black and white stone, there are leather-clad walls and wooden panelling, Delft blue tiles and Vermeer-styled windows everywhere. The lighting is soft and cool as in the paintings of the time. The costumes are fabulous in style: with warm Vermeer-like colours, white collars and mustard coloured silk dresses. Even the parakeet comes back in many genre paintings of the period. I always try to not look at the lace too much in period drama’s as it is usually completely wrong but it wasn’t too far off in this case.
The story is set in Amsterdam, on the Herengracht. That would suit one of the wealthiest traders in Amsterdam quite well. The tv adaptation was filmed in Leiden (I grew up close to and lived in Leiden) and to most Dutch viewers it would have been overly clear that we were not on one of the grandest canals in Amsterdam but a much more modest one elsewhere (although still one of the poshest in Leiden, the Rapenburg). The Pieterskerk church in Leiden featured in all its glory as well. Although Leiden starred in the tv series, the many references to Amsterdam as the story location gave us no doubt where we were supposed to be.
The Real Dolls’ House
Although the book is a complete fiction with many 21st century topics taking the lead roles, the dolls’ house is actually real. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a dolls’ house in its collection which was actually owned by a lady called Petronella Brandt. She was married to a Johannes Brandt who was a silk merchant and they lived on the more modest Warmoesstraat in Amsterdam. A dolls’ house like this often would have cost as much as the real house and was by no means intended for children to play with. Jessie Burton tells us that she got inspired by this dolls’ house when she visited Amsterdam and even more so when she found out it was an exact copy of the house it stood in. Besides the dolls’ house, the two main characters and various topics that played a part, The Miniaturist is fiction.
A Lovely Mix of Wonder, History and Eye-Candy
The tv adaptation follows the book very closely; so much so that I felt like I had already seen it. The dramatic scenes in the second part especially followed what I had imagined when I read the book; I had a strong sense of deja-vu. Although the BBC series is visually stunning, it did lose some of the mystery and magic the book so wonderfully evokes. But together they provide enough of a lovely mix of wonder, history, eye candy and current topical stuff to keep me entertained.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington still has the exhibition on ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting’ until 21 January 2018. This exhibition features many 17th century Dutch interior scenes and you would recognise many scenes from The Miniaturist in it.