I have recently visited Amsterdam and was absolutely over the moon to find out that my next read was set in the city of Amsterdam, about 400 years ago. Set in Amsterdam in 1686–87, the novel was inspired by Petronella Oortman’s doll’s house on display at the Rijksmuseum. It does not otherwise attempt to be a biographical novel.
“Looming above the sludge-coloured canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on water, they are stately and beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Above their rooftops Nature is doing her best to keep up and clouds in colour of saffron and apricot echo the spoils of the glorious republic.”
The book begins with Petronella (Nella) Oortman, a 18-year-old country girl of an old impoverished family, from the beautiful Dutch countryside village of Assendelft, arriving at the Golden Bend home in Amsterdam of the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, whom she married a month earlier.
She does not know why she had to be married but she does admire the older wealthy merchant and is enthusiastic about her new life as a matron in the developed city of Amsterdam.
Life’s hard if you’re not a wife’, her mother had observed. “Why?” Nella asked.
Having witnessed her mother’s constant annoyance at her father turn to panic on the news of his posthumous debts, she asked by Mrs Oortman was so keen to shackle her daughter to a possibly similar risk.
The house she moves in is peppered with rich artefacts speaking volumes of the people who have decorated it – well travelled and wealthy.
“Nella looks at the silver ewer on the side, the smooth mahogany writing desk, the Turkey rug, the voluptuous paintings. A beautiful pendulum clock makes its gentle measure of time. There are suns and moons on its face its hands are filigreed. It is the most beautiful clock Nella has ever seen. Everything looks new and speaks of wealth”
She feels like a country bumpkin, despite her renowned family name. She is in awe of sister Marin, the servants Cornelia and Otto, and Brandt himself, who treats her more like a friend than a wife.
She is expecting love to blossom but at 18, she does not yet know what love truly is. She is naive and has been sheltered, but now she feels more like a guest than a new wife.
“When musicians in the village sang about love, they sang indeed of pain concealed in the bounty. True love was a flower in the gut, its petals unfurling inside out. You would risk all for love – blissful, never without its drops of dismay.”
As you can tell, the book is written from Nella’s point of view. We see what she sees, we hear what she hears and we feel the disappointment she feels when her new husband is mostly absent and when he is present, he prefers the company of his sister and goes to work outside of the house.
She is bored out of her mind and can’t wait to consume the marriage and perhaps fall pregnant.
“She goes further – picturing Johannes without his clothes, imagining the thing he has underneath the table waiting for her. Her mother has told her what wives can hope for – a rising rod of pain, the chance it won’t go on too long, the wet clam dribble between your legs. There are enough rams and ewes in Assendelft to know exactly what happens.
“I don’t want to be just that kind of wife”, she told her mother.
“There is no other kind”, came the reply.
The book spends some time allowing us time with the characters. We get to know their hidden ways, their backgrounds and even the austere sister Marin is caught eating sweets behind closed door. Peeking through keyholes becomes an art.
In order to alleviate his new bride’s boredom, Johannes buys her a massive doll house (a gift and an insult as she cannot manage the current household due to his sister holding all the reins). With the gift, she receives the address of a Miniaturist, a person responsible for creating small furniture and other items that would fit the house.
The story picks up when the Miniaturist starts sending Nella interesting and life-like items along with cryptic messages.
“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 our fates, she thinks. All our fates are in the hands of God – and women’s in particular, after their husbands have passed them through their fingers and childbirth has put them through the wringer”.
Nella, with all the time she has been given, can only think and watch those around her work. She goes to parties with Johannes but still he does not touch her. She is in the throws of despair when she visits him at work thinking she could surprise him with lunch. There she finds out Johannes’s secret. He was gay and had a young lover – the same English man who had been delivering her tiny miniatures.
She is shocked to see that her marriage is a sham, that her husband lies with men and will never father her a child and she will die a virgin and also that he is in high risk of being arrested and murdered by the religious groups that rule the city and see homosexuality as a sin.
Johannes and Marin calm her down and ask her to keep their secret.
“When you have truly come to know a person, Nella, when you see beneath the sweeter gestures, the smiles, when you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide – then forgiveness is everything. We are all in desperate need of it.”
Nella sinks deep in despair and only thinking of the Miniaturist can help her overcome the low spot she’s gotten in. She feels like she has no other friends.
When Johannes is discovered having sex with his lover and he is accused of assaulting the English man and stabbing him with a knife, he is sent to the male prison of Amsterdam.
“Though all rooms are now once more immaculate, the whole house has a muted feel, an air of exhaustion after a fight”.
Nella can’t do anything to save her husband. If they had a child, they could refute the accusations. They could fight. He is on trial by the puritans and all his assets are in danger of being confiscated by the merchant’s guild.
Marin, his sister, is the one crying out in outrage of the unjustice of a woman not being worthy enough to take over, to do business, to own property.
“We can’t own property, we can’t take a case to court. The only thing they think we can do is produce children who then become the property of our husbands”.
Nella finds solace int he Miniaturist’s works and when she receives copies of all the household members for her doll house, she can do nothing else but squeeze her small self.
“For what am I, she wonders, but a product of my own imagination?”
Before the day of his drowning, Johannes speaks to his wife in prison. He is regretful of not being able to be there for her, that she has to fend for herself now as a widow after a sad marriage.
“She stares at him. A glimpse of parties, a feeling of security, the dying laughter of chubby babies – it falls between them and fades to black.”
The only bitter joy comes from the realisation that Marin was pregnant with an illegitimate child – Otto’s child – and she manages to give birth to a healthy baby girl on the day that Johannes was drowned. She dies in childbirth.
“What are we all chasing? To live, of course. To be unbound from the invisible ropes that Johannes spoke of in his study. Or to be happy in them, at least.”
When she finds the Miniaturist again, she left. The guild threw her out for being a woman, making money creating images in wood. Nella feels her absence but also feels changed for having known her.
“We are legion, we women; in thrall to the miniaturist. I thought she was stealing my life, but in truth she opened its compartments and let me look inside.”
The book ends with Otto’s return and him meeting his daughter. Johannes is dead, Marin is dead, Cornelia, Otto and Nella will now raise this child for the future as best as she can.
“Civic mindedness, neighbourly surveillance, everyone checking up on everybody else – that’s what keeps this city ticking on.”