May 2015 Club

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

Set in pious but wealthy 17th century Amsterdam, a young girl named Petronella Oortman arrives in the city from rural Assendelft to start her new life married to the charismatic, wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. On her arrival however, she is greeted by her dour, godly, spinster sister-in-law, Marin, who serves somewhat as a human parody of Amsterdam itself – puritanical on the outside, indulgent in privacy – the city is riddled with hypocrisy and intolerance. Marin spouts Ezekiel, eats herring and wears staid clothes, yet is fond of candied walnuts, sugar and wears sable and velvet under her skirts. There is more to Marin than at first meets the eye.

In the lavish surroundings of the townhouse, Nella meets and eventually befriends, Cornelia, an orphan maid and Otto, a former slave from Dahomey. But her new husband remains elusive. She longs for her wedding night with a mixture of trepidation and urgency to commence her new life, but it never happens.

As a diversionary tool and to show his generosity, Johannes presents Nella with an exquisite miniature cabinet, an exact replica of the townhouse, for her to fill. Nella is a little insulted, feeling that she is no longer a child and is not destined for playthings, but in time, she commissions a miniaturist from Kalverstraat to make her a few pieces for her cabinet. The mysterious miniaturist, whom Nella believes to be a woman of Norwegian descent and who flits mostly unseen through the pages of the book, makes the commissioned pieces exquisitely, but also sends some unrequested pieces with mysterious messages which unsettle Nella.

Over time, some of the miniatures change in appearance, directly reflecting events in the household. At first Nella believes the miniaturist is trying to harm them – there are voodoo connotations - but comes to the conclusion that she’s trying to warn her. The miniaturist, I believe, could represent an allegory for fate and destiny, whether it be at the hand of God, or some other invisible force.

To avoid spoilers, suffice to say that events in the household take dramatic twists and turns, none of which I guessed, which made it a splendid, richly construed page-turner. It’s worth flicking back to the first chapter after reading to the end – it then makes a bit more sense!

Ultimately, although Petronella doesn’t end up with the life she’d imagined, she becomes an incredibly strong woman within a matter of months involved in sugar trading, midwifery and funeral arranging. She earns the title of Mistress of the house and starts to believe that the miniaturist’s message – every woman is the architect of her own fortune – can indeed be true, even in the restrictive world of 17th century Amsterdam.

Colourway inspiration

So many colours to choose from! From the green of Peebo the parakeet and the green velvet chairs to the saffron-dyed velvet curtains which adorn the cabinet. From the coffee and cinnamon stored in the warehouses to the watery stain-glassed windows of the Pellicorne’s church.

Firstly, I choose Luminosity 100% silk to reflect the riches the Amsterdam merchants brought back from faraway lands, including silk.

The main source of colour inspiration I took was from the painting Nella dwells on upon Johannes’ rejection. Somewhat allegorically, it portrays “a splayed oyster on a dark indigo background”.

For the semi-solid colourway, I combined an indigo blue with a Delft blue and dyed the silk three or four times to gain maximum intensity and richness of colour and called it Assendelft.

For the variegated colourway, I wanted to recreate the purlescence of an oyster and mixed in some blues and purples. It also suggests the blue and silver of the dress Nella wore to the Guild of Silversmiths’ feast. This colourway is called Petronella.