The Miniaturist – notes

miniaturistThe Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
* 2014 / 421 pages
* read by Davina Porter 13h 17m
rating: 7 /  historical fiction

I was NOT looking forward to this book selected by one of my groups but I don’t know why not – it’s just the “type” of historical fiction I’m not fond of – the kind where the historical setting is presented but it really doesn’t seem to drive the characters in any way,   the history just happens around them.   Yes,  I suppose that’s a fine line,  but it’s  important to my enjoyment.  Oh well … at least we’re not seeing history as “background” for novels which could take place anywhere and any time.  I think the thing is that the historical part didn’t change – it’s just a setting.

Then another group decided to read it – oh woe!  I’d better read it then,  see what I make of it.  So I started listening to the audio version (and I’m not usually fond of Davina Porter) and it was just sliding by as I walked along and I realized I was hopelessly lost.  I started over –

Eeeks!  This time something was clicking – really clicking!  (See how fickle I am?) I started making notes about the Epigraph and checking out the location – then I decided to look up the Kindle version and found that it was a very good price so … ta-da … here I am reading and listening –  both.  🙂   I’ve done that before not too  long ago, actually,  with Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – turned out well.  So I guess I’ll get the Kindle version here too – That way I can walk and listen,  but if I miss something I can check the text version.  🙂


Old Church in Amsterdam

Setting – Amsterdam in last half of the 17th century – the VOC – Dutch East India Company – is experiencing incredible success trading throughout the world. – Fwiw, Amsterdam at this time had recently peaked in its notorious economic growth and was now suffering an economic downturn – a variety of reasons were involved including  population changes, corruption,  economic interests of the powerful changed from trade to real estate and investing.  Johannes Brandt is apparently involved in both trade and investing.

The truth is I kept getting involved in researching the times –  too bad it wasn’t really integrated into the action.

Yes, there really was a Petronella Oortman who married a shipping and trade magnate named Johannes Brandt.

Epigraphs from Nahum 2:9 and Mark 13:1-2 in the Bible – destruction – from Brandt household Bible.

Take ye the spoil of silver, take the spoil of gold: for there is none end of the store and glory out of all the pleasant furniture. Nahum 2:9


1And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!

2And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

I set them out here because I want to remember they’re there – the text also says they were “from marked passages in the Brandt household Bible.” –  might be important for themes.

1687 – Prologue  a funeral at Old Church in Amsterdam – “girl” and “maid” are watched by “woman.”


Herengracht Golden Bend

The Plot – (no spoilers past 1/4):   1686 – (a year prior) – the 18-year old Petronella (Nella) Oortman arrives at the upscale home of her new husband, Johannes Brandt who is 39 years old and quite prosperous – or it would seem so. Nella is finally greeted by his sister, Marin Brandt as well as Otto, the dark-skinned manservant from Africa,  and Cornelia, the maid apparently from an orphanage.  Nella has a parakeet with her and a small trunk.  The Bible is quoted liberally by Marin, the mistress of the house until now,  and she’s apparently a strict and thrifty woman – probably jealous, no doubt a challenge to Nella.  And Johannes is not there – not until the next day and when he does get home he doesn’t seem that interested in her.

This is the dollhouse of Petronella Oortman – 1686-1710


Petronella’s cabinet –

for an excellent close-up photo of the original and a really huge one here:

Johannes and Marin are primarily interested in business (the East India Company and the Bourse,  the oldest stock exchange in the world – 1608)  and making and keeping money,  although it seems Marin encourages her brother to stay more.   Nella is a bit frustrated.  And so it goes – after several chapters Nella receives a cabinet dollhouse  the very image of the house she’s living in.

And she goes to visit Marin’s rooms where she finds spicy smells,  feathers, books, many things and she realizes she’s not really the “mistress” of the house.  But she finds a note in a book – a love note – in two hands. And Marin catches her and leaves a vicious scratch on Nella’s arm.

The amends apparently includes a book of business advertisements (Smit’s List) as well as a handful of promissory notes.  Nella finds a miniaturist and orders some little things for her cabinet which Marin and Johannes will not like.



Now we have two threads – 1.  who is sending such intimately detailed miniatures?  Nella ordered three but received six – and the miniatures are perfect down to a spot on the dog’s stomach.

2.  Where is Johannes’ heart if it’s not going to Nella?  He’s not taking any interest in her presence as a “wife,” in fact he rejects her amorous advances.   Is it with his sister, Marin?  With Cordelia the maid?  Or with Otto, the manservant?  It’s possible it could be Agnes, Marin’s friend and busy-body gossip – or even (gasp) more than one.   There are hints throughout.

And a minor issue:  What’s the deal with the sugar distribution being held by Johannes and loathed by Marin but it’s profitable.

For some reason the whippets, Dhana and Rezeki, are becoming important in the book.  It’s pointed out that they have weird names –

Near the Miniaturist’s shop is a sign:

“Beneath the sun, a motto has been engraved: Everything Man Sees He Takes for a Toy.
“‘Thus is he always, forever a boy,’ ” Cornelia says wistfully.  (p. 63)

Is this referring to Johannes who can apparently buy anything he wants including a slave and a wife?

That’s about 1/4 of the book so I’ll quit with the plot.

The major theme so far seems to be how to worship money – an interesting theme for an historical fiction about Amsterdam in those days –

More miniatures –  Bible –  Mary and Martha fight over Jesus –


Old Bourse (stock exchange) of Amsterdam

Anachronism  sighting (minor!):  Page 104 – No matter how rich they were,  Amsterdam did not have shop windows in the 17th century.  Shop windows were first used in London in the 18th century.   The goods listed were likely available for sale in the buildings there along the Warmoestraat,  a famous shopping street in the day – but not behind windows.

And sometimes listening to a British accent is difficult for me –  In this book Johannes sounds like “your highness” and  “guard”  like “god.”  That’s just a sample.

****  NOTES 2 –  (Petronella Brandt’s life)

Pellicorne (Pellicone) was a typical if not common name in Amsterdam at the time as were Meermans and Brandt.  Oortman is common today.

Dollhouses were the rage with women of the era – for awhile at least – according to

The Rijksmuseum - The Doll's House of Petronella Oortman c. 1686-1705

Good stuff here but you have to register:

2 Responses to The Miniaturist – notes

  1. Naznin KArim says:

    A feminist text of thwarted women. Nella wanted to be a good wife, mother and home maker but was not allowed to be due to her marriage to a homosexual man. Marin was the true adventurer and business woman but was not allowed to be, instead she had to push her indolent brother to stop them from financial ruin by going abroad to sell the sugar, which he is not capable to do. The very talented miniaturist has to hide her identity as a woman. The text leaves a lot of alluded to mysteries unresolved. The private conversations and accusations of Johannes and Marin to the past mistakes of each other. Marin uses Johannes to refuse Meermans’ hand for which he loses a very good friend. The fact that all the ruin comes upon the family because of this seems a bit far fetched. Also Marin knows about Johannes but makes him marry Nella because this could protect him from the true fact that he was a homosexual. But then he does not go onto consummate the marriage and have a child! So if he was not going to do that then why agree to marry even if forced! All the blame cannot be laid on Marin, but on the society where capable women were not allowed to do anything that was a man’s domain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see I read this almost 2 years ago – oh my. I really appreciate your analysis, Naznin. Perhaps if I had gone into it with a feminist perspective rather than a general historical one I’d have got more out of the book. You’re right of course, I see now that it is, at least in part, “A feminist text of thwarted women.” Thanks. 🙂


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