Life in Miniature: Jessie Burton’s The House of Fortune
WRITTEN BY BETHANY LATHAM
In 2014, Jessie Burton published The Miniaturist, a tale set in 1680s Netherlands. In the novel, Petronella Oortman, a naïve teenager from the country, is wed to Johannes Brandt, an older, wealthy Amsterdam merchant. Johannes ensconces Nella in his large, richly furnished home on the Herengracht, and his wedding gift to his new bride is a dollhouse – a beautifully-crafted cabinet which represents the house in miniature. The idea for the novel came to Burton upon first viewing the real, historical dollhouse in the Rijksmuseum, a detailed wonder of tortoiseshell, marble, rich fabrics, miniature Delft blue china commissioned directly from the Dutch East India Company. The tiny linens even bear Petronella’s embroidered initials at miniscule scale. The real Petronella Oortman furnished this beautiful cabinet at an astronomical cost, revelling in her conspicuous consumption. For Burton’s fictional Nella, adjustment to her new life is difficult. Johannes is kind but distant; his sister Marin, who runs the household, is a prickly enigma. Nella is less than thrilled with the gift of the cabinet, but bored and lonely, she writes to an artisan, making requests for items to start furnishing her dollhouse. The small packages begin arriving, and Nella immediately realizes there is something strange about the exquisite miniatures. When miniatures she has not commissioned, which seem to reflect not what is, but what will be, arrive, Nella experiences equal parts fear and fascination for this artisan, a woman who can see into Nella’s life, its secrets and its course, in ways that seem impossible. She becomes determined to seek out the elusive miniaturist.
The Miniaturist experienced phenomenal success, especially for a debut novel. It was the star of the London Book Fair in 2013, provoking a bidding war which Picador eventually won; it was published by Ecco in the US. Upon its publication, it became an instant bestseller, and the BBC had a television adaptation out by 2017 which was viewed by millions. The House of Fortune is Burton’s sequel to The Miniaturist, picking up with Nella and her household eighteen years after the end of the first novel. When asked at what point she considered a sequel, Burton shares:
“I tried writing some scenes as early as 2016, but I quickly realized I wasn’t ready. There were other things I wanted to write, and I needed to let the experience of The Miniaturist percolate in the background. It wasn’t until around summer 2017 that I realized I wasn’t finished with Nella and her family, or she wasn’t finished with me, and that at some point I would return to her. Around 2019 I did an event talking about The Miniaturist, and I realized how synthesized I was with the world in the book, and how much Nella means to me. That November I re-read The Miniaturist, the first time I had lifted the covers for six years, and then I started writing The House of Fortune.”
It would be understandable to have concerns for a sequel following on such a successful debut, but Burton says, “My concerns were not with replicating the ‘success’ of its predecessor, and more with writing truthfully, honouring what Nella gave me in the past, and bringing her into her future.” Burton accomplishes this by expanding the characterization in The House of Fortune. Without spoilers for the first novel, suffice it to say that The House of Fortune is not only Nella’s tale, but also that of her niece, Thea, and the two women’s relationship with each other as the family navigates an increasingly difficult financial and social situation. Nella’s experiences have changed her, in many ways jaded her, while Thea exhibits all the dangerous exuberance of teenaged inexperience. Though the challenges she faces will be different, in many ways, Thea’s naivete mirrors that of the younger Nella from the beginning of The Miniaturist. Burton explains:
“I often have an older and a younger woman in dialogue with each other in my novels. I seem to like writing a lot of young women on the cusp of their adult life, and older women who understand the nuances of that life a bit better: the compromises, the acts of forgiveness, the complexity of love. A psychologist can make of that what she will! I don’t think it’s that uncommon to writing the experience of womanhood, seen from different angles. There is a lot of pain that can be caused when two people, who care for each other, feel mutually misunderstood. The House of Fortune seeks to take Thea and Nella through that journey to seeing the other more clearly.”
While Nella and Thea’s relationship is central to the novel, there are other female characters who allow for exploration of the “experience of womanhood” in early 18th-century Holland. Nella is keenly aware of Amsterdam’s rich widows, pondering that they “had money of their own, and their dead husbands’ fortunes. As widows, they were no longer legal entities controlled by a husband.” Burton explains the relative freedom that Dutch women could experience in a time when female independence was far from the norm:
“When a Dutch couple married, their personal wealth and possessions were itemised, and, if they divorced, a woman could take with her everything she had come with. Her husband had no right to any of it. She would also have primary right to take any children with her. I am fairly sure these laws were not the same elsewhere in Europe at the time: in fact, they were often actually the opposite. Wealthy widows in Amsterdam occupied a unique place in society. They possessed the accumulated status afforded them by their deceased husbands, so were often under no obligation to remarry in order to seek protection from a man. They took over their husband’s businesses (see Vermeer’s mother-in-law, who did exactly that). Couples often acted as informal business partners, and it made sense to the city burghers that a woman who knew the ins and outs of her husband’s trading should be listened to and supported. They had prominent roles on charitable boards, and acted as patrons to artists and scientists. They were not the rule-makers as such, but they influenced society and were not beholden to the usual circumscribed world of children and domestic life.”
This is a situation Nella envies. The events of the first novel resulted in the implosion of her husband’s business interests, and the family has been on the precipice of financial ruin ever since. They own a large and venerable house but have been forced to slowly sell off possessions in order to keep it, and they are almost out of possessions to sell. Nella could have staved this off with a remarriage, which other characters chastise her for not pursuing in the years since her husband’s death. Yet life experience has made Nella cautious. She wants better for Thea, a marriage that will truly protect her through wealth and security. Finding this “perfect match” is complicated by the fact that Thea is biracial, and also that the clock is ticking – a suitor must be found before the family exhausts the financial resources necessary to keep up the appearances of their station. Thea sees other options: she wants to marry for nothing but love, a love she finds in the theatre, in the person of a handsome young set painter. The mysterious miniaturist takes this opportunity to make a reappearance after 18 years, this time sending her works not to Nella, but to Thea – a tiny figure of a man…holding an empty artist’s palette.
It is in the theatre that Thea also encounters another instance of female independence when she befriends a famous actress, Rebecca Bosman. Burton is an actress herself, and when asked about the inspiration for the character of Rebecca Bosman, Burton shares:
“There were women working as actresses at the time, both in the Netherlands and in England, so Rebecca is in some ways reflection of them. These were women who, like the wealthy widows, existed somewhat outside the ‘normal’ confines of society. They earned their own living, and the famous ones were able to be very independent and have a long career. But also I have my own experience as an actress to draw on, since I was a young girl, acting professionally. So in a way, Rebecca is a love letter to all the wonderful actresses I have worked with, who inspired me and looked out for me.”
One of the fascinating aspects of this novel and its predecessor is its setting – the Dutch Golden Age. Reams have been written about this culture which juxtaposed the appearance of religious restraint with near-unfettered avarice. Burton discusses what drew her to this particular setting: “I was attracted to this period and location almost as soon as I visited the city [Amsterdam] on a holiday in 2009. I saw Nella’s cabinet house, currently in the Rijksmuseum, and was transfixed. As a piece of commentary on the mores, ambitions and skills of the time, I think it is indispensable. I questioned what sort of person would spend the cost of a full-blown townhouse on a miniature space she couldn’t live in.”
Making the setting feel immersive was imperative. As anyone who has viewed Dutch painting of the period will have realized, there is an abundance of information that can be used for visual representation, especially of the wealthiest classes. Though idealized, the Dutch wanted their interiors and possessions front and center in representations of themselves from this period, and there are many such representations. Burton consulted a variety of historical sources in order to craft historical atmosphere and a sense of place. She explains:
“I already had a lot of research extant from the work I did for The Miniaturist. My bibliography of books on the Dutch Golden Age proved useful! One book in particular was excellent on the minutiae of how people really lived – weddings, funerals, diets, children, widows, etc. It’s called Well-Being in Amsterdam’s Golden Age, by Derek Phillips. And this time, with The House of Fortune, I needed to find out more about the investigations and journeys made by botanists and engineers, in their quest to transplant seeds and plants from the tropics to northern Europe. So I read a lot around that subject. I also studied still-lifes, paintings of shipwrecks, portraits and interiors. The Dutch were powerful during this period of the late 17th / early 18th century, and keen documenters of themselves, their food, clothes, houses, ambitions, fears. Their obsession and neurosis can be found in painting, texts and objects, a lot of which is survives. Their wealth was substantial thanks to aggressive naval power, trading, colonising, and slavery activities in Brazil and Surinam. It’s a complex picture and one I think that remains unfinished.”
Speaking of unfinished, the ending of The House of Fortune offers a new beginning for the Brandt family. Does Burton, perhaps, envision revisiting these characters in a future work? “My novels do tend to be open-ended. I am quite open to the idea of a continuation to Nella’s story, but not yet, not for a long while: I need to live a bit more before I go back to her. I need to let this new novel be out in the world before I think about what comes next for Nella and her family.”
The House of Fortune was published in the UK by Picador on 7 July in hardback and ebook and will be released 30 August by Bloomsbury US.
About the contributor: Bethany Latham is HNR‘s Managing Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 101 (August 2022)