Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Miniaturist

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Miniaturist is a slightly odd book. My overriding memory is lots of people wandering around crying "sell the sugar!". But there's also hypocritical Puritanism, gay and extra-marital sex, spooky prophecy, childbirth, drowning, racial tolerance and intolerance, and a woman wandering around Amsterdam with a surprising amount of freedom and feistiness considering the repressive age in which she is living. (I have no issue with women being free or feisty; I'm just questioning the historical accuracy of the book's representation of a wife's lot in the Dutch 1680s.)

But I did enjoy the television adaptation. It looked stunning, with the darkness of a Rembrandt gathering but the brightly coloured dresses of a Vermeer portrait. The performances were beguiling and the plot utterly absorbing, right from the opening moments. The programme began not with the sinister and tragic church funeral of the book, but with the beautiful Nella sailing past windmills on the way to her new marital home on Amsterdam's Herengracht, full of hope and expectation.

Zaanse Schans

Of course it all then goes horribly wrong. Nella's merchant husband Johannes Brandt is often physically absent and unwilling to engage in any form of passion when he is around. His sister Marin rules the roost with pious coldness. Nella's companion parakeet escapes. Nella then discovers that her husband only has sexual feelings for men, one of whom turns up to murder the family dog. The Brandts' African servant Otto stabs him in self-defence. The owners of the sugar that the Brandts are supposed to be selling, the Meermans, spot Johannes and the dog murderer in a tryst at the docks and report him to the authorities. The dog murderer claims he was attacked by Johannes and that his stab wound proves it. Nella then discovers that Marin is pregnant, and not emotionless at all. Far from it, in fact. Nella believes that the father is Frans Meerman, who had been romantically involved with Marin in her youth. But the father's identity is only revealed once the baby is born with dark skin. Sadly, Marin does not survive the birth's complications. Johannes is sentenced to death by drowning by the court. Otto witnesses this vile punishment and returns to the Brandt house to meet his new daughter and to grieve. 

And all of this is somehow foreseen by the Miniaturist. Johannes gives Nella a cabinet replica of their house as a wedding present, and she seeks someone to furnish it. From Smit's List, the Amsterdam equivalent of the Yellow Pages at the time, she locates a woman who lives at the "Sign of the Sun". Nella requests that she make items like a lute and a box of marzipan, but instead the Miniaturist delivers a child's cradle, calligraphed cryptic messages on folded scraps of paper, and accurate doll figures of everyone in and involved with the family. And there's more - the figure of the family dog acquires a drop of blood shortly before he is murdered. A tiny sugar cone grows mould just as some of the ones in the warehouse are discovered to be rotting in the damp.

Nella and the Miniaturist did meet briefly on screen at the end, which they don't as far as I recall in the book. This was an attempt to solve some of the mysteries of the text, but we still didn't get all the answers we seek. Just how does the Miniaturist of the title know so much about the families she makes things for? How does she predict the future? Where did she come from, and where does she go? 

And what will become of Nella, Otto and Cornelia and baby Thea after the deaths of Johannes and Marin? How can they make a success of the family firm with such scandal behind them? Will they ever sell that sugar?  

One of the mouldy sugar cones made it to the Castle Museum in York
The Dutch scenes were filmed in Leiden, rather than Amsterdam, which makes sense, since Amsterdam is far too busy to be a practical shoot location. You are not really going to get that authentic 17th century feel with hoards of Japanese tourists sailing past in glass Lovers canal cruiseboats and all those distracting shop windows in the seedier parts of town, which bring a whole new meaning to "sign of the Sun". The gabled houses are lower in Leiden, but it's such a wonderful city. We spent a couple of holidays camping in nearby Rijnsburg, and loved popping over to stroll along Leiden's waterways, take a boat trip, explore the not insignificant museums, visit the windmills and botanical gardens, or just shop at the Saturday market for cheese, stroopwafel and kibbeling before lunching at one of the many floating cafes along the canals.

Lower gables than Amsterdam

Lovely Leiden

We went back to Amsterdam this summer, while staying with a friend and former colleague of mine in Beverwijk, which is how I finally got to see Nella Oortman's dolls' house in the place that inspired Jessie Burton to write the story. It was the rainiest day imaginable (thankfully the only one in an otherwise glorious week), and the Rijksmuseum was the fourth we had visited that day because we was impossible to do anything outside. We bought annual museum passes which saved us hours of queuing in the deluge. Our return to science centre Nemo had gone down well:

But the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk less so with our six-year-old philistine. Moan, moan, moan.

Officially "the worst museum in the world"
Mondrian art appreciation

So the Rijksmuseum was seriously pushing our luck, even with a promise of pancakes at the end of it. Which possibly explains why our daughter was prepared to give us a maximum of 20 minutes to see the whole museum. And why the snaps of the dolls houses are very blurry - blink and we would have missed them as we hurtled past.

We also managed to catch glimpses of The Night Watch and the Milkmaid, which have now merged in my mind into images of the Brandt house from this superlative televisual feast. Thankfully the girl was safely in bed during the broadcast so I could watch it with all the time in the world. Nice work, BBC.

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