Archive for February, 2018

The Miniaturist: A defence of gender roles and inter-racial characterisation in the novel.

February 2, 2018



I recently watched the TV adaptation of Jesse Burton’s ‘The Miniaturist’ over Christmas which spurred me on to devour the book in the first weeks of January.

Both the book and the adaptation came in for some criticism from reviewers, notably in The Guardian and The Chicago Tribune, who took exception to the portrayal of the main characters in relation to their perceptions of gender politics in C17th Holland and the issue of racism.

Nella is too modern in her outlook and expectations for these critics. She is trying too hard to be a feminist icon and was written to appeal to modern C21st female readers rather than reflecting the mores of her age.

Similarly, the acceptance within the household of a black ex-slave, is incompatible with their view of Dutch attitudes to a man like Otto and how he would have been treated in contemporary society.

I found this interesting and wanted to think more about why modern readers engage with literary creations and whether our perception of the past is a true one.

Every writer is a product of their age to some extent. Writers are raised and influenced by the society in which they operate and by their understanding of the earlier worlds in which they set their works. Many writers spend years researching historical contexts and absorbing details from historical sources and artwork, museum artifacts – like the infamous doll’s house which inspired ‘The Miniaturist’ which is housed in the Rijksmusem in Amsterdam and contemporary writing and letters. Small details are pieced together about what their characters were likely to have worn, the food they ate, the houses they lived in, the streets and industries which surrounded them and the religious teachings which were so influential on how they conducted their relationships.

Miniaturist doll's house

Family life and interaction are slowly built up and reconstructed in the mind of the author, filling in the back story of each character and plumping out the scenes until the reader feels they are a part of that fictional world as it might have existed in the past.

The exciting part for a writer and the most difficult bit to ‘pull off’ successfully in terms of historical literary writing is getting inside the head of the characters and bringing them to life as three-dimensional, breathing people who we can empathise with and care for.

How can we imagine what an eighteen year old girl really thought about being sold off in marriage to a stranger and being cast adrift in a new world for which she was inadequately prepared? Do we assume that she must be naïve, hopeful, stricken with home sickness, afraid of her new role and how she would carve out a niche for herself and what her husband would be like. So much of her future happiness must depend on this key factor.

I think Nella does demonstrate all those thoughts and uncertainties. The supporting characters of Marin and Cornelia and her interaction with Agnes allow the writer to draw out her inner feelings and thought processes. She is as conflicted and unsure as we might assume a person in her position would have been.

Is Nella too modern? Well that depends on what you think a C17th woman would have thought and whether you think Nella has to stick to that convention either. People living at the same time, in the same society and social class, with similar backgrounds would still have thought and felt and reacted in a multitude of different ways to any given situation after all. Just because women had very little political power or legal rights, does that mean that they were content to be chattels? Women’s future security and that of their offspring depended on the success of their family business so even if they were not usually seen as equal partners in business, they were still inextricably bound up in the family interest and often personally involved in that business – as negotiators, networkers, diplomats, persuaders and facilitators. This seems to be written out of much social history.

Women were business people throughout history, they were just not paid for their labours, accepted into guilds or acknowledged for the role they played much of the time.

The fact that Nella takes on the responsibility of selling the sugar when Johannnes is arrested seems perfectly rational in the circumstances. This is not so much a contrived plot device in order to demonstrate her commercial capabilities as a means of survival. What else could she do in the circumstances to keep the household afloat and try to mitigate the tension between Johannes and Frans, which might even save her husband’s life?

The tensions between Johannes and Marin over the business reflect that very real disparity between men and women within a household. Johannes resents Marin’s interference in his business and thinks that she has no idea of the burdens he shoulders when he is off travelling. This is true but how could she be aware of them if she has never been allowed to experience these things first hand and had the study door shut in her face. He forgets that she has run the household while he has been away and made decisions for them all too.

Like one of the doll’s in the miniature house, Johannes wants to put his women back in their boxes when he’s finished with them, expecting them to live in suspended animation until such time as he is with them again.

I think the book is also accurate in its depiction of Nella’s financial insecurity. She is dependent on her husband for everything from the clothes on her back to the food she eats and the disposable income which pays for her ‘hobby’ of furnishing the doll’s house. She must think whether it is acceptable to her husband before she can spend money on anything at all. This financial dependence is completely realistic and underpinned much of the gender inequality throughout history.

Women often brought lands, resources, businesses and material goods with them on their marriage, yet they had no formal control over any aspect of their personal wealth which could then be disposed of as their husbands saw fit without any consultation.

The imagery of cages and freedom re-occurs in the novel from the caged and released parrot, to the miniature cage in the doll’s house and the discussion of ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by the women of Amsterdam compared to their French or English counterparts. Otto is freed from his slavery but Johannes is caged for his sexuality.

Nella comes from a good family who have fallen on hard times financially so she is totally dependent on her husband’s fortunes, as is his sister and the rest of the household.

Everyone is financially insecure, including Johannes himself, but only he is able to actively pursue business opportunities and speculate on his fortunes until he is arrested. This plays out in the backstories of each of the characters within the household.

Cornelia, the maid, is an orphan. She knows what it is to be cast out in a harsh world and fight for survival. She grew up without a home or family, without material comforts or emotional ones so insecurity will eat away at her very core. She depends on the family for the roof over her head, the food in her belly and the clothes on her back. To leave without a good reference would spell ruin for her.

Otto was a possession. As a slave, he lost family, home and even control over his body and future as a young man. He is dependent on Johannes as his liberator both financially and psychologically. The household is his whole world as he is viewed with suspicion or as an exotic object outside the house. He is thousands of miles from his culture and homeland and as misplaced as Nella parrot, Pebo and similarly caged.

Marin rejected the offer of marriage in order to retain some quasi-form of independence which takes on a financial aspect as well as a social one. The tensions between Marin and Johannes are complex and multi-layered but contain within them a financial aspect as well as a moral one. She wants recognition as a sister within the family legacy but Johannes sees no role for her beyond keeping the house together while he’s off trading and exploring.

By the time I was sixteen, I didn’t want to give up who I was and what I had’ Marin says quietly. ‘I had a household already. When Johannes was away, I was the head.’   She goes on to say that no woman had that kind of responsibility or freedom unless they were a widow.

This is played out in the marginal characters of Agnes and Frans Meermans too. It’s her inheritance that brings them the sugar fortune yet she is only able to exercise any power as a married woman through her husband, despite his lack of judgement and inferred incompetence as a trader and soldier.

Another theme which runs through the characterisation of the book is bodily control. Who does what to whom and who controls this action.

Nella is understandably nervous abut the duties of a new wife. She expects to sleep with her new husband and has ambivalent feeling about when this might occur and what her internal response should be.

As a wife, she has no control over her body. Her husband can force her to have sex or ignore her completely. He could beat her, if he wished to, and the law would uphold his right to chastise her. She has no control over whether she will carry a child or not or how often, even if it kills her, like it does so many other women.

Nella is passive in all this – waiting to hear Johannes return home on her first night in the house, wondering whether he will come to her room and leaving the door open or even tentatively trying to initiate some intimacy between them which backfires spectacularly.

Again, I feel that Burton is perfectly in context here in terms of C17th views on marital relations and mores. Women were supposed to be chaste and innocent before marriage and to accept the role their husband chose for them in bed. They were also expected to shoulder the burdens of pregnancy and repeated childbirth with its attendant perils as part of their lot in life. Nella has the vague longing for motherhood, as seen from the eyes of a young girl who has yet to experience the reality of the actual process. She is rightly expectant of what her role should be, as mistress of the household, only to find that position already taken by her sister-in-law and finds herself thrown off course by the peculiarities of her new family.

None of this seems in any way too ‘modern’ in its approach or anachronistic. Young women were often given little detail before marriage but they witnessed their own mother’s giving birth and the trials and benefits of motherhood as they were growing up. They had some expectation of what lay ahead for them and how society would expect them to behave.

It is really desperation that leads Nella to initiate some intimacy with Johannes and there is little she can do when he clearly repulses her advances but retreat back to her room and cry. That is hardly the stock response of a rampant modern day feminist to the situation.

When she discovers the reason why Johannes has no sexual interest in her – his homosexuality – she reacts with horror and disbelief and also with a Christian revulsion which would have been totally in keeping with contemporary religious teachings about homosexuality as a grave sin which we see play out in the last section of the book.

Critics who suggest that Nella is not that disturbed by the revelation seem to gloss over the fact that she is forcibly sedated for three days after she discovers the truth about Johannes and Jack and is almost physically sick at the time of the actual encounter.

The fact that Marin and Nella seem to come to terms with Johannes’s sexuality fairly quickly and try to conceal it for the sake of the family and their regard for him may seem unlikely given the general societal bias against homosexuality, but can be explained by their intense personal relationships with Johannes and affection for him.

On a more expedient level,  they are all tied to each other’s fortunes and therefore any scandal will impact on them all so it is in their own interests to hide his secret away and pretend they are a ‘normal’ household, especially considering the watchfulness of their neighbours and pronouncements from the pulpit against this type of ‘sin’.

Many families concealed moral sins from wider society in order to protect individual members and to prevent scandals which would have undermined the whole family structure and standing within the community.

This streak of ‘liberalism’ or unconventionality within the family can also be used to defend the accusations of a ‘modern’ take on the treatment of Otto in the story.

Otto, is a black former slave, liberated by Johannes whilst on one of his trading trips to Surinam and brought back as a servant to Amsterdam.

Otto is unquestioningly loyal to Johannes and protective of his master’s interests and property. He remains an enigmatic figure in the story and the reader is left to surmise what his deeper thoughts and feelings might be and exactly what the relationship is between Otto and Johannes, Marin and Cornelia who all connect on several levels.

Johannes is an unconventional man, who has seen more of the world than most of his contemporaries and clearly lives outside of the normal mores of his society. It is, therefore, not unsurprising that Johannes would view Otto as more than a commodity and that he would reward faithfulness and good service with kind treatment. There is an unwritten contract between the two men which has existed for years before Nella arrives in the household.

Cornelia and Otto have much in common – both having lost family and home in different circumstances and both being servants together and dependent on their master and mistress for security and future success. Whereas some would see Otto as a threat, Cornelia accepts him and bonds with him as a daily companion who she can interact with in a perfectly natural way.

Casual racism is alluded to in the book, in terms of how Otto is regarded when he is walking about Amsterdam by passers by and by Agnes, who views him like an exotic animal or specimen. People resent him taking a job that might have been given to a Dutchman and the reader perceives a vague air of threat to his person, just because he is a man of colour in an overwhelmingly white society.

This threat is intensified when Otto stabs Jack in self defence and goes on the run. Nella, Marin and Cornelia are fearful for him because he is unlikely to receive justice under the law due to his ethnicity so the book is reflective of contemporary prejudices towards different ethnic groups and sensitive to how a man like Otto would be viewed in C17th Dutch society though it doesn’t dwell on the exploitation of the native populations who were caught up in the slave trade and sugar industry.

The relationship between Otto and Marin is the most controversial aspect of the book’s treatment of ethnicity. Would a wealth white woman have conducted an affair with a black servant and borne his child?

I think this can be explained in the context of the particular characters and set-up within the household in this case to give this storyline sufficient plausibility.

Marin is unusual enough to have taken some measure of control over her own destiny and rejected the offer of marriage to Franz long before the events of the book take place. She had her childhood moment of romantic attachment but was mature enough to see that it would not live up to her expectations in reality. She chose to be a spinster and to live a solitary life.

The reality of that solitude bears down on Marin though as the years go by. The consolations of religion do not appear to satisfy her and despite the church’s teachings, she puts family first. If she can accept Johannes’s homosexuality, then she can also turn a bling eye to the sin of fornication when she falls in love with Otto.

Although we know very little about Otto, we might imagine that Marin is drawn to his quiet strength and ability to survive. She is fascinated by his ‘otherness’, as seen in her collection of strange objects and maps of exotic places. He fits into that part of her mind which is free and untrammelled by the constraints of her sex and position and that other part of her that secretly enjoys sweet meats and luxury under the cover of a puritanical exterior or obedience and respectful domesticity.

It doesn’t seem such a leap to see Marin and Otto together. Although he has as much to lose as Marin if they were found out, Otto could also be drawn to her strength of purpose and character too. He seeks to protect her when Jack forces his way into the house and perhaps Otto needs a guilty pleasure too in a life that has dealt him some poor cards. His need for self expression and love outweigh his caution and desire to keep out of trouble.

In summary, I think the accusations against the writer are unfair and that Nella’s actions and outlook are perfectly consistent with the historical context of the book. Nella is great character because she is uncertain and frightened and doubtful about what to do but she is also strong and capable when she is called on to dig deep within herself and that is in no way unlikely for a C17th Dutch woman as it would be for a C21st one.

Similarly, I don’t view the characterisation of Otto as incongruous when seen in the context of the particular family in which he find himself living with. He would not have acted in this way if he had been a servant in the Meermans household but he is given a certain degree of licence due to the specific characters and natures of the Brandt family dynamic.

Critics find it implausible that one household could contain so many secrets and scandals yet we know that most families do contain just such a heady mixture throughout history. That these are condensed into a book or a play has never seemed to bother fans of Dickens or Shakespeare!