I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. So says Hamlet as he sums up the imaginative proportions of the human mind, thwarted only at the last by its mental fragility and thoughts that weaken the body’s resistance. We see another world when we close our eyes, we can imagine ourselves elsewhere while sitting still in the same chair. We exist at the same time both in infinite space and within the flimsy fortress of our bodies, and the fight for meaning is called imagination. Imagination is making sense of life.
This power of imagination, the concept of psychic space, and the physical sensation of being bounded in a nutshell preoccupied me a lot in the writing of THE MINIATURIST. In the 1680s Amsterdam was one of the most powerful cities in the world, but the men ruled the waves. The women in my novel are trapped in their domestic sphere – the world outside and the seas to be explored did not really belong to them. True, behind closed doors many marriages had the sense of equality to them (women in Amsterdam married later than their European counterparts and had often worked for themselves for at least seven or eight years) and widows were known to hold sway in family business, but in general it was a society run as a financial and patriarchal hierarchy.
I was interested in the wealth of Amsterdam in relation to women’s interior lives and their lack of control. I wanted to explore the ways women gained agency, the conflicts they had between domesticity and adventure. And so I lighted on the symbol of the miniature house. The reflective nature of interior spaces to the women inside them is of course a strong theme in literature – think of Bertha Rochester locked in the attic, Miss Havisham and her wedding room, Fanny Price’s psychosomatic reaction to her new abode of Mansfield Park, Atwood’s Handmaid in her room. And yet as John Donne has it, one little room can be an everywhere.
It was common in Holland in the 17th century for girls of 12 or 13 to be gifted with small-scale ‘cabinet’ houses, which were learning tools to induct them into the next stage of their domesticated lives – namely housework. Dusting, polishing, washing, cooking, managing the servants and the pantry, the linen cupboard, keeping the front step sparkling – it was quite clear what their role was. The only job the man had in the house was locking it up at night…
But it wasn’t just young women who were given these houses. There was also a trend amongst the wealthy to have miniature replicas of their own houses made, a proto-Facebook if you like, in 3D. As rooms in their real houses were decorated, the miniature house was decorated too. If a child was born, a doll was moulded out of wax to indicate her arrival. Extant miniature houses are treasure troves of historical reference – some of them contain the only examples of silk screens, bird-cages, Delft plate patterns, room layouts that survive. People spent a lot of time on them, telling their stories to show off to their friends.
And they were expensive. The house in my novel, which you can see at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was furnished by Petronella Oortman, the wife of a silk merchant and the heroine in my story. It cost her the same as a full-size townhouse, and is full of Chinese porcelain, Dutch oak, Italian marble, glass, furniture, oil paintings, food, tapestries…it is literally a miniature world, a reflection of empire – and it was famous in its day. Watching people see it for the first time is really something. They gasp, they are drawn to it as bees to pollen. There are over 720 individual pieces inside it, and you can imagine the labour force employed to make all the real glass, the chairs, the paintings…it even had a working water fountain. What money was spent, what meticulous, obsessive plans were made, and why? What was happening to Petronella that she went this far, building a miniature house over 19 years? There are reasons for it in the novel, as you will see.
So why do people love miniature things? Is it because we have to be gentle with them, they make us curious, they offer us the shifting sense of the uncanny? The word miniature derives from the Latin miniare - to decorate. It is something delicately wrought, not something ‘minimal’. In the logic of the miniature, time has sped up and finally combusted and we are left with the essence of a thing. It is finished, completed; timeless. It will not grow. And thus it also has an air of melancholy, of unreachability. A miniature remains the same as the object it represents, but it has at the same time changed. It has become its own new object in entirety yet it lacks something – our enclosing gaze. We complete the story by imbuing the miniature with meaning, with a personal memory.
We can never be quite sure of the scale on which we exist. People suffer from body dysmorphia – often thinking they are bigger than they are – yet we call ourselves model citizens. We call things off the scale, out of this world, yet we always refer to maps. And what are maps but the human attempt to control our planet, a miniaturised puzzle of continents, spatial geography poured down the drain? It is not for nothing that there are many maps in my novel, and most of them are owned by the man of the house. He has undertaken those journeys and now wishes to crystallise his experience, to refer to his life’s experience in three feet of paper pinned to the wall. His sister steals them from his study to pin up on her own wall, to wish herself there, in Batavia, in the Moluccas, in Suriname.
So we live in our bodies but also outside them; being human and sentient, we cannot seem to live harmoniously on the spatial and the temporal scale. Time flies, I can’t fit into that skirt. But with miniatures, we can. We can see all our lives, all at once, in one house – our mother and father, our siblings, our lovers, our chairs and tables and the things we call home. We are like God; looking into every room, relating ourselves physically in order to derive a mental sense of control. How tempting that must have been to the women in my novel when the miniaturist arrives. She gives them with her craftsmanship a sense of agency, she allows them to conduct the traffic in their miniaturised lives because they cannot in their real ones. They became my nutshell queens, the fertility of their minds as important as that of their wombs.