A Belated Review of The Miniaturist (and a brief history)

The Miniaturist is a novel written by Jessie Burton. It was adapted into a mini series by PBS Masterpiece Theater which was released in 3 parts in September of 2018.

A limited number of spoilers are ahead.

I read the novel around November of last year and finally watched the series in full today. This is a review of the series, but I will inevitably be comparing it to the novel throughout.

We begin in Amsterdam in 1686. A young woman, Petronella, has reluctantly agreed to an arranged marriage to a wealthy man in order to have her family’s debts paid off. When Petronella arrives at her new home, we meet the strict mistress of the house, Nella’s now sister in law, the unmarried Marin, and later in the evening, Nella’s aloof and often absent new husband, Johannes, joins the scene.

As a wedding gift, Johannes gives Petronella a cabinet house. Specifically, a 9 room miniature model of her own new home, built into a cabinet. Marin, the keeper of Johannes’ books, is furious with this frivolous purchase, but reluctantly gives Nella Smits list, a listing of all the craftsmen in town. Nella finds a miniaturist and writes to him (we later find out this person is female) for a lute, marzipan and a bird cage. From this point forward the miniaturist sends Nella unexpected, increasingly daunting miniature gifts – members of her family appear little by little, each showing family secrets before anyone in the family itself know them.

I’ve tried to research whether or not Smits List really existed in history, and haven’t been able to find what I’m looking for. I do imagine however, there would have been similar registers for finding local craftsmen.

The novel ebbs and flows and sucks you in to every thought in Petronella’s mind. I was trapped within the pages and read the whole thing within a few days time. The novel spares no detail, yet still each remains pertinent to the story, to Petronella’s coming of age. For, The Miniaturist plays on miniatures as a mirror to the real world, and thus the story is less about miniatures, and more about Petronella’s changing view of the world around her.

“For every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”

 

The series moves much more quickly and didn’t truly draw me in to the 3rd and final episode. We don’t see Nella and Johannes’ trust and friendship grow which I feel like is an important part of what leads to Nella’s actions in the 3rd episode. Other details are missed of course, but such is the nature of screen adaptations.

Both the novel and the series, while being historical dramas still grapple with issues that plague our modern culture, specifically racism and homophobia, and handle both topics remarkably well. The novel, holding more details within its pages has more time to flesh out these topics, but the series still does not shy away from them.

In the series we actually get to meet the mysterious miniaturist. She remains a complete mystery, except through the words of her father in the novel, yet in the series she’s a young, pale, hyper observant woman, that also seems to occasionally have visions. I actually liked the addition of her voice within the series. Enough of her still remained a mystery, with room for interpretation, but her life was broadened to that of her own and not completely one of Petronella’s (and the other women of the town’s) world.

Another benefit to the series of course, is seeing the beautifully ornate miniatures.

Petronella Oortman and her cabinet house are true pieces of history, however the whole of this story around them is imagined. The real Petronella Oortman was a wealthy widow when she married Johannes Brandt. She commissioned her cabinet house and decorated it from 1686 to 1710. The elaborate dollhouse was passed down to her daughter after her death, it was later bought by the state, and then later the Rijksmuseum, where it remains on display today, in 1875.

Cabinet houses came to exist in the 17th century, precisely when this story is set. Men had cabinets to display pieces from their travels, and women came to show off their wealth with these large display pieces.

The house and its contents you see in PBS’s The Miniaturist were created by Mulvany & Rogers. These 2 are art historians who have been creating the highest quality 1:12 scale miniatures for 30 years. Carol Cook was further commissioned to make some of the tiny details, such as the little cookies. And Ann High created the hand carved wooden cradle. Julie Campbell made the stunning dolls to match the faces of the actors and yet be made in a 17th century style. The costume department actually made tiny outfits for the dolls, which I think is a pretty cool detail.

Overall, I’d recommend both the novel and series. If I had to pick just one I’d choose the novel, but it’s really up to how you prefer to absorb your entertainment.

I truly just wish they used more episodes to further flesh out the story. I wanted to further feel Marin’s pain as she holds her own secrets and those of her brother on her shoulders, see more of Nella’s business dealings as she tries to save her family, see Johannes’ and Nella’s appreciation of each other truly develop, feel more of a heavy loss for Johannes’ because I’d truly gotten to know him and his inner turmoil. Overall, like my review of Welcome to Marwen, I may have been able to further appreciate the series had I not had the book to compare it to. But I liked it all the same, just for different reasons.

If you’d like to watch The Miniaturist, you can pledge a $5 monthly donation to PBS through their website, or get a free monthly trial of PBS Masterpiece through Amazon Prime if you already have a subscription there. You can also of course buy the DVD or a digital copy. Find these options here.

You can also purchase the novel here.

Want to read more? Check out these articles:

Have you seen or read The Miniaturist? What are your thoughts.