Even the miniature world’s a stage
Seeing a doll’s house in Amsterdam prompted Jessie Burton to examine, in her novel ‘The Miniaturist’, the confined circumstances of a young 17th-century wife
Jessie Burton: “People think actors are narcissistic but writing is the more egotistical, because you are all the characters.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Jessie Burton is wearing a tiny cameo around her throat when we meet to discuss her much-anticipated debut novel, The Miniaturist. The necklace was a gift to herself after she sold her book to Picador for a six-figure sum after a bidding war between nine publishing houses.
The pendant has an image of a slender greyhound set in its gold-rimmed frame, and although its form is a nod to history it exudes contemporary cool – much like Burton’s novel. “Ha,” the 30-year-old says when I comment on the miniature. “I basically wear my ethos on my body.”
Set in Amsterdam in the 1600s, The Miniaturist is a book about a young woman, Petronella Oortman, who is trapped in a marriage of convenience and who pours her unfulfilled desire into furnishing a miniature version of her grand canalside town house.
The seeds for the novel were sown in 2009, when Burton was in Amsterdam on holiday. “I went into the Reichsmuseum, which is basically a museum filled with all these artefacts from the past of the republic,” the actor turned writer says, referring to the Dutch Republic of the 17th and 18th centuries. “There was this doll’s house, which was about seven feet tall and just stunning. It had been owned by a woman who had filled it with miniaturised replicas of everything in her real house, and she had spent the same amount of money as you would spend on a real town house on it – the equivalent of about £6 million. I thought it was fascinating. Why would a woman spend so much money on food she can’t eat and chairs she can’t sit on, and what sort of society did she live in that this was allowed or condoned?”
Those questions set Burton off on an imaginative investigation into the lives of 17th-century women, and there is an undeniable feminist slant to the story that recalls the early work of Margaret Atwood. Nella’s cabinet replica of her house becomes an attempt to exercise some control over her circumstances.
But even this small victory is an illusion, as the artist she employs to furnish the house starts sending her things that she has not commissioned. “Nella just wants some agency, to feel she has some status,” she says. “But eventually she has to adapt to the structures of the society that she lives in, to make sacrifices and compromises like everybody else.
Burton’s own journey from actor to writer to some degree embodies a similar quest for control. As soon as she graduated from the Central School of Drama in London, in 2005, she set about “doing fringe and DIY shows, hoping to get the attention of casting directors, agents, hoping to get some real theatre work, maybe even TV. The dream was to work and get paid. I was always writing – short stories, sketches, skits, bad poetry – but the desire to be a performer seemed a more plausible reality for me for longer. It seemed that it would be easier to put on a cape and do a play with people than to sit alone and write.”
But professional work was difficult to come by. “I got a few understudy jobs at the National Theatre, a bit of ensemble work. I toured with the education department with Twelfth Night for six months, but the gaps between each job were lengthening, and as you get older you don’t have the same kind of youthful idealism. I began to lose my love of it because it was so difficult to pay the bills.”
Just as Nella struggles with her lack of agency in a society governed by men, so Burton struggled with the patriarchal structures of the acting world she was trying to break into. “The reality,” she says, “is that there are just not enough women in places of authority in theatre, television, film. The classical canon is predominantly patriarchal; as an actress your heart just sinks when another Shakespeare goes into production, because you know the roles are all for guys. And then there’s film and TV, which love the new young thing. There are actresses who endure, but they are the exceptions.”
Burton was pragmatic about her potential place in that world, and began to focus on writing as an alternative creative output. “Because at least I wasn’t waiting for a phone call. I could just pick up a pen and paper, and it wasn’t ageist, or sexist; it didn’t matter what I looked like. I knew I had a certain ability, but I had no idea that I would make a success of it. Still, it was a lot more freeing.”
For Burton there was a certain degree of similarity between the two creative roles. “Essentially, your job as a writer is to create characters,” she says. “You take on other lives when you write, and as an actor to some degree you have to make it up. I find it quite easy to slip into characters’ heads, and maybe that is because I was a performer, but most great writers were never actors, and it is still a very technical thing. With writing it is almost like you are behind the stage, and you have to be able to step back and see the bigger picture.”
Burton misses the camaraderie of the rehearsal room, she says – “acting is communal, and writing is so solitary” – but she can see herself performing again some day, maybe in the inevitable film adaptation of The Miniaturist, details of which Burton is not allowed to reveal. (“The amazing thing about films,” she comments wryly, “is that they get made at all.”) But she likes to imagine herself on an elaborate film set dressed in period costume and surrounded by the characters she invented.
“People think actors are narcissistic,” she jokes, “but writing is the more egotistical, because you are all the characters. I think it would be amazing to sit among them made flesh, thinking, I made all this.”
The Miniaturist is published by Picador