Growing up on Amsterdam’s exclusive Herengracht with her father, Otto, a former slave, her aunt Nella and maid Cornelia, Thea Brandt lives in a house of silences. Her mother’s life and death are shrouded in mystery; her father’s past – carried from Dahomey in west Africa to be enslaved in a Dutch colony, Surinam, then brought to Amsterdam as a servant – is “a well she cannot dredge”; her aunt’s marriage is shadowed by a scandal they don’t speak of. It’s as if they’d “hatched from eggs”, Thea complains. Jessie Burton’s The House of Fortune begins in the winter of 1705 on Thea’s 18th birthday, exactly 18 years after The Miniaturist, Burton’s 2014 international bestselling debut, concludes.
The family’s financial circumstances have declined in the intervening years. Forced to sell off paintings and furniture to pay the butcher, their future is precariously uncertain. While the widowed Nella has chosen not to marry again – “her life was difficult but it was hers” – she imagines wealth and marriage is the protection Thea needs and is resolved to find her an eligible bachelor.
Thea is a reluctant participant in the marriage plot, preferring to escape to the Schouwburg where she watches her favourite actress perform Lavinia, a woman who “refuses the shackles of silence”, in Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy Titus. There, Thea also meets her secret lover, the chief set painter.
Burton has described golden age Amsterdam as a city of surfaces obscuring difficult social realities. The novel’s rich sensory detail captures these exteriors, pig-skin leather walls, liveried footmen, imports, the fruits of the new world and slavery. In The Miniaturist, sugar cane carried this historical freight of colonial exploitation. Here, Burton uses the pineapple as a symbol of aristocratic taste and colonial conquest but also suggests that, in the hands of the Brandt women and Otto, a former slave on sugar plantations, it might provide a way out of the city, its bigotries and material exclusions.
Burton searches for other narrative options for female heroines, imagining how “things can change”, the epitaph on Thea’s mother’s tombstone. Thea confesses that her favourite Shakespeare plays are the romances, those “island dreams, where everything is muddled before being put right”. But those late plays are problematic, their resolution and magic troubled by echoes of humiliation, accusation, oppression and loss. Here, too. While Burton attempts to “put things right”, eschewing conventional plots and imagining women as architects of their own destinies, they are still in the chokehold of their historical moment. This tension between historical reality and a feminist imaginary one is perhaps most problematic in the novel but also most compelling.