I finally did it: bit the bullet and got the PBS Passport membership so I could watch “The Miniaturist.” If you’ve not seen it, it’s a three-part series set in Amsterdam in 1686 that Masterpiece Theater aired in December 2017. Besides being a period piece with stunning costuming and set decoration, it’s also a wonderfully creepy Gothic story, replete with family secrets, mysterious and potentially nefarious objects that seem to turn up from out of nowhere and a few forbidden romances.
Suffice it to say, I loved it. But it also got me thinking, how good was it, historically speaking? Other than one huge glaring error, not too bad. I’ll compare my notes with you in a second, but first, here’s your chance to click away and avoid any spoilers in case you haven’t watched or read the book and plan to sometime in the future …
Still with me? Good. So let’s go over what author Jessie Burton and/or the television series makers got right, so far as I understand. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather the the things that jumped out as I was watching:
- Amsterdam was, indeed, a center of sugar trade. Depending on the point in history, sugar was imported from Brazil, Suriname, Curiçao or other parts of the Caribbean. For the part, sugar was imported in a state called muscavado. It looks like brown sugar, but it’s not refined. Sugar refineries in Amsterdam, mostly located in the Jordaan district. then did the work of refining the sugar.
- Characterizing Amsterdam as a city run by the wealthiest merchants and the church seems generally accurate, though there was a bit more nuance to it. The orthodoxy of the Dutch Reformed Church was often at odds with the merchant class, who did not want dogma getting in the way of profit. However, especially as time wore on and the Dutch Republic started to decline, more people started to feel loyalty toward the royalist faction (House of Orange) and the church rather than the Republic, and were more likely to follow the lead from the pulpit. This story is set in 1686, which is after the height of the Golden Age and at the start of the decline, so it’s appropriate that this tension is at the forefront, and Johannes’ remark that Amsterdam is a city that is closing up is timely.
- The bright and colorful clothing is actually accurate. There’s often a perception that the Dutch always wore somber and plain clothing, like we see Marin wear. And that’s not wrong, many did. Especially those who were deeply devout and wanted everyone to know it. But many people, especially young people, loved colorful clothing. This is especially true of people before the were married. After marriage, many then adopted plainer, darker colors. (Roberts, 2012)
Dollhouses. Particularly, Petronella’s dollhouse. I mean, her actual dollhouse: here’s a picture of the real thing. Yes, there really was a Petronella Brandt, and yes, she really had a lavish dollhouse, and yes, you can go see it. It’s at the Rijsmuseum in Amsterdam. Many women of high status had them at the time.
- The drowned man popping up out of the canal. “Happens this time of year.” Oh boy, does it ever, but I’m not sure what “this time of year” they mean, exactly. I had to research that for my own story. Basically, any body tossed into water will eventually rise if not sufficiently weighted or tied down, unless it is gutted to release the gasses that will build up. Normally, this takes just a few days if the water is warm. But, if it is near freezing, it can take much longer. So,
bodies that have been in the water overwinter are likely to remain down and will only rise again when the water warms up in spring.
- Petronella taking over the business. Not strange at all to have a woman do this. In fact, it’s why Amsterdam was an early adopter of girl’s education, as it was known than men who go off to work with Dutch East India Co. would be gone for a long time, if they ever came back at all. Wives had to be prepared to run things while their husbands were away, or to take over if they never came back.
- Whether intentional or not, Cornelia’s comment that Johannes was “going to the office” when he was going to be with his male lover was both truthful and funny. Yes, he was going to his warehouse. But yes, this as also slang at the time among gay men for going out to be with the boys.
Now, for a few things The Miniaturist got wrong:
- Wow, the price of that dollhouse was crazy: 3,000 guilders? That’s equivalent to $180,000 in today’s dollars. It’s not impossible, I guess, but the thing was largely undecorated and unfurnished. Granted, there’s a legend that Peter the Great of Russia wanted to buy her dollhouse for 30,000 guilders ($1.8 million!), but I find that far-fetched, too.
Petronella should have known Otto wasn’t a slave without asking. Slavery was outlawed on the Dutch mainland. Not to say it never happened, but as far as I can tell, the instances when it did were in the early, not late, 1600s. However, it’s correct that Otto would likely have been single out for abuse for being black. Anyone who seemed different was.
- I find it unlikely that Marin wouldn’t drink beer. Everyone, and I mean everyone, did (Roberts, 2012). It’s not hard to see why. In a time before garbage trucks, the canals themselves were use as a vehicle to transport all waste, including human waste, to see. Feeling thirsty? How about a beer now instead of water?
- I’m not entirely sure why the wet nurse said she “didn’t agree to be a part of this” when she realize the baby as biracial. Interracial relationships weren’t prohibited. But maybe, she was just being a bigot.
Homosexuality was outlawed, but there don’t seem to be any prosecutions for it in Amsterdam until 1730. Or, if it happened before then, it was usually because the sex occurred without consent, which was alleged here.
- When someone was sentenced to death for sodomy, it was usually by strangulation. Because that was how women were killed.
- Finally, the most significant. Yes, there was a Johannes Brandt, a silk mechant, but there is no indication he was gay. In fact, he outlived Petronella, who died in 1715. Johannes died in 1731. And they had at least two children.
- Roberts, B. (2012). Sex and drugs before rock n roll: Youth culture and masculinity during Holland’s Golden Age. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
3 thoughts on “The Miniaturist: A (partial) historical accounting”
I have just finished reading The Miniaturist and, like other readers, I began to do a little research on the book and Dutch history. I was very surprised to learn that Petronella Oortman/Brandt and Johannes Brandt were real people. The book as such was a page-turner and once I got going with it I couldn’t put it down. But I have a problem with authors who write about REAL people and then twist their lives to suit their fictional accounts, and publishers who don’t suggest writers use fictional names. Why tarnish Johannes Brandt’s name by making him out to be a sordid homosexual caught having sex up against a street wall, and then have him executed by drowning with a millstone around his neck? I don’t understand why the author didn’t create her own characters entirely, with fictional names. The book would have been just as good. If she wanted to make a point about the treatment of gay men in that era, why use a real character who most certainly wasn’t drowned for his homosexuality? I thought it was unlikely anyway that a man of his standing in the community would resort to forbidden sex in a street where anyone could see him. And as for his wife catching him at his warehouse with his lover, would she really have been so understanding of the situation? Nella also comments on her “conversations the like of which I’ve never shared” with Johannes but the reader isn’t treated to them. I’ll be interested to see the film/series version.
You give me something to think about, as I may be guilty of the same sin here. To bring the other point if view, there wee certainly more LGBT people in history than historical documents record, and a great number did wind up in marriages, either because of pressure or convenience or just for safety. I can’t comment on the people in this story because I really know nothing about them. Other historical figures, however, have had their sexualities speculated about for centuries. I myself did a four-part blog post here speculating on Spinoza’s, for instance. I don’t think such a thing besmirches a persons reputation at all – I think it can help us understand them. In any case, I apologize for taking so long with this reply.