There was a moment during the filming of the BBC’s Christmas drama The Miniaturist when Jessie Burton found herself wondering if it was all really happening. Six years ago, she was working as a personal assistant in the City after struggling for years to make it as an actor, and decided to write a novel set in 17th-century Amsterdam featuring a mysterious doll’s house. Burton did several “unwieldy” drafts and wasn’t sure whether anyone would understand the point of it.
But the manuscript became the subject of a bidding war and, on its publication in 2014, the novel became an instant bestseller that sold more than a million copies. Then the TV rights were snapped up and now it’s been made into a sumptuous two-part drama starring Romola Garai and newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. The drama was filmed in Rotterdam and Essex and Burton herself appears as an extra in a scene set at a grand ball.
It was when she was in a trailer, getting her costume fitted, that Burton had the surreal experience of looking around her “and seeing all these actors with their wigs on and thinking, ‘I’ve conjured this up from my imagination’”.
Burton shakes her head at the unexpected weirdness of it, aware of the irony of having written a book to get away from acting, only to end up with a small part in her own adaptation. “Yes,” she says, “the moral of the story is: if you want to get a job as an actor, write a novel. It’s a long audition process…
Burton’s initial inspiration for The Miniaturist came courtesy of a 2009 mini-break with her then-boyfriend to Amsterdam. He suggested they visit the Rijksmuseum, and it was there that Burton stumbled across an elaborate doll’s house, made in 1686 for a Dutchwoman by the name of Petronella Oortman, who was married to a silk merchant.
Burton was fascinated by the detail and artistry on display. “It was so intimate and intricate as a piece of art, but also really imposing,” says Burton. “Everything she had made she had in her own home, including silk screens from Japan. Painters of the day even agreed to do miniatures of their paintings for her. When I discovered she spent as much money on it as on her real home, I thought – psychologically speaking – why?”
That was the starting point for what became a heart-stopping tale of secrecy, corruption and sexual intrigue centred around Nella, a newly – wed country girl who arrives at the house of her rich merchant husband in Amsterdam’s wealthiest quarter to find that life isn’t quite what she has expected. Her husband, Johannes (played by Alex Hassell), is elusive. His sister, Marin (Romola Garai), is unforthcoming. Otto, a manservant and former slave (Paapa Essiedu), is a mysterious presence.
When Nella is given a doll’s house as a wedding gift, she commissions a craftsman to furnish the rooms. The miniaturist of the title sends eerily lifelike dolls that mirror the happenings in the household and even seem to predict the future. In uncovering the hidden truths that lie at the heart of the doll’s house, Nella also comes to understand herself.
Despite the visually impressive period setting (on screen, Anya Taylor-Joy looks as if she’s walked straight out of a painting by Vermeer), the screenwriter John Brownlow has remarked on the book’s “absolutely modern” concerns. “Yes, I got flak for that [when the book was published],” says Burton, referring to one of the very few negative reviews.
“But I guess the way I thought about it was that in 1686, they were the most modern people to themselves. They considered themselves to be on the cutting edge of existence.
“I don’t use the words ‘feminism’ or ‘racism’. I just used logic and combined that with my research to create this household where Otto, a black man, is treated as an equal and Marin is a business partner who is appreciated for her skill.” Garai was, Burton says, “amazing” in the part of Marin, and so persuasive in her portrayal of an embittered older woman that, “I found her terrifying, quite frankly.”
The two of them had met years before when Burton had a small part in a film starring Garai. Meeting again under such different circumstances brought it home that the past few years have been an extraordinary phase of transition for Burton.
After reading English and Spanish at Oxford, she tried her hand at acting, only to find herself ground down by constant rejections. When she began writing The Miniaturist, it was a lastditch attempt to do something fulfilling – as she describes it, an act of “creative autonomy”. She wrote the book primarily for herself and hoped it would find a home. There was no way she could ever have predicted what a success it would turn out to be.
But success itself has been a mixed blessing. Burton talks eloquently about how, as humans, “we set this goal and define ourselves according to that goal. But if you reach that goal, your identity disappears… You see it with lottery winners or boy-band members. It can be incredibly destabilising.”
When The Miniaturist shot to the top of the bestseller lists, Burton found herself on a lengthy and draining publicity tour. She had been used to writing on her own, with no pressure and no expectation of what the book would become. Suddenly, she was pitched into the limelight at a succession of literary festivals and talks and was also trying to write her second novel, The Muse. “There’s a complete difference between being a writer on your own and facing failure and being the glib public face of your work two years down the line… It’s an enormous privilege, but at the same time, you pay the price.”
Burton was diagnosed with depression in September 2015. “Not serious depression,” she clarifies. “Just a lack of joy.” That has now eased and when we meet, she is engaging, charming company. She says that her parents, Linda, a retired teacher, and Edward, a former architect and now an antiques restorer, have a low-key approach to her fame. “When I told Dad what the publishers were paying for The Miniaturist in America, he went, ‘Oh for God’s sake!’”
Her father gets his hair cut at a salon down the road from his home in Wimbledon, south London, and for the past few years, says Burton, he’s paid his hairdresser exclusively in bottles of whisky and signed copies of The Miniaturist in different translations: Cantonese, Slovakian, Bosnian. “Both my parents are very, very proud,” says Burton, but as for her father, “He’s got no hair left.”
The Miniaturist is on Boxing Day, Wednesday 27 December 9.00pm BBC1