Novelist Jessie Burton, author of the best-selling debut novel The Miniaturist on dolls’ houses, Forest Hill and farmers’ markets

Words by Will Skidelsky

Forest Hill novelist Jessie Burton has had a ‘life-transforming year’ in which she’s been flitting about like a ‘blue-arsed fly’. But she doesn’t look jaded. The author of 2014’s runaway bestseller, The Miniaturist, is all perk and elegance when we meet at a busy central London restaurant. At the next table, Richard and Judy are having lunch, and when Jessie arrives, they greet her like an old friend – ‘Jessie Burton! How are you!’ She doesn’t know them, she says, but they’re due to interview her later. 

Her life may currently be a swirl of book tours and prizes, but she gives the impression that she takes none of it too seriously. After all, she knows what it’s like not to succeed. For years the 31-year-old was a struggling actress, supporting herself with temp jobs in the City. After graduating from Oxford University and drama school, she set about pursuing a career in the theatre. She got parts at the National and the Donmar, but found it all very dispiriting.

‘I love acting but it’s dangerous to make something you love your profession. I had such a childhood love of dressing up and using my imagination. But when you are doing yet another audition for an advert, you begin to think: what am I doing with my life?’

Jessie Burton (photo by Alexander James)

Jessie Burton (photo by Alexander James)

Jessie switched her attention to another childhood hobby – writing. She had always written for her own entertainment (‘I won a story prize at school!’), but in her late twenties, she started thinking more seriously about it. She began a novel in 2008 and got an agent interested, but it all fizzled out. Then, in 2009, on a visit to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, she had an experience that planted the seed for The Miniaturist. In 17th-century Amsterdam, the rich had a craze for ‘cabinet houses’ – oversized dolls’ houses filled with exotic objects to show off their wealth. The one Jessie saw had belonged to Petronella Oortman, a merchant’s wife, and was a perfect replica of her home.

‘Anything she had in her house she shrunk and I thought it was a really strange pathology.’ Jessie grabbed the notion of a ‘miniaturised life’ and put it to ingenious use.

The Miniaturist tells the story of Nella, a young country girl newly married, in semi-arranged fashion, to the wealthy Johannes Brandt. Nella is strong-minded and hungry for experience, including of the sexual variety. So she is perplexed when, instead of behaving like a normal red-blooded man, Johannes presents her with a cabinet house. Nella commissions a miniaturist – in writing – to fill it, but the pieces that start arriving are perfect replicas of the people and things in the Brandt household. If this wasn’t spooky enough – how could the miniaturist know what her dog looks like? – Nella notices that the pieces contain ghostly foreshadowings of things that subsequently come to pass. It’s a real page-turner, written in stylish, vivid prose. Its plot is both racy and intricate; there are cliffhangers, sex scenes and violence, but also subtlety in the way the narrative unfurls.

Jessie completed it in three years, working in the evenings or snatching moments while temping. She says that she didn’t have any particular expectations and has been astonished by its success. It was the subject of a ferocious bidding war and is being translated into some 20 languages.

Jessie lives in Forest Hill with her actor boyfriend. For four years they were in East Dulwich before moving to SE23 early in 2014 because ‘the prices in East Dulwich were getting ridiculous’. Jessie grew up in Wimbledon, went to school in Fulham and then lived in Hackney.

‘When my boyfriend first suggested moving to East Dulwich I’d never heard of it,’ she says. ‘But then I got there and thought wow, this is amazing.’

Jessie says she likes Forest Hill for its ‘facilities, the cafes, the swimming pool’. She enjoys having coffee and cake in The Montage, drinks at the Sylvan Post, and regularly shops at the weekly farmers’ market at the Horniman Museum gardens. But she misses East Dulwich and often goes back to see friends or to eat in her favourite restaurants, like Toasted and Franklins. ‘When I go there now,’ she says, ‘it’s like the pavements sparkle with gold.’