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Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > 2017 > November

Consolation


At Thanksgiving my friend Linda Larson sent me Annie Prouix’s National Book Awards Speech, given November 15. Some called it gloomy, with its lamentation about the present state of the world. But Prouix ended on a hopeful note. She read this poem by Wislawa Szymborska. As in the third stanza, maybe all of us who’ve lived long enough have “earned the right to happy endings, at least in fiction”.

That’s why I write romance, or rather, its sister, Women’s Fiction. I disagree with those who say it doesn’t deserve its own genre (but that’s another discussion). After all, it is women who must stay positive, as we’re the ones who bring forth the next generation.

Consolation
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Darwin.
They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.


Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

The Miniaturist


By Jessie Burton

Harper Collins, Ecco Paperback Edition, 2015

Sometimes you read a debut novel and you think, this simply cannot be the work of a first-time author. The originality of the subject matter, the world building, and the believable growth of the characters are all marks of a very experienced writer. Yet all these characterize this book by English writer Jessie Burton.

No wonder it was a New York Times best-seller.

In the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is a “cabinet house” or large dollhouse, once owned by a woman name Petronella Oortman, who lived in the seventeenth century. As lovers of this historical period know, the late 1600’s was the apogee of the United Provinces of the Netherland’s influence in the world. The merchants of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, brought wealth and fame to Holland. The comfortable lifestyle of its wealthy and middle classes have been conveyed to us through the paintings of the Dutch masters, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Judith Leyster and others.

In The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton imagines the life of Petronella, “Nella”, the bride of an Amsterdam merchant named Johannes Brandt. He gave the cabinet to his wife as a wedding gift. In Burton’s telling, the cabinet’s maker is not only an artistic virtuoso, but prescient as well. The tiny items created to be set inside the cabinet include uncanny likenesses of the house’s human and animal inhabitants. They also offer jarring portents of future events. Nella’s disturbance at these weird gifts mirrors her growing unease at secrets she fears are held by her husband and his sister, Marin.

As Nella uncovers the truth about the family she has married into, she grows in maturity and compassion. Burton’s skill in portraying this is remarkable. As the story progresses we learn much about the social repression that accompanied the commercial success of Calvinist Holland. At the same time, the quasi-democratic values held by the Dutch, their belief in capitalism rather than a class system based on aristocracy, and their emphasis on domestic cleanliness, order and financial security make this era more accessible to us than other periods of history.

When we look back at history, we can only imagine what it was like to live then and there. The novelist’s job is to bring the past to life. Burton has taken liberties in that the real Petronella Oortman was a wealthy widow by the time she married merchant Johannes Brandt, while in the book Nella is a naïve eighteen-year- old, and the fate of Brandt propels the book’s plot. Burton has taken an historical person and surrounded her with a dose of magic, both literally, as told in this story, and metaphorically, as in the skill of her writing.

This is a wonderful book.