I went to two events during my second day at the Hay Festival on Monday. First up in the morning was Jessie Burton in conversation with Georgina Godwin about her novel ‘The Miniaturist’ in the Tata tent. The event was the last day of the official tour to promote her novel which was on of the biggest debuts of 2014. As Godwin noted in her introduction, the book “went viral in an analogue way” becoming a word-of-mouth bestseller and has since been published in 34 countries.
I had only read just over half of ‘The Miniaturist’ when I went to the event. This turned out to be ideal in that I knew enough about the book and main characters to appreciate what was being said about it but fortunately, Burton was careful not to give away spoilers about the ending. Set in the seventeenth century in Amsterdam, the book tells the story of eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman who has recently married a wealthy merchant called Johannes Brandt. His wedding gift to her is a cabinet-sized replica of their home and Nella commissions an elusive miniaturist to make furnishings for it. However, the miniaturist’s creations start to mirror real events in the Brandt household with the mystery surrounding whether or not Nella’s fate lies in the miniaturist’s hands.
The novel was inspired by a dollhouse on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam belonging to a real woman called Petronella Oortman although Burton’s story and characters are entirely fictional. The cabinet house was a status symbol for wealthy families and was often worth as much as the house itself. Burton said she had been curious about what motivated people to invest so much time and effort in recreating their homes in miniature form.
Burton talked about the experience of writing the book whilst working as an actress and PA in London and the long process of getting it edited and published. In total, the book took four years to write and was drafted seventeen times. She said that writing and researching the book was mostly a parallel process. I think this is evident in the book itself as the historical detail appears to be relatively light and doesn’t cloud over the story, but the descriptions remains colourful and vivid.
Burton has nearly finished drafting her second novel, provisionally titled ‘Belonging’, which is set during the Spanish Civil War and will hopefully be published in 2016 or 2017. Fans of ‘The Miniaturist’ will be pleased to hear that TV rights have been sold to the company who produced ‘Wolf Hall’ and that Burton hasn’t ruled out writing a sequel or accompanying novel which she imagines will be set around sixteen years after the first book and will explore the life of one of the secondary characters.
In the evening, I went to see Jon Ronson in conversation with John Mitchinson on the Telegraph stage. Like Jessie Burton, Ronson’s event at the Hay Festival came at the end of a twelve week tour to promote his book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’. Ronson is best known for his book ‘The Psychopath Test’ and his new book deals with an equally fascinating yet terrifying subject.
Public shaming in the Internet age, where one ill-advised comment or tweet can go viral in a matter of hours, is essentially about the fine line between critiquing someone for “misusing their privilege” and completely humiliating and demonising them to the point where their whole existence or identity is deemed to be worthless. Ronson made some sharp observations about social media, Twitter in particular, as a “mutual approval network” which gives voiceless people a voice and where “beautiful naivety is clashing with increasingly horrific reality”. For now, public shaming seems unstoppable as a cathartic form of social (mob) justice.
One of the most famous examples of public shaming on Twitter featured in the book is the aftermath which followed an ostensibly racist tweet made by Justine Sacco, a PR officer from New York, shortly before she got on a flight to Cape Town in December 2013. By the time her plane had landed, the tweet had been shared thousands of times and she had lost her job. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide as thousands eagerly awaited the heartstopping moment when she realised what had happened. As Ronson noted, it was Sacco’s total obliviousness to the situation while she was in the air which fuelled the public shaming. Moreover, even months later, few people saw Sacco as a victim of bullying due to her actions and “privilege”.
Although public shaming is a largely depressing subject, the event ended with a more positive account of how the online community rallied together to honour Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom, and raise money for his funeral. Ronson spoke eloquently about public shaming with both humour and compassion and I look forward to reading the book soon.