The Black Tulip, Alexandre Dumas
After falling in love with The Count of Monte Cristo last year, I started looking for more of Alexandre Dumas's books. Helen, whose review of The Count had inspired me to find a copy, also wrote about The Black Tulip as a story similar to the Count's, which was enough to add it to my reading list. But I've been slower to read the books than I was to collect them, so I decided to choose one for the TBR challenge. It was serendipity to discover that this was published in 1850, so that it also qualifies for my Mid-Century reading project.
At only 230 pages in my Penguin Classics edition, this has to be one of Dumas's shortest books. But he manages to pack so much into his story: Dutch politics, mob violence, tulipomania, false imprisonment, and a chase across Holland with a rare black tulip, worth 100,000 florins to its inventor. There is also quite a passionate love story - a triangle, really - between the falsely-accused prisoner and his warder's beautiful daughter, who suspects that he may actually love tulips more than her. The action moves quickly between suspense, comedy and romance, before wrapping up neatly and happily in the last chapter, which even gives us a peek at the characters' lives in the future (my favorite kind of conclusion).
Dumas set his story in 1672, a confused time in Dutch politics, with rebellion against the
Spanish crown followed by war with England and France, and conflict over a republican form of government. It's a
period I know very little about, despite being of Dutch descent on my
father's side. But the hero of this story isn't interested in politics. Cornelius van Baerle, a wealthy young man of leisure, has devoted his life to tulips. With his fortune, he can afford everything he needs not just to grow the best, but to study them and to develop new varieties. When the Haarlem Tulip Society offers its prize for the first black tulip produced, Cornelius sets to work, under the constant surveillance of his neighbor and rival, Isaac Boxtel. Cornelius's downfall comes when he innocently accepts a packet of papers from his godfather Cornelius de Witt (a real historical figure). When the older Cornelius and his brother Johann are murdered by a mob in the Hague (a real historical
event that opens the story), the fictional Boxtel uses that as an excuse
to attack his rival. He denounces von Baerle to the authorities for holding treasonous papers from the de Witts. The packet is discovered just where Cornelius put
it, and no one believes him when he swears he had no idea what was in
it. He barely has time to hide in his clothing the three black tulip bulbs he has
produced before he is hauled off in turn to the Hague.
Sentenced to death, he bequeaths the bulbs to Rosa, the beautiful,
blonde daughter of the brutal prison warder Gryphus. He
instructs her to raise the tulips, win the prize, and marry a handsome
young man on the proceeds. Rosa has already chosen her handsome young
man, though she doesn't immediately inform Cornelius of her choice. But
when he is spared for execution and transferred to the prison of
Loevestein, Rosa manages to get her father transferred there, and she
comes along, with the precious tulip bulbs. She visits Cornelius each night, talking to him through the barred
window in the door of his cell, and he is soon as deep in love as she
is. They manage quite a bit of contact through that window! More innocently, Cornelius teaches her how to read and write, using the Bible.
He also instructs her how to plant the precious bulbs, which Rosa accuses him of loving more than her (and with some reason). Meanwhile, someone else has also arrived in Loevestein, and though he professes to be in love with Rosa, it is another prize that he has in sight.
I thoroughly enjoyed this fast-paced adventure, which had me laughing out loud more than once. I had forgotten how funny Dumas can be. This is a much lighter story than The Count! In addition to learning a little about Dutch history, I also have a new appreciation for tulips. I've been looking at Google images, including some stunning black tulips (though apparently they aren't really black, just dark deep purple). Yesterday, in another moment of serendipity, in an exhibit of Impressionist paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Houston, I came across a lovely Renoir painting of tulip fields in flower (you can see the painting toward the bottom of this article).