The Black Tulip

It is virtually impossible to grow a truly black tulip. Black tulips are never completely black but more of a deep purple or purplish-black hue. Yet, in the novel, “The Black Tulip”, by Alexandre Dumas, père, a tulip competition takes place to see who can create a jet black tulip which would be the first of its kind. Although the tale is more fiction than fact, it was inspired by ‘tulipmania’, a phenomenon that swept the Netherlands in the 17th century.

It was the golden age in Dutch history when its empire was the greatest power in Europe. It was also a time of prosperity when people indulged in luxury goods. They became fascinated with tulip bulbs and paid exorbitant sums for rare streaked and striped varieties. As the tulip market grew, people began speculating in tulip bulbs. The tulip bubble lasted for three years before the mania died abruptly and the market collapsed. With the backdrop of this event, Dumas recounts the story of Cornelius van Baerle, a horticulturist who dedicates his life to producing a black tulip. But before Dumas gets to the story of the tulip, he depicts another major historical event that took place in 1672- the lynching of the de Witt brothers in The Hague.

The first four chapters describe the horrific incident in gory detail. The de Witt brothers, the Dutch Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt, and his brother Cornelis were much revered Republican statesmen who held influential political positions. Both England and France attacked the Dutch Republic and Johan de Witt was criticized for neglecting the army and relying solely on the naval strength of the nation. He was blamed for the ‘raampjar’, the invasion by Louis the 14thin 1672. He escaped an assassination attempt while his brother Cornelis was arrested for allegedly conspiring against William the 3rd, the statholder. When Johan went to visit his brother in prison, a crowd who supported the Orangist monarchy, had gathered outside and savagely attacked the brothers and ripped them to pieces. There are accounts describing how parts of the cadavers were sold as souvenirs and even eaten by the frenzied bloodthirsty mob.

Although gruesome, the historical background is crucial to the understanding of the story. Fiction blends with history when we are introduced to the fictitious grandson and namesake of Cornelis de Witt, a certain Dr. Cornelius van Baerle who gets embroiled unwittingly in the political intrigue. The Orangists had accused the de Witt brothers of treason believing their correspondence to the French king to be incriminating evidence. The letters were entrusted in the care of Van Baerle and he keeps them safely unaware of the contents. Meanwhile the city of Haarlem offers a generous monetary prize of 100,000 guilders to the person who can grow a purely black tulip. 

Dr. Van Baerle is a tulip fancier who believes that ‘to despise flowers is to offend God’. The tulip fanciers of the time added their own specific embellishments to the aphorism:

“C’est offenser Dieu que mépriser les fleurs.La tulipe est la plus belle de toutes les fleurs.
Donc qui méprise la tulipe offense démesurément Dieu.”

“To despise flowers is to offend God.The tulip is the most beautiful of all flowers.Therefore, the one who despises tulips offends God beyond measure.”

  Van Baerle works assiduously on cultivating the black tulip. It is on the verge of blooming when his jealous neighbor Isaac Boxtel, a fellow tulip grower who spies on him constantly, alerts the authorities and has him arrested for keeping the letters of the de Witt brothers. Boxtel covets the prize himself and resorts to all sorts of machinations to steal the bulbs and acquire fame and fortune for himself.

A distraught Cornelis manages to sneak in three cuttings of the tulip bulbs with him when he is arrested and continues to grow them in prison. Meanwhile he meets Rosa Gryphus, the guard’s beautiful daughter and the two fall in love. He teaches her to read and write and she helps him grow the black tulip secretly. Love blossoms too along with the tulip. The rest of the story is sappy and sentimental and different in tone from the first few chapters.

The black tulip needs the right amount of light and soil conditions to flourish. Love too will only develop with the right amount of nurturing and attention. Love faces challenges but never gives up and blooms in spite of all the hurdles in its way. The obstacles come in the form of Rosa’s own cruel and suspicious father and a mysterious visitor to the prison who takes more than a passing interest in Rosa and her tulips.

 The story lacks the depth of “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Three Musketeers”. The characters are portrayed with no nuance and belong to the distinct tropes of hero, villain or victim. My edition had notes on the historical details. Apparently Dumas got some of his facts mixed up. He confuses William the Silent with William the 3rd and some of the chronology regarding the de Witt brothers does not match up. Also, there are inaccuracies in the research on tulips. Tulips came from Turkey and not from Ceylon ( Sri Lanka) as Dumas claims. The sources he followed were not always accurate. Reading the notes took away a little from my experience but I found the fictional aspects of the novel to be entertaining and was happy to read a lesser known work of Dumas. 

I enjoyed the delightful lovers’ tiffs between the two. Rosa is jealous of the tulip and claims that Van Baerle loves the flower more than her. Of course Rosa is named after a flower herself and one can say that he is caught between the tulip and the rose.

Will the black tulip bloom? Will love triumph in the end? We hope so for after the misfortunes endured by the protagonists, we wish them all the happiness in the world for, “On a quelquefois assez souffert pour avoir le droit de ne jamais dire : Je suis trop heureux.” “Sometimes one has suffered enough to have the right to never say: I am too happy”.

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