The Black Tulip (Alexandre Dumas)

Posted: January 22, 2018 in fiction
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What a disappointing experience.

The textual history reveals a lot: Dumas published The Black Tulip in France in 1850, at a time when international copyright laws were either nonexistent or poorly enforced. The book was immediately translated into English in New York. In Belgium, the original French text was slightly abridged, cutting roughly 5% of the text. The Belgian edition was then taken to England. Therefore, the American edition is more authentic than the British, but Oxford UP chose to use the British text (the only reason I can think of to do this is nationalistic fervor). The editor of this edition seems to have a lot of doubts as to which text to use: he seems a little snarky about having cut some parts, and also a little snarky about the Romantic excesses that were cut. I got the impression he wasn’t happy with the project or the finished product. And one of the important things is, I like the Romantic excesses. The longwinded descriptions of the setting, the melodramatic situations and speeches, the weirdly out-of-place moralistic commentary, all of these are reasons I like to read nineteenth-century novels, but they are the parts of the book the Belgians excised. The book was already noticeably shorter than Dumas’s previous novels, so why cut anything?

dumas

But, focusing on what we do have. Like A Tale of Two Cities, this is a historical novel that deals with the danger of crowds in foreign countries. We begin with the murder of the De Witte brothers in 1672 (I’m using Dumas’s spellings, which are different than the original Dutch). To refresh your Dutch history, the De Wittes were prominent figures in national politics. Cornelius (the older) was involved in some important naval victories, and John (the younger) became the Grand Pensionary, a high government position that some claim is very similar to Prime Minister, and others claim is nothing like. However, they were republicans, which made them very popular with Dumas and other Frenchmen a hundred and fifty years after their deaths, but not so popular with the people of their own time. The wealthy were in favor of a republic, but the middle and lower classes preferred a monarchy under the House of Orange. William, chief representative of the family, was still a very young man at the time, and had even been tutored by John De Witte. The first four chapters tell about their deaths – Cornelius was imprisoned for treason and sentenced to a life of exile (not convicted because he didn’t confess on the rack), but when John was taking him to the carriage to leave the country a mob pounced on them and killed them both. They were hanged by their feet, disemboweled, and cannibalized. Dumas’s descriptions are graphic but economic.

When the evil spirit has once taken hold of the heart of man, it urges him on without letting him stop.

Our real main characters are Cornelius Van Baerle, Cornelius De Witte’s godson, and Rosa Gryphus, the jailer’s daughter.

He was one of those choice spirits who abhor everything that is common, and who often lose a good chance through not taking the way of the vulgar, that high road of mediocrity which leads to everything.

Cornelius is one of those unworldly characters who seems to have money without knowing where it comes from. He’s obsessed with tulips, and when the Horticultural Society offers an obscene reward for cultivating a black tulip, he gets right to it. His next-door neighbor is also obsessed with tulips, but Van Baerle is so successful that Isaac Boxtel eventually gives up growing anything on his own account and just stares at his neighbor through a telescope. When Van Baerle has the bulbs that will grow the black tulip, Boxtel denounces him to the Orangist government and he’s imprisoned. Van Baerle and Rosa fall in love, though she gets jealous of his flowers. She finds a way to grow his black tulip, and when it comes to flower, Boxtel steals it and passes it off as his own. She proves her ownership, though, as well as Van Baerle’s innocence, and they two live happily ever after while Boxtel falls dead for no apparent reason as soon as his guilt is proven. It’s a short, syrupy little story, about an extraordinary woman raised in ordinary circumstances who proves her own worth to the highest personage in the land.

I’ve heard that the protagonist is really the person who changes the most, and while Van Baerle does learn to love a woman more than a flower, and Rosa gains confidence and freedom through literacy education, I think the biggest change is in that shadowy character William of Orange. Initially he engineers the mob’s murder of the De Wittes (that’s not historical fact, by the way), but by the end he orchestrates Van Baerle’s public exoneration. He goes from villain to hero. Because of this radical change, I want to see more of him. Can I have at least one interior monologue about his remorse and desire for redemption? Apparently not. These characters are more puppets than people, and we don’t look for emotional depth in a Punch and Judy show.

If you read this book, please keep in mind that Dumas did not care about historical or scientific accuracy. The historical events didn’t quite happen the way he writes them, and his botany is atrocious. Do not use this book as a manual on how to grow any tulip, black or otherwise. Don’t even look for verisimilitude in his scientific methods. All he cares about is the story, and everything else can go to hell. If all you want is a short fluffy romance with a sprinkling of historical flavor, then go ahead and read this one. If you’re deep into Victorian novels, you’ll be as disappointed as I was.

 

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