December 14, 2008

The Black Tulip

Alexandre Dumas's novel, the Black Tulip (full text online here) is a book about Holland in the seventeenth century- superficially at least it is about politics and romance. The politics is that of Holland in the late seventeenth century- involving the brothers de Witt (Cornelius and Jan) who were prominent Republicans and their imprisonment and lynching in 1672. The actual story of the book takes place a little later- and involves their nephew (invented by Dumas and named Cornelius van Baerle) and his imprisonment by the Stadtholder William of Orange on charges of treason. Cornelius though is apolitical- his crime is to hold some letters which incriminate the De Witts in negotiations with France, but he knows nothing of the contents of the letters. The reason that he is actually imprisoned lies in the fact that he and his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, are both racing to find a tulip which is black (hence the title of the novel). Cornelius is imprisoned by the state- and threatened with execution- under the governance of Gryphus, the harsh jailor of the De Witts, and his beautiful daughter Rosa.

Dumas's point in the story is about this conjunction between the detailed politics of the Dutch republic and the life of Baerle. Baerle's life is swept off course by the politics of his relatives- but his real preoccupation is that of an artistic amateur, a developer of tulip bulbs. What Dumas does is give us a realistic portrait of how this obsession drives Baerle- there is a kind of comedy in the way that Baerle operates. When he is arrested, he cares less for himself than for the offsets of the black tulip, faced with a beautiful girl (Rosa) who offers him love, he gives her the idea that his tulips are worth more to him than her love. But despite the ridiculous nature of his obsession there is something healthy about it- there is something principled about a man who cares more for tulips than for worldly success. Though Dumas allows a current of satire to develop about his main character throughout the work, the satire is affectionate. Afterall as an autodidact in flowers, Van Baerle is Dumas's equivalent- the great novelist was equally an autodidact about history- and in this instance, makes a classic autodidact's mistake, thinking that William the Silent and William of Orange were the same person.

Van Baerle's obsessions look healthier when compared to those of others within the book. They are selfless for a start- Van Baerle is like the artist inspired by healthy competition, but not so focussed on that competition that like Boxtel or the mob he loses control of his estimation of the virtues of others. He is to some extent self aware. He is aware of Rosa's emotions for a start and her envy of the tulip as her rival. His real success within the novel lies in his innocence- it is in his innocence of the political motivations of others, that he is able to survive the political downfall of his relatives. The innocence also leads him to become the hero of Dumas's story. Innocence and obsession tie together- what Dumas presents us with is the portrait of the innocent artist, unaffected by the world through his obsession and also through his wealth (this mysterious independent wealth means that Baerle has no need for the world, apart from for the lore of tulips).

Dumas's novel is written with a formidable pace- at times, it feels slightly dated as Rosa faints when a man kisses her hand. Dumas's story is pacy and interesting though- worth reading both for its entertainment value and for its testament to the value of a life lived in the pursuit of a hobby.


James Higham said...

it feels slightly dated as Rosa faints when a man kisses her hand

Nah - it's the new romance.