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la tulipe noire

10 march 2023

Dumas père's La tulipe noire (1850) opens with two Dutch republicans being spirited out of prison by a plucky gaoler's daughter. The de Witt brothers are on their way out of The Hague toward safety … when they are set upon by a royalist mob and torn to pieces. No sentimentalist, this Dumas fellow.

A few chapters later, our hero, Cornélius van Baerle – godson of one of the slaughtered republicans – arrives to occupy the same prison cell. And we begin to see Dumas' narrative strategy. If we were confident that Cornélius would get out in one piece, we wouldn't be on the edge of our seats. So Dumas establishes that in The Hague in 1672, human life is cheap.

As the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask, Dumas knew that you can't go wrong by taking a romantic hero and fettering him up in a sinister prison. Aside from scrawling on the walls and perishing from slow inanition, Cornélius has two things to interest him during his immurement: the gaoler's daughter (Rosa), and three cloves from the bulb of what promises to be the world's first black tulip. Cornélius had been placidly cultivating this rarity in his Dordrecht garden when the machinations of his arch-enemy Isaac Boxtel landed him in prison to start with. Now, Boxtel has followed Cornélius, under the pretense of courting Rosa, in hopes of stealing the black tulip and passing it off as his own work.

The black tulip may be fantasy, but it's not a MacGuffin. The horticultural society in Haarlem is offering 100,000 florins for a perfect specimen. Boxtel is in the tulip game for the glory, just like Cornélius – but he isn't averse to 100,000 florins, either. Cornélius himself doesn't need the money, or wouldn't if he weren't serving life in prison. But he wants to gift the purse to Rosa so that she can marry some likely young man, around 25 or 26 years old. Would it could be Cornélius himself, but since that's not on the cards, he wants his Rosa to be happy.

Meanwhile, William of Orange himself patrols the novel in duke-of-dark-corners fashion. William does some terrible things, but also shows a capacity to learn from his own cruelties. If he's not an attractive character, at least he's an adaptable one.

Well, now the question is, do I spoil this 173-year-old novel, or do I leave you in suspense. Let's opt for suspense, though how many ways can this plot go? La tulipe noire is told with a deft, ironic touch and has the true melodramatic appeal. It's good entertainment.

Dumas, Alexandre. La tulipe noire. 1850. Kindle Edition.