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The Black Tulip (1850) is set in Holland in 1672. It is the last and shortest major historical novel of the celebrated French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), better known for his ‘high adventure’ stories The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Christo (1844-1846).

The novel’s hero is Cornelius van Baerle, a tulip grower. The period in history is about the rise of the popularity of the beautiful, exotic flower, the tulip – and the phenomenon of tulipomania.

He has one aim in life – to cultivate a perfect specimen of the rare black tulip to win a prestigious prize of a hundred thousand florins and the ‘supreme honour’ of calling the new flower by his own name. His rival Isaac Boxtel wants Cornelius out of the way – preferably in prison. Cornelius is falsely accused of high treason and sentenced to death. 

Cornelius is saved from death, partly by accident, partly by the efforts of a determined woman, and partly through the intervention of the country’s ruler. He is confined to imprisonment for life.

This is a fictional story with real historical figures and real political events. 

The story is about Cornelius’s life in prison, his relationship with Rosa the jailer’s daughter, and their plan to grow the black tulip in secret. Rosa readily acknowledges the flower as her rival for Cornelius’s love. 

It is about the cold, puritanical North of Europe versus the warm, attractive Mediterranean region in the race for the perfect black tulip. It takes seven years to grow tulips from seed, but once it has flowered, it produces outgrowths from its bulb, known as ‘offsets’ which can be removed and planted to produce separate tulips that will flower in a year or two. These ‘offsets’ play a central role in the novel. 

Tulip cross-pollination produces hybrids, which in turn can be cross-pollinated to produce complex varieties. Occasionally, the tulip bulb ‘breaks’ and so a tulip of a single colour produces ‘quite unpredictably’ a flower with a new colour – worthy of considerable value, up to the price of the ‘finest town houses in the centre of Amsterdam.’ 

It is about Cornelius being resigned to his fate, to make the most of it, and to stoically and steadfastly work towards his passionate and obsessive goal. 

It is about ‘third-party’ love and rivalry – the tulip is the third-party in the cultivation competition between Isaac and Cornelius, and the third-party in the relationship between Rosa and Cornelius. But Rosa is the key to the survival of both Cornelius and the tulip.

The black tulip becomes a symbol for tolerance and justice amid love, jealousy, obsession, and survival. It’s a wonderful novel and little known among the great novels of Alexandre Dumas. 

Photographer: Martina Nicolls

MARTINA NICOLLS – MartinaNicollsWebsite

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