Updated: Nov 5, 2020
by Alexandre Dumas
‘The Black Tulip’ , set in Holland in the late seventeenth century, is the story of Cornelius Van Baerle, a tulip grower who becomes obsessed with producing the sought after black tulip. However, unbeknown to him, he is being watched and plotted against by his jealous neighbour, Issac Boxtel, who is also a tulip grower.
When Cornelius is falsely imprisoned following the deaths of his godfather and friend during a volatile political period, Boxtel pursues him and attempts to steal the black tulip that Cornelius has managed to grow in prison with the help of Rosa Gryphus, the Jailer’s daughter. As the Black Tulip begins to grow and flourish under Rosa’s painstaking care and Cornelius’s guidance from his cell, so does the relationship between Rosa and Cornelius. Despite Boxtel’s near success in claiming the black tulip as his own and winning the hundred thousand guilders prize, he is outed as a thief and liar just when it looks as if all hope is lost for both Cornelius and Rosa.
At the beginning of the book, you are plunged headlong into gory details regarding the riots and deaths of Van Baerle’s Godfather and friend (Cornelius & John De Witte, brothers). It is a little confusing at first that there is another character named ‘Cornelius’. I did find it a bit difficult to get into the first few chapters, it’s very chaotic and frenetic, as are the scenes they describe. It was a bewildering start which only made perfect sense towards the end of the story.
Notwithstanding, I thought this was a beautiful story and very unusual. Like Cornelius Van Baerle, I became quite obsessed with the success of the black tulip, the tension is very cleverly built without it becoming laboured or you realising that you too are also waiting anxiously for it to flower. The intrigue and deceptions practised by Issac Boxtel really did have me on the edge of my seat and I was never entirely sure who would win the day. Boxtel was especially well-characterised and became a constant, sinister presence without veering into pantomime.
The love story between Rosa and Cornelius is incredibly sweet. She is an almost allegorical figure and their love for each other and the black tulip is quite moving and profound and yet retains a childlike simplicity. Dumas is a consummate writer and this novel is testament to his skill.