Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Black Tulip ~ Alexandre Dumas

After finishing La Reine Margot, I wanted to read something else by Alexandre Dumas. I didn't think I had the time to delve into the 700+ pages of The Count of Monte Cristo, and I wasn't particularly interested in the swashbuckling tales of The Three Musketeers. Reading the reviews of The Black Tulip on Amazon piqued my interest, and when I realized it was under 300 pages, that sealed the deal. I'm very glad that I chose this novel, for it had all the redeeming qualities that I found lacking in La Reine Margot.

The Black Tulip begins with mobs, murder, and political maneuvering similar to Margot, but quickly settles into a fairly domestic tale of horticulture, love, and envy set in 17th century Holland during the early rule of William of Orange. Our protagonist, the well-educated and independently wealthy Cornelius Van Baerle, has taken up the avocation of a tulip-fancier with great success, but this has aroused a vicious jealousy in the heart of his neighbor Isaac Boxtel. When the horticultural society of Haarlem offers a reward of 100,000 guilders to the first person to produce a pure black tulip, Van Baerle sets himself to the task. He has just preserved three small bulbs which should produce the coveted flower when he is arrested and subsequently convicted for a crime of which he is innocent.

At the prison, Cornelius is befriended by Rosa, the beautiful daughter of the cruel jailer Gryphus. He loves her almost as much as his tulip, and commits the precious bulbs to her care just before he is led to his execution. A clemency from William of Orange spares his life at the last second but condemns him to life in a remote prison. Rosa has developed a strong affection for Cornelius also and contrives to have her father transferred to the prison where he is being held. Their love grows and Cornelius learns at last to value Rosa more than the flowers that previously occupied his life. But their love, as well as the black tulip, is stalked by the jealous neighbor Boxtel who has taken on a false identity and won the friendship of Gryphus the jailer.

Unlike La Reine Margot, where love was more of a diversion for the royals and loyalty only lasted so far as it advanced one's own interests, The Black Tulip presents a sweet and simple romance combined with historical details and an interesting plot to give the reader a very satisfying glimpse of Holland and horticulture in the 1670's. The love story crosses social boundaries and serves as the means by which Cornelius learns what is of true value in his life. Justice is served to almost all characters in one form or another, and the threads of the story are neatly tied up at the end. In contrast to Margot, faith in God is evident in the character's lives and biblical allusions are scattered throughout the story. This book did not have the copious notes that the Oxford Classics edition of Margot did, but the history was not difficult to grasp and seemed more authentic since it was simply the backdrop for the story and the main characters were not key historical figures.

For what it's worth, this marks my completion of a mini-challenge from Becky's Challenges, just beating the deadline of November 15th. If anyone is looking for an easy introduction to Dumas, The Black Tulip, may be just the thing. The opening chapters are a bit gruesome, and perhaps more similar to his other famous works, but the story itself is charming and easy to read in an afternoon or two.