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The Black Tulip Thursday, May 22, 2008

Posted by j128 in Classics of World Literature.

Penguin Classics edition

The Black Tulip (Penguin Classics)

The Black Tulip is an historical romance novel by Alexandre Dumas with collaborating ghost writer Auguste Marquet, and was published in 1865. It is set within the beautiful landscapes and sceneries of seventeenth-century Holland in the midst of a tulipomania (also known as just the “tulip mania”), and is set against the terrible assassination of Cornelius de Witt and his brother Johan de Witt, which remains to this day one of the most devestating episodes in Dutch history. The actual story begins about one and a half years after this incident.

The beginning of the story is similar to that of The Count of Monte Cristo. Our protagonist, Cornelius van Baerle, the godson of Cornelius de Witt, unwittingly causes the envy of a rival, thus becoming embroiled in political intrigues, and is imprisoned. However, unlike Edmond Dantes, he is rescued partly by three actions: an accident, a determined young woman, and a royal personage; and in this story he doesn’t have his revenge. But, one could say that the style and manner in which Rosa begins learning how to read and write is similar to that of how Edmond Dantes’ received his education from the abbé.


Cornelius de Witt has been accused of murder – specifically, the alleged attempted assassination of William of Orange; in which he had hired the barber Tyckelaer to do the dirty work, but now Cornelius is in prison, and is awaiting exile.

However, the people of the city of Hague do not believe that exile is good enough and so a mob forms, which heads to the prison in which Cornelius is held.

Cornelius’s brother, the former Grand Pensionary (which is like a political leader of a state) Johan de Witt, comes to see him and is to join him in exile. Cornelius is extremely physically weak, having been so brutally tortured that his fingers, hands, and wrists are shattered.

Meanwhile, outside the prison the mob continues to grow more violent with cries of “Death to the traitors!” and they are only prevented access by the guards. Inside his cell, Cornelius consoles his brother that they will have a resurrection of their popularity, as he placed a package in his godson, Cornelius van Baerle’s trust, which contains the letters addressed to Monsieur de Louvois. However, this only distresses Johan as the godson is lost: he will either be strong or weak – if strong, he will boast of his godfather and Johan and should shout forth the secret of the two brothers’ existence; and if he is weak, he’ll be afraid to associate with them, hence he will let the secret be forced out of him. Thus, Cornelius van Baerle is lost.

The two brothers then quickly set a quick means of action, by Cornelius painfully writing an order to his godson to burn the package without looking into its contents no matter what, as “secrets of the kind that it contains kill those who know them.” They give the note to their servant, Craeke, who delivers it to the mentioned godson.

Not five minutes pass when Craeke sounds his old boatswain’s whistle, which is the signal for the brothers to escape.

While the brothers escape, a deputation of citizens continue to go to the town hall, to hopefully receive a written order for the guards to step aside for the mob kill the treacherous brothers.

A young man of about twenty-three years has been following the details of the events from the start. He and an officer observe the mob demanding a written order, a sort of battle that they win. He has apparently instigated the entire flurry of events.

Those who hold the order race back to the rest of the mob, which is incredulously received by the guards. Having no choice now, they stand aside, and the mob rushes forward.

Inside the prison, the de Witts encounter the lovely Rosa, daughter of the jailer Gryphus, and she directs them to go out through the postern, which opens to an empty street, and tells them to proceed to the town gate. The brothers are grateful and Cornelius gives, in exchange, his Bible to the young woman, despite her great disappointment that she cannot read or write.

Once the brothers are out of the prison, Rosa goes to her father, telling him that the mob would surely kill them, and so they hide in the secret dungeon – a dungeon that is reserved for dangerous fugitives.

The mob breaks down the gate and flood the entire prison, only finding to their despair that the brothers have escaped – but not for long: they catch up with the brothers’ carriage when it arrives at the town gates, only to discover that the town gates have been shut, and the guard doesn’t carry the key – it was taken away from him earlier that morning. Despite the jailer’s daughter’s best intentions, the two brothers are pulled out of their carriage and are severely beaten; Cornelius dies quickly and is disembowled. Johann, in his pain, laments for his brother, and he is blinded with a pike from a member of the militia, struck on the head with the butt of a musket, and has his brains blown out. The bodies of Cornelius and Johann are bruised and butchered, and in finality small remains of their bodies sold for a set price.

During these gruesome events William of Orange (for he is the young man in his early twenties) gallops along the Leyden road after assuring himself that his two enemies are dead, Craeke is delivering the note to the godson, who lives in Dordrecht, described as a beautiful, smiling town under a hill dotted with windmills.

A happy man lives in a house, whose name is Doctor Cornelius van Baerle, Cornelius de Witt’s godson. He has lived in this house since childhood and it was the birthplace of his father and his grandfather. His father had amassed a fortune of some three to four thousand florins, which is only small change as Dr. van Baerle has an income of ten thousand florins a year due to his properties in the province.

Before the Doctor’s father died, his parting words were of wisdom to his son: that above all, his son is not to partake in politics as Cornelius’s godfather has done for he will only undoubtedly come to a bad end. His godfather did try to introduce him into politics but Cornelius showed little interest, and eventually discovered his own happiness in life: researching plants and insects, collecting and classifying all the flora on the island, eventually absorbing himself in the most elegant and costly folly of his country and time: he falls in love with tulips.

He and his tulips become famed, and he begins spending his income on his tulips, thus discovering five different varieties that he names after his mother, father, and his godfather, among others. However, the young man has unwittingly made an enemy for himself in the form of his next-door neighbour Isaac Boxtel, who has also been cultivating tulips which are unfortunately not as favoured as Cornelius’s. He feels the wealthy Doctor has usurped him and throughout the story grows extremely envious – eventually to the point that he’ll stop at nothing.

Boxtel begins spying on his rival and his movements, with a few attempts to ruin the beds in which the tulips grow, only to be foiled every time.

Around the time of Boxtel’s latest foiled attempt at ruining the flowerbeds, the Haarlem Tulip Society offers a prize for the discovery “of a great black tulip without a spot of colour.” The prize for the black tulip is a hundred thousand florins. Many gasp at this announcement, not only at the large prize, but that to produce a tulip that is black is believed to be biologically impossible.

It was because of Boxtel’s continuation of spying, that he witnesses a meeting between the two Corneliuses, in which the elder hands the younger a package of obvious importance. He takes this to his advantage.

Now with the background explained, Craeke arrives at the younger Cornelius’s house, with the message from the godfather.

Cornelius is in his drying room, where he is delighting in three offset bulbs, and he determins he will discover the great black tulip, deciding its name will be Tulipa nigra Barlænsis, after himself. A servant appears and announces that Craeke is here. Craeke barges into the drying room, in which this action compells Cornelius to protect the bulbs, only to send two of them rolling. Craeke gives the letter to the godson and flees the room.

Cornelius inspects his bulbs to make sure no harm has come to them, only a second later does a servant appear again, and tells him to run away: the house is full of guards of the States and they mean to arrest him. His nanny also appears and insists on him fleeing, to jump out the window: never mind his tulips!

Cornelius wraps the bulbs in the paper that has his godfather’s order and conceals them in his shirt. The guards and a magistrate arrive, who accuses him of obtaining “seditious papers.” Cornelius, in his ignorance, is clueless about the contents of the papers that his godfather gave to him, and the magistrate, upon scanning through the letters, arrests the tulip lover.

Cornelius is taken to the Hague, the same prison in which his godfather and his godfather’s brother had been. The jailer Gryphus places him in the “family” cell, where Cornelius learns of the horrible ends of Cornelius and Johan de Witt.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, the lovely Rosa has fallen in love with him at first sight, and her love for him deepens especially when he sets her father’s arm despite Gryphus having been harsh the previous day.

Cornelius is tried sometime after his imprisonment and is to be executed at midday. Rosa cries for him and he writes a will, for the tulip bulbs to be hers, and he gives her instructions on how to care for them. He goes to his apparent death with dignity, feeling no sadness for his existence but for the tulip that he has created but which he’ll never set eyes upon. His death is excused, however, by a young man, and he is sent – as a dangerous enemy of the States – to the prison Loevestein.

He finds there is an excellent view from the cell that he is in and to his joy, Rosa is transferred to the prison with her father. Then begins a series of nights in which Rosa comes to meet the prisoner at nine o’clock and they talk for an hour. The two offsets of the tulips begin to bloom, thanks to Cornelius’s continued instructions. He also teaches Rosa how to read and write, using his godfather’s Bible for their exercise book.

A man in his fifties arrives at the prison, who calls himself Mijnheer (a title) Jacob. He gets into Gryphus’s good books and is almost Rosa’s (to her distate) lover. He is also interested in tulips and when an occurance happens in which the jailer destroyed the first bulb, he flew into a rage. He spies on Rosa and she and Cornelius suspect him, remaining wary. At long last, the black tulip emerges and it is beautiful: it being the daughter of Cornelius and Rosa’s love.

Quickly, a messanger is sent to deliver a letter to the Haarlem Tulip Society that the black tulip has been discovered. But whilst Rosa sends off the message with the lad, Jacob breaks into her room using a forged key, and steals the tulip. She discovers this tragedy and mournfully tells Cornelius, his reaction being of loss, tragedy, and depression. As she tries to soothe him, they are caught by Gryphus, who overhears her calling Cornelius hers. He sends her away and acts harshly towards the depressed prisoner.

Meanwhile, Jacob, who is revealed as none other than Boxtel, thus ringing true to the reader’s suspicions, flees. He takes a carriage to the Tulip Society, bearing with him the stolen black tulip. Rosa doesn’t give up easily and she takes off after him by horse and arrives in Haarlem, precisely four hours after Jacob/Boxtel. She goes to the Society and persists that the black tulip is hers and it has been stolen from her.

The Prince, William of Orange, hears her out with the president of the Society, and after a battle of odds with Rosa and Boxtel, the jailer’s daughter gets the upper hand.

Boxtel is led to believe that he is still the “owner” of the tulip and the Prince gives Rosa five hundred florins for her to dress up in the costume of a Frisian bride.

During those events in Haarlem, Cornelius continues to despair in his cell and even more so when he doesn’t see Rosa. Gryphus tries to attack him, only for Cornelius to defend himself and is restrained by guards, who ran up to the jailer’s aid upon hearing his cries for help. Despite his pleas that it was only for self-defense, Cornelius is taken away to Haarlem to His Highness William of Orange.

Cornelius sees the festival of tulips and is allowed to have a close look at the black tulip. William of Orange has a speech that praises the black tulip and announces the owner: Rosa, to which the audience cheers, Boxtel collapses and dies, and Cornelius and Rosa are united. Furthermore, the Prince apologizes and excuses Cornelius, giving him back everything that was confinscated, and the black tulip is named Tulipa nigra Rosa Barlænsis.

Gryphus isn’t pleased at first with this marital arrangement, but comes to adjust, and just as he was harsh as a jailer, so he is as a tulip keeper: keeping a look-out for dangerous butterflies, harmful insects, and swatting away greedy, overfed bees.

Within two years of marriage, Rosa and Cornelius discover many other varieties of tulips and they have two children: a boy and a girl, which are named, respectfully, Cornelius and Rosa. Rosa the elder has grown in wisdom and her reading and writing have improved so much that she decides to educate her own children.

All in all, they lived happily ever after.


Robin Buss notes in his introduction that Mr. Dumas only used history as a means of telling great stories and didn’t always stick to the facts, thus he often confuses the William of Orange described in The Black Tulip with a predecessor, William the Silent (Prince William I of Orange, Count of Nassau-Dillenburg). The William of Orange here in The Black Tulip is actually William III of Orange who also came to be King of England, Ireland, and Scotland until his death.

Alexandre Dumas did once visit Holland, to witness the coronation of King William III, yet there is not great detail of the Dutch landscapes, the only ones being described are the ones in which the events take place, otherwise…

The period of the tulipomania is true and it was a time when tulip bulbs were very expensive, an example being that a single bulb of a famous variety of tulip could cost one thousand florins, compared to a ton of butter that was only one hundred florins. (At the time, the average yearly income was one hundred fifty florins.)

Recommended Editions of The Black Tulip

I recommend the Penguin Classics edition, published in 2003, and translated with an introduction and notes by Robin Buss. The notes are helpful and this edition also contains a section of further reading, available from Penguin Classics.



1. EH,K! - Friday, May 23, 2008

I was reading and getting ready to go out to the library and get a copy when you told me the ending. You stinker! 🙂
I will still read it and maybe that will make it better since I know it turns out okay!

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