The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas


I came upon this book when looking around for library audiobooks. It has been a real pleasure to listen to and has stirred up memories of my freshman French teacher at the small Presbyterian college I attended in Tennessee in 1963. She swooned over the beauty of French literature and spoke lovingly of encountering students from decades earlier who remembered the poetry she had them memorize. (I remember none of it.) Listening to this book in English did leave me with a feeling of awe at the use of language by someone so far from my own experience.

There were two important Dumas authors; this one is Dumas père and his best known works are The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man with the Iron Mask. His son, Dumas fils, wrote La Dame aux Camélias, which was the basis for Verdi’s La Traviata.

The book begins by recounting the historical event of the mob murders of Johan de Witt, the prime minister of Holland, and his brother Cornelius in 1672. It then moves effortlessly into the fictional tale by linking Johan to a fictional character, Cornelius van Baerle, who had no political connection to the de Witts. He was an obsessed tulip grower, working to create a perfectly black tulip. The book is set 35 years after the tulip mania, when the price of tulips was ridiculously high; the collapse in price in 1637 is considered the first known instance of a speculative bubble.

Cornelius is accused of being in league with the de Witts, is jailed and nearly put to death. How he escapes death and is recognized as the grower of the black tulip with the aid of the beautiful daughter of his cruel jailer, well, you’ll need to read the book to learn that story. The journey was a joy.

Alexandre Dumas, The Black Tulip, Tantor Media, 2006, 7.5 hours, originally published in 1850. I listened to the audiobook. Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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