Dumas’s ‘Black Tulip’ a brilliant gem

black tulip

French author Alexandre Dumas is best known for “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers,” but he turned out dozens of works of fiction, non-fiction and drama during a lengthy career.

Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, was a French nobleman and his mother a black slave. Thomas-Alexandre joined the French army, served with distinction in the French Revolutionary Wars and was promoted to general by age 31.

However, he, like many, he fell out of favor and by 1800 sought a return to France. During his voyage back, Thomas-Alexandre’s ship put in at Taranto, in the Kingdom of Naples, and he and others were held as prisoners of war under trying circumstances, a situation that would continue for two years.

By the time Alexandre was born, his father’s health was broken and he was impoverished. Thomas-Alexandre died in 1806 when his son was just 4 years old.

His widowed mother could not provide her son with much of an education, but the young Dumas read everything he could and taught himself Spanish.

In addition, stories of his father’s bravery during the campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars inspired the boy’s imagination. Although poor, the family had their father’s distinguished reputation and aristocratic rank.

In 1822, after the restoration of the French monarchy, the 20-year old Alexandre moved to Paris and was able to obtain a position at the Palais Royal in the office of Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

He began by writing articles for magazines and plays for the theatre. His work met with immediate success and enabled him to embrace writing as a full-time endeavor.

In 1830 Dumas participated in the July Revolution that ousted King Charles X and replaced him on the throne with the Duke of Orléans, Dumas’ former employer.

Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas

Ruling as Louis-Philippe, the latter helped establish a semblance of normalcy to French life that had been lacking for decades, and the economy improved. In the 1830s, Dumas turned to writing novels.

“The Three Musketeers,” though hardly his first novel, appeared in 1844, and “The Count of Monte Cristo” two years later.

Though not as well known, “The Black Tulip,” set in 17th century Holland, appeared in 1850. It tells the story of Dr. Cornelius van Baerle, a tulip-aficionado who is unjustly imprisoned for treason while attempting to grow the world’s first black tulip.

Dumas’s erudition, splendid prose and understanding of the significance of the role of the tulip in Dutch history is evident in the following passage from “The Black Tulip”:

As one might imagine, once he had applied the superb intellect that nature had given him to this end, van Baerle managed to grow the most beautiful tulips. Better than anyone in Haarlem or Leyden, towns which provide the best soil and climate, Cornelius succeeded in varying the colours, moulding the forms and multiplying the types of flowers.

He belonged to that naïve and ingenious school which took as its motto from the seventh century onwards the aphorism (which one of its number would embellish) ‘Contempt for flowers is an offence against God’; which premiss the school of tulip fanciers, the most exclusive of all schools, in 1653 developed into the following syllogism: ‘Contempt for flowers is an offence against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offence in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despises the tulip offends God immeasurably.’ By which reasoning, as one may see, had they so wished, the four or five thousand tulip growers of Holland, France and Portugal – not to mention those of Ceylon, India and China – would have outlawed the rest of the world and declared several hundred million men who were unmoved by the flower to be schismatics, heretics and punishable by death.

Dumas, who died in 1870, is considered with Émile Zola and Victor Hugo among the greatest of France’s literary talents. In addition, he is among that nation’s most prolific.

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3 thoughts on “Dumas’s ‘Black Tulip’ a brilliant gem

  1. Dumas was the second adult author I read, after the town librarian gave me permission to the adult section before the normally-permitted age of…12, I think it was. I believe I was 10 years old. The first book I chose was The Snake Pit. Gosh. Kinda’ shook me. The second book was The Man in the Iron Mask. Lovely! And then The Three Musketeers. Almost as good!

    I enjoyed your post. However, I believe–did not google around to confirm–that Dumas, while he was indeed a gifted and remarkably prolific writer in his own write 😉 , was also a rather greedy business dude who had no issue hiring other grunt ghostwriters to pen some of his many books for him.

    • You’re right: Apparently Dumas used numerous “assistants and collaborators.” In some cases Dumas only added details, dialogue and the final chapters of a work, but, of course, got all the credit.

      I’ve never read the Man in the Iron Mask or, I’m ashamed to say, The Three Muskateers. But I loved the Count of Monte Cristo. His style – or at least that of him and his collaborators – reminds me of Sir Walter Scott; very compelling.

      • I’ve only read Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, but oh, what a wonderful summer that was when I fell in love–I was probably 7–maybe 8. It was my Grandma M. who had given it to me I was enchanted–mesmerized–by Scott’s lalnguage, and the imagery. I believe when I finished I just began again. Yes, do you know, I picked it up in a Boca bookstore a few years back, and I remember almost nothing? I was so disappointed, plus I felt disloyal, for I am 1/4 Scottish!

        Funny that I remember some of the illustrations, though.

        Yes. I can see why you compared the two.

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