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Literature / The Black Tulip

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The year is 1672, and the Haarlem Tulip Society has offered a hundred thousand florin prize to the tulip breeder who can create a black tulip, without imperfection or spot of other color. Cornelius van Baerle of the sleepy village of Dordrecht is one of the leading contenders for the prize. He’s a medical doctor who knows something of science, a skilled painter, so knows something of art, and absolutely obsessed with tulips. It doesn’t hurt that he’s independently wealthy already, so he doesn’t have to worry about a lack of funding while he concentrates on the project.

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Cornelius van Baerle is entirely indifferent to politics, so is unaware that his godfather and namesake Cornelius de Witt and his brother Johan de Witt are in deep trouble with the supporters of William of Orange, the new Stadhouder of Holland. Nor does Cornelius realize that he has inadvertently made an enemy of his next door neighbor, rival tulip breeder Isaac Boxtel. Thus it comes as a complete surprise to Cornelius when he’s arrested for treason and sentenced to death. How is he ever to create the black tulip now?

This 1850 book by Alexandre Dumas is tied to a Real Life event, the mob murder of the de Witt brothers, but takes off from there for a romantic story. It's considered by some to be his last really great novel.

While the novel has been adapted several times, the most famous movie, La Tulipe noir (1963, starring Alain Delon) only has the same name, being inspired more by The Scarlet Pimpernel.

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Tropes exhibited in this novel include:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Cornelius' preoccupation with tulip bulbs leads him to neglect other areas of interest, such as the letter he was supposed to read immediately and would have saved him from going to prison.
  • Babies Ever After: In the Epilogue, it's revealed that Cornelius and Rosa have two children, named after their parents.
  • Batman Gambit: William of Orange's plan in the early chapters hinges on the city officials of the Hague being cowardly and giving in to the demands of the mob. He notes this to a companion, but as the plan works, we never learn if he had a backup.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Happens several times, and the narration notes that without these, the story would have been much shorter and less interesting. It also states that God was actively involved in the events.
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  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Explicit in the novel's tagline, a quote from Grotius, "Sometimes, one has suffered enough to have the right never to say: I am too happy."
  • Envy: Boxtel's motivation. As a tulip breeder himself, he respects van Baerle's talent for creating beautiful new varietals, but resents that his neighbor's wealth and social position give him such an overwhelming advantage, ro the point that Boxtel can't even file a complaint when Cornelius' construction puts his garden literally in the shade. He is so consumed by this that he no longer attempts to compete, but watches his rival with a telescope all day.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Gryphus the jailer is convinced that Cornelius is an arch-criminal with sorcerous abilities, so expends his efforts in trying to thwart the prisoner's (non-existent) escape plans. Meanwhile, he completely fails to notice that his new best friend "Jacob" is sneaking in to the prison for nefarious purposes.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Rosa's long golden locks reflect her inner goodness.
  • Hollywood History: The story gives William of Orange some character traits associated with his grandfather, William the Silent, as well as having him more active behind the scenes in the mob murder of the de Witt brothers than most historians believe he was.
  • Karma Houdini: William of Orange faces no consequences for his actions leading to the deaths of the de Witt brothers, and indeed is never even suspected. Explained by his fate in real life, becoming William III of England.
  • King Incognito: William of Orange can easily walk the streets anonymously with a change of clothes; even Rosa, who's met him in person before, fails to notice his presence at first.
  • Lamarck Was Right: Cornelius' plan for breeding the black tulip relies more on exposing successive generations of tulips to unusual environmental conditions than on Mendelian genetics.
  • Plucky Girl: Rosa. She defies her father, takes the initiative to learn to read and write, and towards the end makes a cross-country dash to Haarlem to track down the stolen black tulip, even boldly appealing directly to the Stadhouder.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: William of Orange, after he assumes full power. He first commutes Cornelius' sentence from death to life imprisonment, then frees him entirely once he's seen proof of the man's innocence.
  • Serious Business: Tulip breeding, of course! At one point, Cornelius refuses to jump out a window to save himself because he might injure some tulips, and the Tulip Society offers a massive prize for an unusually colored bloom.
  • Unknown Rival: Cornelius is completely unaware that he is Isaac Boxtel's arch-enemy, and only vaguely recognizes him as the next-door neighbor when they finally meet.
  • Wrongly Accused: Cornelius is accused of treason because he had his godfather's papers in his possession. Only much later is it believed that he had no idea what they were and has no interest in politics. Also, the de Witt brothers probably didn't conspire to assassinate the Stadhouder.
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