The Black Tulip does not feature the swashbuckling we have come to expect from the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas. Even though it begins with two innocent men being torn limb from limb by a mob, it is actually a romantic comedy about the mania for tulips in the 17th Century.
The two men are the uncles of an obsessed tulip grower, Cornelius van Baerle. Just before their deaths, they send him a message telling him to destroy some papers they’ve left with him, but he is too occupied with cultivating his black tulip bulbs to read it.
These bulbs are worth a lot of money, as the Horticultural Society is offering a huge prize for a black tulip. Cornelius himself is not interested in the money as much as the achievement of growing the tulip. However, a neighbor who covets the prize, Isaac Boxtel, betrays him to the authorities hoping to get a chance to steal his tulip when he is arrested.
Cornelius bequeathes his tulip to Rosa, the jailer’s daughter, when he thinks he will be executed. Although completely innocent of treason, he is sentenced to life in prison. The story continues with the attempts of Boxtel to steal his tulip, which Cornelius and Rosa are trying to grow in jail so that it can be delivered to the Horticultural Society. At the same time it is about the love that grows between Cornelius and Rosa.
The novel is funny, romantic, and well written. Although some historians currently believe that reports of tulip mania are exaggerated, this novel seems to accurately reflect what was earlier reported of this odd period of history. If you are interested in another look, try reading Deborah Moggach’s historical novel Tulip Fever or the Wikipedia entry on “tulip mania.” For a nonfiction account reflecting current ideas, try Anne Goldgar’s Tulipmania: Money, Knowledge, and Honor in the Dutch Golden Age, which I have not read, but is cited in the Wikipedia article.