Why Tulips? A Case-Study in Historicising the Historical Novel
Diana Wallace, University of Glamorgan
Any historical novel is related to history in at least four ways: in its choice of period setting; in its engagement with the moment of its writing; in its relation to the literary history of the genre; and in its relation to the biography of its writer. While reviews often tend to focus on the first of these, judging a historical novel on the 'authenticity' of its period setting, any attempt to historicise the historical novel needs to consider the complex inter-relations between these elements. The way in which any chosen period is represented, for instance, frequently tells us more about the historical moment of writing than about the period the author is portraying. In What is History? (1961) E.H. Carr argued that: 'There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write' (43). Much the same can be said of historical novels and this is why it is especially interesting when there suddenly seems to be a particular interest in an earlier historical period which appears to have a special significance or affinity for contemporary writers.
This paper starts with the question: Why tulips? In 1999 three books about tulips were published: Deborah Moggach's historical novel Tulip Fever, Anna Pavord's 'horto-biography', The Tulip, and Mike Dash's popular cultural history Tulipomania: The story of the world's most covetable flower and the extraordinary passions it aroused. All three in different ways focused on 'tulipomania', the boom in tulip trading in seventeenth-century Holland which crashed spectacularly in February 1637.
Moggach used this as the setting for a plot about a young wife cuckolding her elderly husband with the young artist he hires to paint their portrait. (It's an archetypal plot, familiar from Chaucer, commedia dell'arte or Restoration comedy.) They concoct a plan whereby Sophia fakes her own death in childbirth and the painter, Jan, gambles all their money on a single tulip bulb which he hopes will make them enough money to start a new life in the East Indies. When the bulb is eaten by a drunken servant just before the crash, Sophia becomes a nun, Jan goes on to become a famous painter specialising in vanitas paintings, while the husband, Cornelis, goes to the East Indies.
Pavord's The Tulip is 'not a gardening book' according to the jacket blurb, but 'the story of a flower that has made men mad.' An economic, political, social and cultural history of the flower, Pavord's book charts the meanings the tulip has carried since its arrival in Western Europe from Turkey, to the height of its popularity in seventeenth-century Holland when a single covetable bulb could change hands for the price of a town house in the best part of Amsterdam, and then on to today's rather more staid passion for tulips when the US alone imports three thousand million tulip bulbs a year. Dash's Tulipomania focuses more closely on the economics of the speculation in tulip bulbs which produced, as Pavord also notes, the earliest example of a futures market. He maps the mass hysteria of the boom and the equally devastating crash that followed. The tulip bubble has been used to teach economics students about the dangers of speculative markets (xviii), he notes, but is it also possible that its effects may have been overstated.
All three books were widely reviewed and reviewers frequently drew attention to the sudden but apparently coincidental interest in the topic. Pavord's book was a surprise best-seller. And Steven Spielberg bought the rights to Tulip Fever and projected a film starring Jude Law and Keira Knightley: 'History is the new sex' commented one over-excited reviewer (Buchan 68).
In this essay I want to historicise this interest in tulips in relation to three of the elements I mentioned above: choice of period setting, relation to the present, and developments in the genre.
In fact, Tulip Fever was not an isolated example of this interest in fiction. Philippa Gregory's historical novel about the seventeenth-century royal gardener John Tradescant, Earthly Joys, had been published the year before, and the sequel, Virgin Earth, focusing on his son, John Tradescant the Younger, was also published in 1999. While tulips feature strongly in both novels, tulipomania plays a central role in Earthly Joys, where Tradescant visits the Netherlands to buy bulbs and later borrows money to buy a rare Semper Augustus bulb (the most valuable of all the rare tulips) in the hope that he will double his investment. Although Gregory has attracted little critical attention (partly because her books are marketed as historical blockbusters), I would argue that she is one of the most interesting and radical historical novelists writing at the moment.
More generally, the Netherlands of the seventeenth century also provided the setting for several novels which focused on painters: most famously Tracey Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999), the imagined story of the girl immortalised in Vermeer's eponymous painting, but also Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999), a retelling of the Cinderella story, and Susan Vreeland's Girl In Hyacinth Blue (2000), which traced the story of a fictional Vermeer painting back through its various owners to the moment of its conception. Rembrandt's Whore: A Novel (1997), the story of Hendrickje Stoffels with whom the painter lived for the last years of his life, by the French writer Sylvie Matton, was translated into English 2001. Jane Stevenson's Astrea (2001, later republished as The Winter Queen), imagined a secret love affair between the exiled Elizabeth of Bohemia, living in the Netherlands in the 1640s, and an African prince and former slave. (It was followed by a sequel, The Shadow King (2003), about their son, and a final novel, The Empress of the Last Days (2004), about their twentieth-century descendent.) Most recently, David Liss's The Coffee-Trader (2003), is about a Portugese Jewish trader attempting to manipulate the price of coffee on the first commodities exchange in Amsterdam in 1659.
In terms of the literary history of the genre, these historical novels can be situated as part of a wider resurgence of interest in the historical novel in the late twentieth century. After a period during the mid-twentieth century when it was dismissed as at best a middlebrow and at worst a popular genre associated with women's romance, the historical novel began to attract serious interest again in the late 1980s and 1990s. Critical material on the historical novel tends to fall into two oddly disconnected halves. The first includes, for instance, Georg Lukács, Avrom Fleishman, Harold Orel, and Harry E. Shaw, who discuss the historical novel as a male tradition of realist fiction beginning with Sir Walter Scott which peters out in the early twentieth century with the swashbucklers of Rafael Sabatini. The second, which includes writers such as Linda Hutcheon, Margaret Scanlan, and Peter Middleton and Tim Woods, focuses on mainly post-war novels, often set in the twentieth century, which self-consciously destablise the boundaries between history and fiction. Particular attention has been paid to what Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988) called 'historiographic metafiction', that is, novels which self-consciously deconstruct the notion of historiography itself.
This account of literary history ignores not only the historical novels of Naomi Mitchison and Sylvia Townsend Warner in the early twentieth-century, but also the vast number of so-called 'middlebrow' historical novels by women such as Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Margaret Irwin, Mary Renault and Dorothy Dunnett which dominated historical fiction in the mid-twentieth century. With the honourable exception of Alison Light, little attention has been paid to this fiction and yet it provides an important link to the women's historical novels which are currently being written. This is not least because many current writers were readers of this earlier fiction. Gregory, for instance, has written an introduction to Seton's Katherine (1954) which offers a perceptive defence of women's historical fiction. Historical fiction has always been central to women's attempts to reclaim their unrecorded past, and this was given renewed vigour by feminism. Precisely because women's history has been unrecorded it has had to be, in Linda Anderson's phrase, 're-imagined'(129). This project has been one of the major factors fuelling the interest in the historical novel from the late 1980s onwards.
By 1999 this resurgence of interest in history had become a flood of both historical novels and general histories. Writing as one of the judges of the Booker prize, Natasha Walter noted that 'as we move inexorably towards the millennium, it's odd to note that our reading matter seems to be drifting backwards' (5). She was referring partly to the popularity of bestselling histories and biographies, such as Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats, but also to the fact that about a third of the novels submitted for the Booker in 1999 were set either wholly or partly in the past. Indeed, of the women's novels fully half were set the past, including: Moggach's Tulip Fever, Michele Roberts' Fair Exchange, Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love, and Rose Tremain's Music and Silence. What both this new bestselling history and these historical novels offered, Walter argued, was a plethora of well-researched physical detail (the clothes, food, scents, and sounds of the past) which fed a contemporaneous 'hunger to ground oneself chronologically' (5). 'But,' she asked, 'can all this pretty detail substitute for the vigour of real imaginative engagement with a novelist's own times?'(5). By retreating into the past, these novelists were 'playing safe', she argued, 'prefer[ring] the certainties of the past for [sic] the confusion of the present' (5). For women particularly, she acknowledged, there is a great attraction in heroines of the past: 'in retrospect, they all seem engaged in a struggle for self-determination in a grossly unjust society' (5). But we also need writers to 'search out the present' (5). In an image oddly reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's 'Angel of History', blown backwards into the future, Walter concludes: 'If we approach the new millennium with our faces set backwards, it makes it hard to see where we are going' (5).
Walter's critique is worth engaging with partly because it is one which crops up repeatedly when historical novels are discussed. If Carr is right that there is no better pointer to the character of a society than the history it writes then what our society wants, according to Walter, is 'simple', 'bland' and easily consumable ('wrapped up in bite-sized packages'(5)) history as escapism. Walter was not the only one to disparage these historical novels. In a review in The London Review of Books Jeremy Noel-Tod discussed Chevalier and Vreeland, along with two biographies of Vermeer, and dismissed them as contemporary versions of what George Eliot called 'the modern-antique species' in her essay on 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' (1856). In these novels Eliot wrote, lady novelists 'unfold the domestic life of Jannes and Jambres, the private love affairs of Sennacherib, or the mental struggle and ultimate conversion of Demetrius the silversmith' (Eliot 159). Eliot admits that the historical novel is one of the most difficult forms because it requires both accurate and minute knowledge and creative vigour to 'reconstruct the fragments into a whole which will really bring the remote past nearer to us' (159). Lacking both, she says, such lady novelists merely project their own 'feeble sentimentality' and 'rhetorical arguments' onto characters in the past (159). Vreeland and Chevelier, Noel-Tod complains, do exactly the same with their depictions of Vermeer as a refined genius, who in both books demonstrates his sensitivity through his recognition of the special qualities of a particular woman (the maid Griet in Chevalier's novel, his daughter Magdalena in Vreeland's) whom he paints. This is, Noel-Tod acknowledges, common to one of the biographers he discusses too: all three 'hope that [Vermeer] was a politically advanced, sexually chaste human being' (Noel-Tod 17). What Noel-Tod fails to notice, because of his focus on Vermeer, is that both novels re-imagine the 'histories' of women whose faces we know because they have become art objects but who don't themselves create art because of their gender, despite their desire to do so: the maid Griet is hired by Vermeer when he sees her arrange vegetables according to colour, while Magdalena is depicted as an image of peace by the father who does not see that she wants above all to paint not mend clothes.
As the comments of Eliot, Walter and Noel-Tod show, women's historical novels are traditionally an easy target for reviewers and critics. (In fact, I would suggest that Liss's rather poorly-plotted The Coffee Trader and Maguire's oddly unengaging Confessions of an Ugly Sister are much less accomplished novels than those of either Chevalier or Vreeland, and certainly less politically astute than those of Gregory.) However, I think there are more interesting ways of historicising this specific interest in seventeenth-century Holland and tulipomania as a lens through which we can see our own historical moment. Several factors come together here: millenniarism, anxieties about the unstabilities of a global economy, and the rise in an interest in gardening which connects to increasing ecological concerns about the planet.
As Walter indicates, the backwards drift in 1999 was connected to millennial anxieties. However arbitrary the date '2000' it inspired at one extreme a sense of potential apocalypse most amply demonstrated in the infamous 'Y2K' bug which was allegedly destined to send computers (and thus banks, electricity, supermarkets and any thing else controlled by computer) into meltdown at midnight on 31st December 1999. On a more benign level it inspired that contemporaneous 'hunger to ground oneself chronologically' through the reading of history. But it is the kind of history which is most interesting here. In Why History Matters (1997) Gerda Lerner argues that the current insatiable appetite for popular history is partly the result of the way in which the mass media revolution -- photography, popular journalism, radio, film and television -- has affected people's relationship to the past. The 'TV Generation' connects more easily with the visual than the written or spoken word. 'The constant reiteration of "news", presented in flashes and headlines,' she argues, induces in the public a 'present-mindedness [...] shallow attention to detail, and contempt for the value of precise definition and critical reasoning' (335), which is at odds with the values and perspectives of the historian. At the same time, she (like Walters) notes, a 'hunger for a meaningful understanding of the past and for coherent explanations of present-day phenomena,' evidenced by the popularity of genealogy, historic site reconstructions, the search for roots and, as she puts it, 'on a shallower level' the 'mass appeal of historical fiction and of new forms that deliberately challenge the boundaries of fact and fiction, such as the docudrama and the docufilm' (335-6). The nostalgia for old fashions, music and films is another manifestation of this hunger for the past.
Much of this ersatz history is presented in visual form, through television reconstructions but also through the objets of nostalgia which are also commodities. The use of paintings in historical novels connects to this focus on the visual. Moggach, Vreeland and Chevalier are all 'painterly' writers in that they focus on sensuous visual detail, and episodic vignettes. One of the stories which makes up Girl in Hyacinth Blue is tellingly entitled 'Still Life'. Not only does Tulip Fever frame each of its chapters like painted tableaux, it includes colour reproductions of the seventeenth-century Dutch paintings it self-consciously echoes. History here is eminently visual, framed for the reader, but it is also domestic, everyday, and thus 'feminine': seemingly accurate 'snapshots' of family scenes or still lives, including household objects -- letters, pots and pans, rugs, food, books, shells and, above all, flowers. Such physical objects -- a painting or a pot -- outlast the people portrayed but through their very familiarity seem to connect us with them, in part through the action of consumption.
The covers of these novels reproduce the original paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt or another 'old master'. Such covers are important marketing tools, signalling the 'literary' status of the novels by borrowing the cachet and the visual pleasure of the earlier 'art'. As Joanna Briscoe has noted, Tulip Fever and Girl With A Pearl Earring are key examples of the rise of 'exquisitely produced historical fiction,' what she calls 'Vermeer with veneer,' in the middle area of the publishing market. Moreover, these novels coincided with and probably helped to feed an interest in seventeenth-century Dutch art. Writing on the Cuyp exhibition at the National Gallery in May 2002, Martin Gayford noted that this was the third major exhibition of Dutch art at the National in as many years, following the extremely popular Vemeer and the Delft School and the Rembrandt self-portraits (9). Much of the pleasure of Pavord's lavishly illustrated The Tulip too is visual, although, interestingly, the modern photographs lack the allure of the earlier paintings and drawings.
This focus on surface -- 'Vermeer with veneer' -- suggests the apolitical superficiality of 'pretty details' which exercises Walter. However, other reviews of Moggach, Pavord and Dash suggest a different but connected reading which is concerned with tulipomania as an allegory or parable of a capitalist society which had been prone to boom-and-bust cycles since the Thatcherite 1980s. As The Guardian leader on 2 March 2000 put it:
It increasingly seems that these writers [Moggach and Pavord] had accidentally found the perfect millennial metaphor. The tulip market of the seventeenth century Netherlands was the prototype example of inflated market optimism. Speculation in tulip futures became so frenzied that fortunes were wasted on bulbs which either rotted or flowered disappointingly. The same seems likely to be true of many -- even perhaps most -- of the bulb companies aimed at the internet and newspapers should be wary of the manure they are producing to make them grow. (22, emphasis added)
As the leader pointed out, the 'dotcom' or internet companies lauded in 1999 were, in fact, losing huge sums of money. The bubble peaked in March 2000 and many of those over-hyped companies (for instance, boo.com or Pets.com) went under. As The Guardian noted, the media frenzy around the dotcoms was similar to that which surrounded the housing market of the mid-1980s (22)
Indeed, the last two decades have seen a series of economic crises at both a UK and global level: the initial Yuppie-fuelled boom of the 1980s which bottomed out on 'Black Monday' in October 1987 when the stock market plummeted; the Japanese asset price bubble in 1990 coinciding with a dramatic fall in house prices in Britain; 'Black Wednesday' in 1992 when, despite the billion pounds which had been spent to prop up the currency, Britain had to pull out of the ERM; the 'irrational exuberance' of which Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in the US, warned in 1996 and which was followed by the Asian financial crisis in 1997; and, finally, in 1998 the collapse of the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund which nearly brought down the world financial system. The dotcom bubble, then, was only the latest of a series of bursting financial bubbles. Even the launch of the National Lottery in 1994 can be seen as a symptom of a society increasingly drawn to the idea of gambling in the hope of making a quick profit.
Moggach's Tulip Fever is strongly indebted to the book which seems to have kick-started this interest in seventeenth-century Holland: Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987). Schama's book explores what he calls 'the anxieties of superabundance' (xi). Behind the paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch burghers and their families with the evidence of their conspicuous consumption -- including rare tulips -- he identified an anxiety about the moral ambiguity of wealth and materialism which seems increasingly to chime with late twentieth-century concerns.
After throwing off the power of Spain and establishing itself as a Republic, the Netherlands had developed incredibly quickly as a trading and commercial centre to become 'a world empire in two generations; the most formidable economic power stretched across the globe from Van Diemen's Land to Novaya Zemlya' (8). It is here we can see the beginnings of capitalism as the Dutch developed the first commodities market, setting up a stock exchange and a bank, the Wisselbank, to regulate and control the exchange of money. Schama depicts an affluent society which was predominantly urban, surprisingly literate and remarkably stable, but where power and wealth were located not in an aristocracy but in the middle-classes, the burghers. The burghers' wealth was displayed within the home and it was common for them to own paintings, thought of as craft rather than art, and which, under the influence of Dutch Calvinism, depicted domestic scenes (often featuring women), historical subjects or still lives rather than the religious subjects favoured by Catholic countries.
Yet this affluence, Schama convincingly shows, brought moral anxieties which are reflected in, among other things, the memento mori which often appear in Dutch paintings and reveal them as more constructed than we sometimes assume. The skulls, shells, watches, spent candles or flowers which symbolise the ephemerality of life and the futility of material possessions indicate, Schama argues, 'at the very least, the continuous pricking of conscience as complacency produced the self-consciousness we think of as embarrassment' (8). In Tulip Fever, Moggach includes in the painting of Cornelis and his wife a globe to represent his trade as a merchant, scales to represent the weighing of sins on Judgement Day, and a skull: 'vanity, vanity, all is vanity' (10). In addition, Cornelis asks for a vase of rare tulips to be included to 'remind us of the transitory nature of beauty' (26).
The society Schama describes has obvious affinities with our own: its capitalist foundations, its broad middle-class base, its prosperity, and its consumerism centred on the home. Discussing the current fascination with the seventeenth-century Dutch Martin Gayford suggests that
[their] queasy attitude to their own financial good fortune [...] distantly mirrors the feeling of many beneficiaries of today's global capitalism. So much wealth many felt, is not natural. Nemesis will strike -- the dykes will burst, the environment will be destroyed, the climate will change. (9)
Retribution today will take the form of global warming rather than flooding dykes but the anxieties about the morality of 'superabundance' seem remarkably similar.
This is a very different version of the seventeenth century from that which had been common only a few years before. Writing in 1986 Simon Barker drew attention to the ways in which a version of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the 'Golden Age' of British civilisation (epitomised in the accounts of the raising of the Tudor flagship, the Mary Rose) was being used to underpin conservative ideology, encourage consent and to neutralise opposition to, for instance, the Falklands war. Furthermore, while the epoch predated capitalism, he argued, it could 'invite a knowledge of capitalism's mechanisms in an heroic way: trade and expansion, enterprise and reward' (187). Barker called for this version of history as a 'smooth continuum' to be resisted through the production of 'a knowledge of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century epoch as a period of crisis and rapid change' (176), the kind of knowledge which was at that point only being produced by the historian Christopher Hill.
Since the mid-1980s, historical novelists have increasingly offered a version of the seventeenth century as a period of crisis, struggle and dissent. Moreover they have done so in ways which present it as what Lukács would called 'the prehistory of the present', giving 'life to those historical, social and human forces which, in the course of a long evolution, have made our present-day life what it is' (53). They have done this, however, not in the form of the Walter Scott-inspired 'classical historical novel', which Lukács hold up as an ideal model, but in the much derided popular forms of the genre. Philippa Gregory's Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth are two of the best examples and seem, indeed, partly influenced by Christopher Hill's work.¹
Through a history of the Tradescant gardens and by making John Tradescent the Elder a Royalist and his son a republican sympathiser Gregory dramatises the divisions and debates of the conflict which split the period. As gardener to first Sir Robert Cecil then the Duke of Buckingham and then the Queen, Tradescant the Elder believes in the old chain of precedence which asserted the divine right of kings: 'a spiritual hierarchy which led from God in heaven down to the poorest pauper with each man in his place, and the king and earl a small step down from the angel' (Earthly Joys 82). 'It's like a garden,' he tells Cecil, 'Things ordered in their right places, pruned into shape' (6). The gardens Tradescant makes for his employers and fills with an expensive plenitude of exotic plants are symbols of their power, wealth and status -- the knot gardens, like miniaturised enclosed fields, are 'a little parable of wealth' (191) -- but also of this divinely-authorised order. The 'superabundance' enjoyed by the few is legitimated by a discourse of divine order, increasingly questioned by the Levellers and others.
Tradescant's passion for the charming but feckless Buckingham is shown as an extension of this divinely-ordained order. As part of 'chain of command' (304) he is used sexually by Buckingham, as Buckingham is used by the King. While reviewers tended to see the homosexuality in the novel as either gratuitious or unconvincing, Gregory is actually very close to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's analysis of the meanings of homosociality/homosexuality in a society where the important bonds/contracts are always 'between men'. Tradescant's sense of his love for Buckingham as a passion 'between men who start as equals' (304) is compared to that between men and women 'which always founders on difference' (304). Moreover, association with Buckingham brings a sense of being part of the great public movements of history -- 'loving a great lord takes you into the wider world' (114) -- while a man's love for a woman keeps him at home.
Against this Gregory portrays the development of Tradescant the Younger's more republican, almost Leveller, sympathies. These are likewise conveyed through gardening metaphors. When Queen Henrietta Maria asks him to plant an oak tree in the centre of a rose garden to symbolise the king's protective care of his people, Tradescant, with a 'sweet sense of the power of symbolism,' points out that 'The oak tree smothers and strangles the plants which try to grow beneath it. Strong and handsome plants need their own space and sunshine' (415). In the civil war which follows the younger Tradescant has to find a middle way, torn between his inherited royalist loyalties and his sympathies with those who maintain that a privileged few should not own and enclose the best land for ostentatious gardens, leaving others to starve.
It is, however, the tulip which proves the most potent symbol in these depictions of seventeenth-century history. They explore the beginnings of capitalism, not as heroic exploration or trade, but as financially risky and morally ambiguous. In Holland, where Buckingham is attempting to pawn the crown jewels for the financially and morally bankrupt royal family, Tradescant the Elder witnesses the beginnings of tulipomania, a corruption of values which is anathema to a real gardener. Writing from the perspective of the gardener, Gregory conveys the allure of the tulip as an exotic newcomer to gardens at a time when there was an intense interest in the new plants imported as part of the exploration and colonisation of new lands. Tradescant himself was responsible for introducing many new species to Britain (most notably, she maintains, the horse chestnut tree). But she also conveys Tradescant's bemusement at the way in which the Dutch market in tulips has become a vast trade where prices are rapidly rising.
It was the particular combination of the beauty, scarcity and reproducibility of tulips which created such a market. Since it takes seven years to grow a tulip from seed, the quickest way to propagate is through the offsets bulbs produce. If a bulb produced an offset then the owner's investment had been doubled by the simple expediency of leaving the tulip in the ground all winter. Most coveted were the flamed and feathered 'broken' tulips which were produced, although this was not understood until the early twentieth century, by a virus. In part this was a kind of get-rich-quick lottery: 'The driving force,' Pavord explains, 'was the element of chance (92) -- the gamble that a plain bulb might 'break' to produce one of these fabulous new tulips. Since the virus weakened the bulb it would reproduce more slowly, heightening the rarity value of the flower. The rarest of all was the Semper Augustus, of which only 12 bulbs existed by 1624 and which sold for an average of 1,000 florins a bulb at a time when the average income was a mere 150 florins (Pavord 85, 84). In fact, Dash suggests that this tulip was practically never traded because all 12 bulbs were in the hands of the same man who sold only one of them (93). 'The tulip', Pavord points out, 'was the ultimate status symbol (4). And she compares it explicitly to twentieth-century capitalism: 'In the 1980s, the city traders' Porsche performed the same function, though in a cruder way' (4).
But there were huge risk in buying tulips. Since they could only be lifted and sold on in the autumn, at which stage all bulbs looked the same, the buyer had no guarantee that what he was buying was the real thing. Moreover, he would have to wait until spring to find out. It was this that created what was probably the first major futures market where the bulbs became a kind of currency, an abstraction. What changed hands was not a bulb but a piece of paper which could be sold on many times, doubling or tripling in value each time, while sellers made a profit without ever seeing a tulip. On his second trip to Amsterdam in 1625 Gregory's Tradescant finds that the tulip growers have been replaced by men 'with soft white hands who carried not bulbs but great books in which there were illustrations of tulips' (232). The bidding is no longer done with money but with promissory notes: 'The market was not for a bulb in a pot, it was for an idea of a tulip, the promise of a tulip [...] It was a windhandel market [wind market]' (233). As the airy speculation reached manic heights bulbs (or the promise of a bulb) could change hands for the price of a house. Indeed, tulipomania was, Pavord points out, like the 'housemania' of 1980s Britain. (92)
There is a neat irony in the fact that it was partly 1980s 'housemania' which fuelled an interest in gardening which contributed to the popularity of these books, particularly The Tulip. Monty Don, presenter of the BBC's Gardeners' World and gardening columnist in The Observer, has suggested that Mrs Thatcher was the person who single-handedly did most for British gardening:
When she introduced the right-to-buy [council houses] scheme she unwittingly sparked off a massive gardening boom.
People went from being tenants to being homeowners. There's no way someone who's renting a garden can ever look after it as well as someone who owns it. In order to care for and nurture a plot of land, you really need to possess it. (Middleton 32)
One could argue that from this point on gardens also become increasingly commodified, regarded as an 'extra room' to be 'decorated' with flowers such as tulips or decking to increase the investment value of the house.
In February 1637 the confidence which sustained the tulip speculation evaporated and the market crashed. As in the 'great house-buying boom of the 1980s', tulip buyers 'found themselves stuck with negative equity' (Pavord 92). Gregory's Tradescant, who has sent his valuable Semper Augustus offsets to Holland, hoping to get back double what he has borrowed to pay for the parent bulb, finds they are worthless and he is near bankrupt. For Gregory it is the contrast between Tradescant's gardener's passion for 'the finest flowers that were ever grown' and the traders who 'never saw them as flowers [but] as wealth' (467) that reveals the folly of what is both an over-valuing and an under-valuing of the tulip.
After the crash the tulip became a 'symbol of human vanitas and transience of earthly delight' (Pavord 86). It is this which interests Moggach in Tulip Fever where the plot turns not on the tulip crash but on a drunken servant who mistakes his master's valuable bulb for an onion and eats it. As a symbol of human greed and passion, tulipomania provides the perfect figure for Moggach's mediation on the vanities of life (both past and present) and the illusions of art. Indeed, Moggach's book is unfashionably and unforgivingly moral in its refusal to provide a happy ending. Sophia and Jan are punished for their deception of Cornelis, not only in their financial loss but also in their loss of each other. Sophia becomes a nun while Jan, thinking she is dead, specialises in vanitas paintings, often featuring an onion as a symbol of the 'transience of life' (254).
Of the hysteria and destitution which follows the tulip crash Moggach comments:
This curious episode sinks back into the margin of history, an episode which testifies to man's greed and the fickleness of fate. Yet it all stems from a love of beauty, a passion for flowers whose lives are even briefer than those who are in thrall to them. The fact that the most valuable of these blooms -- the most spectacular mutations -- are produced by a viral disease will be an irony discovered only in future years. (253)
Only the paintings remain, seemingly transparently images, yet even they are illusions whose riddles the viewers cannot unlock.
As reviewers were quick to recognise, Tulip Fever offers a morality tale for the twentieth-century. Reviewing it in The Times Amanda Craig suggested, 'Perhaps as we recoil from the greed of the previous decade, the idea of how another nation once attracted disaster by its speculation on the tulip offers the consolations of history'. 'There are questions here for Britain on the threshold of the millennium,' wrote Stephen Harrison in the Birmingham Post, 'as Moggach skilfully handles a contemporary subject matter by re-creating a place and period from the past -- as in all the best historical fiction' (60). Reviewing Dash's Tulipomania in The Independent, Diane Coyle saw it as 'an excellent resource for assessing our modern mania':
[...] people are fascinated by comparisons between this most famous financial mania and modern equivalents such as the stock market craze for shares in Internet companies. After all, the vogue for day trading in the US, whereby individual investors buy and sell dozens of shares for immediate profit or loss, has driven one American loser to mass murder. And the bubble hasn't burst yet. (5)
In 2000 business journalists cited tulipomania for lessons on how to handle the crash in internet shares. In the Sunday Times Irwin Stelzer pointed out that after the tulip bubble trade in bulbs did not disappear and suggested that like the tulip growers Microsoft should learn how to deal with 'viruses'. In 2002 The Financial Times's Personal Finance writer Deborah Hargreaves turned to Dash's book to consider the possibility that 'the bubble in house prices', fuelled by buy-to-let investors, was about to burst (5).
In 2004 Mark Griffiths reassessed the evidence for the tulipomania in a piece in The Times. It is, he wrote,
such a template for contemporary anxieties [...] Tulipomania gives us a doomsday scenario for the capitalist dream , a nation of burghers suddenly able to join in the new shareholders' free-for all -- and losing their values and valuables into the bargain. (7).
Yet, he suggested, the most commonly cited source for the story, Charles MacKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841/52) is based not on fact but on 'spin', satirical pamphlets put about by the Dutch government to discourage speculation. The episode was exaggerated out of all proportion -- as a kind of morality tale.
Perhaps what is most important here is the meanings tulipomania has for the present. The focus on tulipomania at the turn of the century suggests an intense moral anxiety in contemporary society about what Schama calls 'superabundance.' It also suggests anxieties about what Marx saw as the spectral nature of money:
The independent existence of the exchange value of a commodity is here a transient apparition, by means of which the commodity is immediately replaced by another commodity. [...] Hence, in this process which continually makes money pass from hand to hand, the mere symbolic existence of money suffices. (Marx 129)
In our computerised economy this 'symbolic existence' has been reduced still further -- from bulbs to paper notes to flickering numbers on a computer screen. As the globalisation of markets appears to renders them ever more liable to cataclysmic crashes, the fragility of this ghostly symbolism seems ever more evident.
These historical novels, then, are articulating contemporary anxieties through what Lukács calls a 'parable of the present' (338) but they also present the past as the 'prehistory of the present' (53). The two forms are not mutually exclusive as Lukács seems to imply, but can co-exist. For women writers, the historical novel has always offered a way of writing about subjects -- politics, economics -- which they have found it difficult to write about in other forms. However, there is a further aspect to the tulip's symbolism which may help to explain its appeal to women writers.
In Tulip Fever Sophia herself, forced by family circumstances to marry an old man, is identified with the tulip: in the portrait they are both displayed as possessions owned by Cornelis. Such young women are 'a traded commodity, like a bale of flax' (39) thinks Jan assessing his chances of seducing Sophia. This commodification is what makes her vulnerable. Yet there is a tension in this novel between the traditional commedia dell'arte plot of old man cuckolded by a young woman which Moggach uses to play out her vanitas theme, and the more modern kind of women's historical novel she also appears to be writing which, like those of Chevalier and Vreeland, centralises the consciousness of the re-imagined historical woman as a heroine struggling for self-determination. This tension is most obvious in Moggach's decision to use first person narrative for the sections focalised through and named after Sophia, but third person narration for the sections named after other characters. Sophia's final contrition, her decision to kill herself, and then to become a nun, are necessary to the vanitas theme but are at odds with the kind of 'modern' subjectivity Moggach gives to her .
The particular significance of tulipomania to the late twentieth century becomes clearer if these novels are compared to perhaps the most famous novel about tulips, Alexandre Dumas's The Black Tulip (1850). Dumas chose to set his novel thirty years after the crash, beginning with the politically motivated murder of two Dutch statesmen, the de Witte brothers. The eponymous tulip, grown by their godson in prison, is used by Dumas as a symbol of art, of a natural beauty which was evidence of God's artistry, and of man's endeavour to produce such sublime beauty. Instead of focusing on the tulip as a symbol of human folly, as Robin Buss points out,
Dumas shows us a man dedicated to breeding new varieties of the flower, whose passion, far from being a form of madness is a shield against the kind of insanity which led to the assignation of the de Witt brothers. (xviii)
From a symbol of vanitas to the post-crash Dutch to an allegory of art for Dumas the tulip comes full circle to become a parable of financial folly again at the turn of the millennium.
Underpinning these novels, as I have suggested, is a sense that our current consumerist binge must be paid for and that it is deforming the natural world, most frighteningly through climate change. As a 'natural' object which becomes the object of 'unnatural' capitalist speculation the tulip works as a symbol of this anxiety. Gregory's Virgin Earth offers a striking contrast to tulipomania. John Tradescant the Younger goes to Virginia, partly to escape the civil war but also as a colonist. Gregory details the clash between white men and Native Americans, as the colonists push ever further in the Indian territory frightening away the fauna and destroying the flora and replacing it with tobacco. The Powhatan, who understand their environment and live in harmony with it, are contrasted with the white men who on the one hand wantonly destroy the American landscape to grow tobacco (a capitalist commodity which can be smoked but not eaten), and on the other hand indulged in the folly of tulipomania, paying vast sums for a single bulb as a status symbol.
Several of the books I have been discussing, including the historical novels, seem to be writing a new kind of history, offering a moral critique of the dangers of capitalism based in an account of the damage done to the environment during its 'prehistory' in seventeenth-century exploration and colonisation. In The Pursuit of History (2002) John Tosh commented that there is as yet little sign of a 'green history', organised around environmental issues (235). In fact, I think the green shoots of such a history were already there in books like Pavord's The Tulip and Gregory's historical novels.
I would like to thank Jarlath Costello for sharing his expertise in the economic history of the past two decades and Sarah Johnson sending for me read a copy of her NoveList article 'Art, Exploration, and Tulips: Novels of the Netherlands' Golden Age.'
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