Magazine article The Spectator

Betting All on a Bulb

Magazine article The Spectator

Betting All on a Bulb

Article excerpt


by Deborah Moggach

Heinemann, 14.99, pp. 259

Someone with a couple of lifetimes to spare might write a great book called Historical Flowers. The asphodel and the bay. The lotus and the rose: and not just the rose of northern wars and romaunts but (e.g.) the Confederate Rose that people in the southern states of America still plant in their gardens, and the present sickly-pink rose of the British Labour party. And the poppies of Flanders. And the fleur-de-lys. And the Christian lily of the Blessed Virgin that looks so very unvirginal. (Richard Jefferies, unworldly naturalist, once surprised his notebook by jotting down that he is always fondest of an arum lily `while making love to a girl'.) Napoleon of course put all flowers in their place by making his emblem the honey-bee.

The oddest chapter of such a book might be the one on the tulip, which in the 1630s caused the city of Amsterdam to run mad. The tulip, like the orchid which people have also been known to kill for, is hardly a flower at all. Browning calls it a `big red bubble of blood'. But while the orchid sits watching you malevolently like a cat, the tulip cold-shoulders you. The tulip is a cool courtesan, a sophisticate very seldom found in the wild. The Dutch discovered that when you married up quite sober tulips, planting them in soot perhaps, watering them with perhaps your own urine, you could produce birds of paradise with fringes, frills and stripes and in extraordinary colours. (Later it was found to depend much on their having a virus.) For several years the stolid Dutch suffered from tulipomania and exchanged their carriage-horses, houses, whole fortunes for one bulb. In Tulip Fever, Deborah Moggach's novel about this crazy time, she says that the Dutch are great gamblers at heart. Holland was the most secure and prosperous country in the world. There was religious tolerance, a glamorous empire in the background, huge stakes. Risk was almost a necessity. Tulip Fever is as much about risk and temptation as it is about tulips.

Seventeenth-century Amsterdam must have been a delicious place to take risks in. Tall houses looked down on their perfect reflections in the canals. Their owners strutted up and down in front of them in enormous white ruffs and stovepipe hats, each with a respectable wife upon his arm. Children romped around. Inside, the houses were stacked with treasures, and paintings which were no longer required to be religious. There were wonderful portraits. The young Rembrandt had lately arrived and was `drenching his canvases with gold'. …

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