I know plenty of De Wits, but I’d never heard of Johann and his brother Cornelis, both of whom are heroes in Holland. Well, were. Well, sort of. They’re really something of an embarrassment too, a particularly bad moment in the life of the much revered William of Orange. About them—and about that story--I knew absolutely nothing until we visited Dordrecht, the Netherlands, this summer, got a tour from a historian who went on and on about how the city (the city of the famous Synod too) was, in fact, the very cradle of democracy.
He made a case that was peculiarly interesting, had me inspired, in fact. At the same time, one of our fellow pilgrims, a De Witt, in fact, fell into near stupified silence when we found Dordtrecht’s de Witt memorial. The man wanted badly to think that he was himself descended from these real-life pioneers of democracy, the de Witts of Dordtrecht. That’s all three de Witts above.
“You ever read The Black Tulip?” he asked me later, when he told me more about the long-ago story. “Alexandre Dumas,” he said, tipping his head a bit, as if to say, “surely, you’ve heard of him.
Why of course—Alexandre Dumas of Three Musketeers fame, I thought, another novel I’d never read. I caught the scold in the arc of his eyebrows. I knew I had to read The Black Tulip. Besides, a scar on the saintliness of William of Orange seemed a scandal worth investigating.
I just finished it—The Black Tulip. It was wonderful—cute, sweet, romantic, full of history (I think), wonderful in the way a swashbuckling 19th century novel should be: horrific injustice outrun by virtue of the highest caliber—good vs. evil, and, wouldn’t you know?—good triumphs boldly.
The first section of the novel—only tangentially related to the romance that comprises most of the story--concerns the deaths of the De Witt brothers, two fine men hacked to death by a mob that seemed to me uncharacteristically bestial for a brood of Dutchmen in Holland’s Golden Age. But what do I know?
But mostly, The Black Tulip is a love story—the love of an innocent, God-fearing man for the almost mythical black tulip and the favors of comely Frisian, blue-eyed maid who is put together from materials few human beings are—utterly loyal to a man whose innocence only she seems to understand, unswerving fidelity even though her monster father is her innocently imprisoned sweetheart’s senseless persecutor.
Besides, you get descriptions like this—fairy-tale, Tulip Time Holland: “. . .on the Sunday fixed for this ceremony there was such a stir among the people, and such an enthusiasm among the townsfolk, that even a Frenchman, who laughs at everything at all times, cold not have helped admiring the character of those honest Hollanders, who were equally ready to spend their money for the construction of a man-of-war—that is to say, for the support of national honour—as they were to reward the growth of a new flower, destined to bloom for one day to divert the ladies, the learned, and the curious.”
Smiles all around. A swashbuckler that honors those ancient de Witts, and love itself, and even faith. Even the sins of the great William of Orange get redeemed.
Sweet summertime reading.