By Beatrice Scudeler
A tale of passion, obsession and deception, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever is undoubtedly a technically accomplished novel by an experienced author. Despite what the title suggests, ‘tulips’ – which in the 1630s were extremely expensive flowers – have nothing to do with a large portion of the story, which instead revolves around adultery. The first person narration, told by the heroine Sophia Sandvoort, is aesthetically pleasing in style, showered with metaphors and symbolic language. Within the first few pages we learn that Sophia is a young woman married to the much older Cornelis in seventeenth century Amsterdam. Although the trope of the strong female character trapped in a loveless marriage is virtually ubiquitous in modern historical films and novels, I had hopes this story would distinguish itself from the rest.
Unfortunately, it was as predictable as I had feared. Sophia embarks upon an affair with painter Jan van Loos, and together they weave an intricate web of lies in an attempt to escape her husband and live together in the East Indies. The predictability of the story would not have been so noticeable except for the fact that the book is utterly plot-driven. The main characters are altogether uninteresting, flat and one-dimensional. Cornelis is depicted as a man obsessed with having an heir and is a ‘collector of beautiful things’ (among which, the author implies, his wife is included). What Sophia and Jan share is at best a strong infatuation – it is not love. It is up to the reader to invent reasons why they became attracted to one other; Moggach most definitely provides none.
The story’s secondary characters are more fascinating, Sophia’s servant Maria and her lover Willem. They are driven by real affection for one another and it is, therefore, much easier for the readers to empathise with them. This appears to be a conscious choice by Moggach, offering a critique of seventeenth century society in which – much like today, after all – wealth and status were regarded as more important than personal worth. Nevertheless, Maria and Willem’s subplot is ruined by the novel’s frustrating tendency to rely on fate. For instance, Sophia and Jan’s plan to escape fails when the tulip bulb on which they had invested all their money is eaten by Jan’s servant. After this incident, which in my opinion lacks complete credibility, Sophia simply tells the reader that ‘There is a terrible symmetry to it: we committed a crime and for this we must be punished […] It has all fallen into place.’ Every time there is an implausible turn of events, we are expected to believe it is all part of a greater scheme: Maria becomes pregnant, Willem mistakes Sophia for her, thinks Maria has betrayed him for Jan and then leaves; Sophia pretends that she is pregnant and dies in childbirth so she can run off with Jan; Sophia and Jan lose their fortune and Sophia pretends to drown. The plot is an unoriginal reshuffle of all Shakespeare’s major tropes, with none of his psychological intensity.
Most of my quibbles about Tulip Fever are not technical faults but deliberate devices the author has used to convey her message. For example, the vacuity of Sophia’s personality is exploited to reflect both the worthless beauty of the expensive tulips as well as the superficiality of Jan’s passion for her. At the very end of the novel even the narrator tells us that Sophia ‘has disappeared, as if she is simply a figment of his imagination,’ thus reinforcing how Jan has idealised Sophia through his paintings of her, but has never truly understood her.
Choosing to write about an ephemeral heroine, however, inevitably creates an emotional barrier between the reader and the novel. Just as Sophia’s beauty is ultimately devoid of meaning, so too has this book left me completely indifferent.
Image: Faye Chua and Penguin Random House