Amsterdam in the 17th century was a time when commerce was king and the sale of tulip bulbs made some people very rich and others bankrupt. This is the setting for Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, when Rembrandt and Vermeer painted some of the most-recognised art of our time. Sophia’s husband Cornelis is rich, thanks to tulips, and he celebrates his wealth by commissioning a joint portrait to be painted. It is a decision which changes their lives.
The deft switching of viewpoints – and each chapter is a single voice, Sophia, Cornelis, Jan [the painter], Maria [their servant] and Willem [Maria’s lover] – allows for a new take on each situation. The plot moves quickly, things are hinted at and passed over but relevant later. It is the sort of novel which seems simple but has hidden depths. The language can be so sensual. “Jacob van Loos is not painting the old man’s mouth. He is painting Sophia’s lips. He mixes pink on his palette – ochre, grey and carmine – and strokes the paint lovingly on the canvas. She is gazing at him. For a moment, when the old man was talking, her lips curved into a smile – a smile of complicity. He paints the ghost of this, though it is now gone.”
The reader must remain vigilant to catch everything. After four chapters I realised the significance of the quotation at the head of each chapter, and went back to the beginning again. They shed fresh light on the story being told. For example, “‘Trust not to appearances.’ Jacob Cats, Moral Emblems, 1632.” And, another chapter heading, by the same author, ‘Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret places is pleasant.’
In places, Moggach’s description echoes Dutch paintings of the period: “Sophia stands at the window. She is reading the letter. Through the glass, sunlight streams on to her face. Her hair is pulled back from her brow. Tiny pearls nestle in her headband; they catch the light, winking at the severity of her coiffure. She wears a black bodice, shot with lines of velvet and silver. Her dress is violet silk; its pewtery sheen catches the light.” Certainly an understanding of art of the period will help a reader get more from the text.
Shown at the top of this page is the current cover by Vintage, but I prefer the cover of my paperback Vintage edition which dates from 2000. The illustration is a detail from ‘Antea’ by Parmigianino, from the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. Both are shown below.
‘Tulip Fever’ by Deborah Moggach [UK: Vintage]
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