The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy debuted as a stage play in 1903, and was subsequently rewritten as a novel. Reading The Scarlet Pimpernel, it’s hard to miss the dramatic flourishes and beats; the reader can practically see the moments when a character enters from the wings or hides behind some stage prop.
I had only ever heard of the book in passing and had never seen any of the many movie adaptations when my book group picked The Scarlet Pimpernel as our classic read. I really had no idea what to expect, other than a vague impression of dashing swordfights à la Errol Flynn.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is set during the Terror following the French Revolution, when members of the French aristocracy could be sent to the guillotine for crimes as innocuous as a remembered insult given to a passing stranger years earlier. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the nom de guerre of a heroic mystery man who, with a league of comrades, rescues the aristos from under the noses of the French citoyens who seek their deaths. Tales of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s daring escapades inspire hero worship back in England, and his true identity is the most sought-after secret among the French police who seek to capture and make a lesson of him.
The main focus of the book, however, is not the hero himself, but a young woman named Marguerite Blakeney, revered as the most beautiful and “cleverest” woman in all of Europe. She is married to Sir Percy Blakeney, described as a jovial but essentially stupid fop, who is lazy, impeccably dressed and groomed, very wealthy, and always the life of the party.
Marguerite becomes embroiled in intrigue when a French agent, Chauvelin, corners her and threatens her beloved brother, himself a former French republican now turned against the cruelties of the Revolution. If Marguerite wants to save Armand’s life, she must aid Chauvelin by tracking down the Scarlet Pimpernel, infiltrating his inner circle, and informing on him. Only upon the Pimpernel’s arrest will her brother be returned safely to her loving arms.
Much woe ensues, full of breast-beating, doubt, anguish, betrayal, protestations of love, feelings of terrible guilt, and a cliffside ambush and rescue full of a number of true cliff-hangers.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is not a long book, but is chock-full of action. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, we can see the forerunner of many modern dramatic tropes: the damsel in distress, the hero with the hidden identity, laughing in the face of danger, the foolish police captain always one step behind, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. As a period piece, it’s quite interesting. I was amused imaging how new and daring some of these set pieces must have seemed to the contemporary audiences at the time of publication.
Certain aspects seemed rather laughable to me as a modern reader. If I had to hear one more time about Marguerite’s beauty or her unmatched cleverness, I might have pulled my hair out. Really, she seemed like kind of a ninny a lot of the time. She dithers and moans, she ignores her husband or thinks badly of him, only later to realize that he’s truly the love of her life. Her inner monologue is given to melodramatic, self-centered fancies, imagining dying in her lover’s arms as the ultimate happiness. Um, wouldn’t it be better for you both to survive? Just a thought.
My book group takes a chapter-a-week approach to our classic reads, and in this case, I think the pacing worked against my overall enjoyment of the book. The chapters are fairly short, and the plot moves forward only incrementally from chapter to chapter. By reading only one chapter each week, I think we basically had too much time to find and focus on the silliness and melodrama of the characters (particularly Marguerite), rather than enjoying it as a whole.
Do I recommend The Scarlet Pimpernel? Yes, I do. I think, had I read it all the way through in a day or two, I would have become caught up in the race to elude Chauvelin, the Pimpernel’s daring, and Marguerite’s attempts to save the day (even though I tend to think that she mostly mucks things up, rather than actually helping anybody). Although the attitudes and overall writing style are quite dated (and easy to poke fun at), the story itself is nicely entertaining. Overall, I was glad to have read it, although I won’t be tracking down any of the numerous sequels.
Meanwhile, I look forward to checking out a few of the many film adaptations, most notably the 1934 version starring Leslie Howard and the 1982 film starring Jane Seymour as Marguerite and Ian McKellen as Chauvelin.
Title: The Scarlet Pimpernel
Author: Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Publisher: varied (available free for Kindle)
Publication date: 1903
Length: 264 pages