Warning! I will be revealing the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel in this post! If you have not read the book, or if you are an evil French revolutionary trying to capture the Pimpernel, please don’t read any further.
On an unrelated note, I would like to add that this book is #62 on my Classics Club List. Long Live the Pimpernel!
Ah, the elusive Pimpernel! Never did a literary hero have such an unfortunate alias.
I had never heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel until I watched Blackadder the Third. Unfortunately, having watched Blackadder also meant that I immediately knew who the Scarlet Pimpernel was. So much for mystery.
The Scarlet Pimpernel begins in Revolutionary France, where, in the midst of the Terror, some cheeky chap has been smuggling aristocrats out of Paris and helping them escape to good old Britain. The first two chapters are positively chuckle-worthy, as Orczy describes a few of the clever Pimpernel’s methods for sneaking aristocrats out from under the noses of the evil revolutionaries.
After this, the novel moves over the Channel to Britain, where we eventually catch up with the main character of the story – Marguerite St Just, the wife of a tiresome fop named Lord Percy Blakeney. Poor Marguerite has been married to Sir Percy for a little while now, and has grown apart from her inexcusably silly husband. Described as “the cleverest woman in Europe” (Chapter VI), Marguerite is a French actress who, once a revolutionary, made an unexpected decision: to marry an English lord and leave France forever. Now, when I first read the words “the cleverest woman in Europe,” I thought, just for a moment, what a great story it would be if Marguerite were the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Sadly, of course, it was not to be. Thanks to Blackadder, I knew exactly what kind of clever disguise he used to obscure his identity. That disguise is, of course, a genius one. By pretending to be the silliest man in England, the Pimpernel was free to be the cleverest man in France. Though it takes a while, Marguerite eventually puts two and two together to realise that her husband, Lord Percy, is the Scarlet Pimpernel. Which would be a good thing, except for the fact that even as she makes this realisation, Sir Percy is heading back to France hotly pursued by zealous French revolutionary Chauvelin, who is determined to stop the Scarlet Pimpernel for good. Sacré bleu!
Orczy is an excellent storyteller, and The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fine example of a classic adventure story. Though Marguerite could be a tiresome character at times, I liked the fact that most of the story was told from her perspective. The Scarlet Pimpernel is undoubtedly a glorification of the brave and honourable male hero, but not all adventure stories allow for a female perspective on the matter. Of course, it can be argued that viewing the hero from a ‘helpless female’ point of view enhances his prestige, as the woman reflects on her own inability to behave in a similar manner; but I think Orczy allows Marguerite enough scope to act and think as a semi-independent figure. It’s not perfect by any means, and nowadays we might write the story very differently, but it’s something.
Orczy does come across as quite conservative in her opinions; the fact that she came from an aristocratic background probably explains why there is little questioning of the French aristocracy in this novel. This novel isn’t concerned with the causes of the French Revolution; in order for the Scarlet Pimpernel to be a hero, the French revolutionaries must all be evil, the aristocrats all undeserving victims. Which is not to say that I think that French aristocrats deserved to have their heads cut off; but the ones we meet in the book are generally paragons of virtue. Not to mention that the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel is made up entirely of English aristocrats. It makes sense, really; they have the means, the time, and the desire to run off to France whenever they choose. No doubt bored with doing – well, whatever it is really rich people did – saving ‘Frenchies’ from the chop seemed like the appropriate, class-conscious thing to do.
This is just by way of pointing out some of the things that got me thinking while I was reading the book. Ultimately, of course, this book is first and foremost an adventure story. It’s about excitement, daring deeds, and good triumphing. In that sense, it is an extremely successful story, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Escapist literature at its best; I will definitely be reading more of the Pimpernel’s clever schemes.
Rating: 4 Stars