Friday, August 13, 2010

The Scarlet Pimpernel

When I told a friend of mine that I was reading The Scarlet Pimpernel, she clasped her hands to her face, gasped and exclaimed, "That's my most favorite book ever!  It's so romantic!"  Then she swooned.  It's a good thing I had my smelling salts handy so I could revive her.  You never know when you'll need smelling salts, by george. 

Do you remember reading about the French Revolution and Reign of Terror?  When the people rose up and starting lopping of heads of the aristocracy?  Gruesome stuff.  The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place during the Reign of Terror, around 1792, with the French aristocracy in fear of their lives.  But there is a hero who manages to smuggle families to England and save them from the guillotine's blade.  He is clever and devious and evades the authorities over and over again.  He is Batman.  I mean, he is The Scarlet Pimpernel.  The name comes from a small flower insignia he uses in his correspondence.  His identity is a mystery to all but his most trusted circle of fellow heroes.  His reputation is all the rage in England and women wear the pimpernel in their hair or sewn into their clothes in support of his actions against the brutal killings in France. 

Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife, Marguerite St. Just Blakeney are the toast of the town in England. They have the prince's ear, lead in all the latest fashions, have wealth beyond imagining, and Marguerite is considered the cleverest woman in England.  Sir Percy is dashing and handsome, but considered a bit of an idiot, no thanks to his lazy and ridiculous remarks he often makes.  He is still universally loved, but scorned by his wife.  Marguerite is frustrated with his attitude and wonders where the man she married went.  They've only been married a year, but Sir Percy's affections have waned and Marguerite lashes back by making condescending remarks.  Her only source of happiness is her brother, Armand.  He helped to raise her after their parents died and she worries about his welfare in France, their home country.  Their family was a humble one, but Marguerite married up thanks to her exquisite beauty and charm. 

Here enters the bad guy: Chauvelin, ambassador from France, fervent follower of the Republic, lopper-off-of-heads supporter.  He would do anything to find and capture the Scarlet Pimpernel.  He uses some condemning evidence against Armand to force Marguerite into helping him discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel.  Marguerite has no idea who it is, but wants to save her brother's life.  Her guilt over inadvertently playing a part in the murdering of a noble family in France torments her when she has to send a great hero into Chauvelin's cluthes.  She does what she can to send information on to Chauvelin in the desperate hope of preserving her brother. 

Where's the romance? you might be wondering.  Marguerite desperately wants her husband to love her like she still loves him.  Soon after they were married, Marguerite confessed the story of what happened with that noble family that was sent to the guillotine.  Soon after, Sir Percy wants nothing to do with her.  As the story unfolds, she becomes more desperate to be united with her husband and would even die to be by his side.  It's very old-fashioned romance, but still sweet and passionate.  Like, she doesn't dream of playing a part to save her husband, just to throw her lot in with him and perhaps die in the process.  Both Marguerite and Percy's pride prevents them from resolving their problems much earlier, but if they had, it wouldn't be as fun to read!

The tales about the Scarlet Pimpernel are fun, but it's definitely the best when we can see him in action.  The opening scene of the book shows him dressed as an old woman driving a cart, deceiving the guards at the gates of Paris.  We don't see him again until later in the book when he is in disguise once again.  Those were my favorite parts.  I wish there had been more daring-do in the book all together, but I suppose I could check out one of the many sequels Baroness Emmuska Orczy wrote.  Interesting fact: this story was originally a play, then written as a novel.  I could totally see that as I read the book.  Each chapter is set up like scenes in a play.  Marguerite hiding behind a curtain while the evil Chauvelin plots, unknowingly revealing everything; Sir Percy rebuffing Marguerite's pleas for forgiveness; the ending scene where the Scarlet Pimpernel's men are in a shack, surrounded by Chauvelin's soldiers.  It would be a great play to watch.

My only complaint is that the ending is very anti-climactic.  I expected more.  Is that my more modern sensibilities at work?  Maybe.  But there is something to be said about old fashioned romance and adventure.  Batman and Zorro should take notes. 


  1. I have only read this one once, and remember being disappointed in the ending as well. But I grew up with the movie version (which I love and waited an eternity for it to finally be released on DVD a few years ago), and so I couldn't help but compare the two and find the novel wanting. I didn't know that she had written sequels. Maybe I should check them out. Or maybe I should just curl up with the movie and some popcorn....

  2. It was a good book, the ending not withstanding. I also enjoyed 'The Count of Monte Cristo', although I liked the movie better, and very much enjoyed 'The Three Musketeers' which was MUCH better in the book. And they are free in ebook form at Guttenberg.

  3. I started reading this book before I left Vicksburg, and set it aside for 2 years before being interested enough to pick it back up. The beginning felt really slow, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I don't remember the very end, but I do remember that I thought huh? after finishing. I think I want to go watch the movie now. Who doesn't love Jane Seymour with really big hair?