Posts Tagged ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’

Not my dust jacket, but the one that my tattered red hardcover would have had when it hit the book shops.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy ~ 1905. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950. Hardcover. 256 pages.

Do I really need to give a whole lot of details here? This one of those books which (almost) everyone knows the plot of, if not by actual reading then by osmosis through publicly shared cultural literacy.

Here’s an economical prĂ©cis, from Oxford University Press:

Sir Percy Blakeney lives a double life in the England of 1792: at home he is an idle fop and a leader of fashion, but abroad he is the Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise who saves aristocrats from the guillotine. When the revolutionary French state seeks to unmask him, Percy’s estranged, independent wife, Marguerite, unwittingly sets their agent on her husband’s track. Percy’s escapades, and Marguerite’s daring journey to France to save him from the guillotine, keep the reader turning the pages of Baroness Orczy’s well-paced romantic adventure.

No prizes for guessing that Sir Percy survives the attempt to bring him down, with his final escape being due 100 percent to his amazing skill at disguise (of a broad variety, but most successfully as a “loathsome Hebraic”, which, though it sounds dreadful in quotes, is actually more of a shot at 1700s’ French prejudice than at the Jewish population of France), which has aided him in his escapades to pull off his daring rescues. Marguerite is merely a bit of background decoration, as it were. The menfolk (Sir P and his team of fellow sporting English noblemen) have things well in hand from start to finish.

This book is thoroughly dated in style, but it has retained its status for over a hundred years as a pretty good romp of an adventure tale. I find it rather heavy on the superlatives, myself. Sir Percy, public persona that of a “demmed idiot” – stupidest man in England – is the most fashionable as well as the richest nobleman in his coterie, while Lady Blakeney, formerly a French actress, is widely touted as the most beautiful woman in her crowd, as well as the most fashionably dressed and the “wittiest woman in Europe”.

We have The Scarlet Pimpernel to thank for all sorts of tropes in subsequent popular fiction, as he flicks the priceless Mechlin lace of his cuffs out of his way when getting down to business disguised by his bipartite persona, all hooded eyes, telling glances, and double entendres.

I quite happily read The Scarlet Pimpernel a number of times in my school years, always experiencing a frisson of vicarious passion when the noble Sir Percy Blakeney kisses the ground whereupon his desperately misguided wife has just trodden, shortly before he heads off to risk his life to rescue another batch of French aristocrats from the guillotine, with a cold-hearted agent of the French government hot on his heels, primed with damning information provided (all unbeknownst to Sir P) by Lady Blakeney herself.

Reading this some decades later as a much more judgemental adult, I found the love scenes to be more humorous than romantic; a certain cynicism has obviously developed with my years.

This is worth reading as a period piece, and for a glimpse at how an early 20th Century popular fiction writer pulled off an 18th Century historical fiction. The Baroness Orczy certainly had an enthusiastic pen, and a keen sense of what would appeal to her readers, not to mention her audience of theatre lovers. The Scarlet Pimpernel started life as a play staged in 1903; the stunningly popular novelization followed.

A number of not-quite-so-well-known sequels followed. The Scarlet Pimpernel itself has never been out-of-print since its publication. Ridiculously easy to find secondhand, and available online through Gutenberg, along with oodles of other Orczys.

My rating: 7/10

 

 

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