(I read this book as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge. Click on the link or image to join in the fun!)
1792 Paris is not an ideal place to be an aristocrat. The French Revolution is well underway, and heads are rolling faster than one can count. Aristocrats, guilty or not, are packed off to prisons — their only escape a visit to the Place de la Gréve and Madame Le Guillotine.
And yet there are rumors, stories coming out every day, of a singular individual enacts daring plans to save the French aristocracy from their terrible fate. This man takes on impenetrable disguises and passes through the city’s heavily-guarded gates, the dozens of revolutionaries around him totally unaware. This man has never been seen or captured, and he is known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Across the Channel in England, the beautiful Marguerite St. Just is unhappy. Her marriage to Sir Percy Blakeney has disintegrated in front of her eyes — he now plays the same foppish fool in private as he does in public, acting the fashion-obsessed idiot with no interest in a woman he supposedly adored.
Marguerite is at first gladdened by the arrival of Chauvelin, an old friend from her days in Paris. But he brings her only misery when he informs her that her beloved brother is in league with the Scarlet Pimpernel. And now it is up to her to unmask the Scarlet Pimpernel, or see her brother sent to the guillotine.
One of my favorites
The Scarlet Pimpernel is, in my mind, the perfect story. It’s got the best of everything: sword fights, disguises, dangerous escapes, adventure, love, heart-palpitation-causing suspense, and—spoiler alert!—a happy ending.
My father and I are both obsessed with the 1982 film adaptation starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. I’ve watched it at least 50 times, and still can’t get over how much I love the story.
The film is actually a blending of plots from The Scarlet Pimpernel and the fourth in the series, Eldorado, something that was a little jarring the first time I read through the book. Some elements from the film were there, but it’s a very different plot.
Percy is the original example of a hero with a secret identity, a precursor to characters like Don Diego de la Vega (El Zorro) and Bruce Wayne (the Batman). He’s a true chameleon, taking disguises and masks on and off as quickly as he blinks. He’s also incredibly clever and brave, two traits I admire in a character.
Marguerite is also wonderful, a strong character torn between two men she loves. Her characterization leaves a little to be desired—she’s described using diminutive, delicate, feminine terms more often than anything else—but she remains in my mind a good character.
I’ve read The Scarlet Pimpernel only once before, and several years ago at that. It gave me enough time to forget the twists and turns, so that I was surprised once again by the ingenuity of Percy, the strength of Marguerite, and the elegance of the author’s writing.
When it comes down to it, I just love a great adventure story. And The Scarlet Pimpernel is that in spades.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s first book in her Scarlet Pimpernel series was published in 1905 and spawned ten more novels, plus countless short stories, film adaptations, stage productions/musicals, and spin offs. Her writing made her a giant in the world of historical fiction writing.