We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? – Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel?
This month we are reading historical fiction published between 1900-1925 – and I thought it was time to admit to never having read The Scarlet Pimpernel. Most people seem to have wolfed down the Baroness Orczy’s work in their younger years, but she passed me by. Of course, I have seen screen adaptations, but now, finally I get to the book!
And am somewhat underwhelmed. The trouble with reading novels that have become classics, with a multitude of television, film and theatre adaptations, is that you already have an image of the characters in your mind – and most importantly, in a mystery story like this – you already know the secret.
I suspect you already know the secret too, so I won’t be giving too much away if I summarise the plot: It is 1792 and the Terror of the French Revolution is at its height. Each day French aristocrats are denounced as enemies of the Republic and executed by guillotine. But someone is helping these aristocrats escape France – a mysterious figure who calls himself the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the beautiful Marguerite, leader of fashionable London society, is forced to spy on behalf of the Republic in order to save the life of her beloved brother Armand, who is still in France. Through her spying Marguerite realises that the Scarlet Pimpernel is in fact – da da! – her apparently foppish and dim-witted husband, Sir Percy Blakeney! It is also a love story, as Margeurite comes to realise she loves her husband.
It is a good plot, and potentially a very exciting adventure, but the opening chapters of the novel are deeply slow. After a cleverly enticing first chapter showing the Scarlet Pimpernel at work in Paris bamboozling the guards on the barricades, we move to an inn in Dover. At ‘The Fisherman’s Rest’ we are introduced to the aristocrats who have been rescued, the family who run the inn, the fishmen in the inn, various English aristocrats who work for the Pimpernel, and very finally, to Sir Percy Blakeney and his French wife, Marguerite. We learn a great deal about the Landlord of the inn, Mr Jellyband (it’s all getting a bit Dickens), presumably to demonstrate the contrast been the English working man and the French:
Portly in build, jovial in countenance and somewhat bald of pate, Mr Jellyband was indeed a typical rural John Bull of those days – the days when our prejudiced insularity was at its height, when to an Englishman, be he lord, yeoman, or peasant, the whole of the continent of Europe was a den of immorality, and the rest of the world an unexploited land of savages and cannibals. (14)
When the aristocrats arrive, be they English or French, he is ‘profuse with his respectful salutations’ (28). In England everyone knows their place. After all, aristocrats are clearly, identifiably superior – the newly arrived Comtesse’s ‘voice was musical and low, and there was a great deal of calm dignity and of many sufferings nobly endured marked in the handsome, aristocratic face’ (29). (She has ‘fine, aristocratic hands’ too.)
Is this an enjoyable fantasy of class certainties? I would think that in 1905 the English class system, with the aristocracy at the top, was still quite secure. However, with the arrival of Marguerite we have the most reliable fantasy of historical fiction: costume.
Marguerite Blakeney was then scarcely five-and-twenty, and her beauty was at its most dazzling stage. The large hat, with its undulating and waving plumes, threw a soft shadow across the classic brow with the aureole of auburn hair – free at the moment from any powder; the sweet, almost childlike mouth, the straight chiselled nose, round chin, and delicate throat, all seemed set off by the picturesque costume of the period. The rich blue velvet robe moulded its every line the graceful contour of the figure, whilst one tiny hand held, with a dignity all its own, the tall stick adorned with a large bunch of ribbons which fashionable ladies of the period had taken to carrying recently. (44)
Oh, the glamour! A time when a woman could carry a ribboned stick with dignity! (Do not try this at Sainsbury’s.)
The tale hots up when the evil spymaster Monsieur Chauvelin forces Margeurite to spy for the Republic. From here on we follow her and see events from her perspective. As a clever and witty woman, she had not been able to love her apparently dim-witted husband, but then she realises he is the brave and romantic hero the Scarlet Pimpernel, and she realises that she loved him all along! (The continual protestations of constant love in the second half of the book are somewhat undermined for me by the fact that we are told at the beginning that she is sadly unable to love him.)
Margeurite realises too late that Percy is the Pimpernel, as she has already betrayed him to Chauvelin. Showing her bravery, she rushes to France to try and save him – it is wildly romantic and noble, as she swears she will at least tell him that she loves him, and will be able to die at his side. Her actions are determined by her gender; unfortunately, Orczy tells us, despite her bravery ‘she was weak, and she was a woman’. Percy, on the other hand, is the epitome of manliness, the ultimate English gentleman: strong, honorable and gallant. As well as a fantasy of aristocratic glamour, this novel is perhaps a fantasy of exaggerated masculinity and femininity.
I expect most people read The Scarlet Pimpernel when young. What did you make of it then? Have you re-read it as an adult? Is it still enjoyable?