The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905)

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?

14 thoughts on “The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905)

  1. Well, I confess I’ve never read anything by Baroness Orczy (except maybe a short story in an anthology once). This does sound a hoot though.

    “Oh, the glamour! A time when a woman could carry a ribboned stick with dignity! (Do not try this at Sainsbury’s.)” LOL! Mind you, we mock – but when I see what some people wear to do their weekly shop I think we should go back to posh frocks and ribboned sticks!

  2. I read this with my book club a couple of years ago. Although most of us enjoyed the story – it’s a real old-fashioned romp – it somehow did not live up to those memories of black and white films on Sunday afternoons. It really has not stood the test of time, hardly a classic. But it is fun and probably worth a look just for nostalgia’s sake.
    Must go now – I need to dust off my feathers and frreshen up my ribbons!

  3. I thought perhaps I was being a bit of a grumpy old cynic for criticising the book, so I’m glad you thought it wasn’t great either! I think you’re right that it somehow fails to live up to its own adaptations – which is quite odd. Usually the original text is always seen as best! But I did read that Orzcy was unable to find a publisher at first, and it in fact appeared as a play before it was published as a novel.

  4. I believe I read this when I was 15 and in Grade 10 History whilst studying the French Rev-n. I adored it then and still have a copy on my shelves. Perhaps I’ll offer it to my 14 year old and re-read it along with her to compare notes! Thanks for the reminder.

  5. I adored Baroness Orczy when I was 15 or so, when it seemed like the height of romance, but I am rather afraid that I might find them disappointing now. On the other hand, I’m still a bit susceptible to those manly heroes who disguise their intelligence under a layer of foppery, so it might be worth the risk. I’ve got one waiting to be read at the moment, so I’ll try to fit it in during the month and report back.

    • I will look forward to hearing what you thought. I know many people do find them just as enjoyable now as when they were young – like George, above!

  6. I have my grandmother’s copy, and a few others by Orczy, which i did enjoy a lot as a child. but on rereading it lately (there’s obviously something in the water), I figured it was not as entrancing as i remembered, but was still a great swashbuckler, so I’m podcasting about it on that subject in a few weeks!

  7. Having spent the last seven years of my life immersed in Baroness Orczy’s world, it’s useful to be reminded what she’s like to read if you come to her cold. I first encountered her as an omnivorous book-devouring teenager, so – even though her chauvinism, plus moments of unsavoury anti-Semitism appall me as an adult – I still get a childish thrill from her page-turning plots. I agree about the deadly slowness of the scenes with Jellyband et al – but you have to remember she was still serving her writing apprenticeship. The original 1903 stage version of the Pimpernel actually opened in the ‘Fisherman’s Rest’, with Mr Hempseed and friends complaining about the weather! It was only after this version was tried out in the theatre that the opening was changed to the one we know now.

    Lord Tony’s Wife (see George Simmers’s post) is a much better book.

    Dr Sally Dugan
    Visiting Research Fellow
    Institute of English Studies
    University of London

    Out now: Sally Dugan, Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet PImpernel: A Publishing History (Ashgate, 2012)

    • Hello Sally,
      Thanks for commenting and giving the link to your book. I’ve had lots of traffic and comments on these posts, which shows the interest people still have in Orczy’s novels.

      There’s so much anti-Semitism in novels of this period, and later – Orczy’s portayal of ‘lisping Jew’ in The Scarlet Pimpernel reminded me of the Warwick Deeping novel I read recently, and that was published as late as 1941.

      It is slightly annoying to know that I chose probably the worst of the Pimpernel novels, but maybe it will also encourage me to give another one a go!

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