Lord Tony’s Wife by Baroness Orczy (1917)

A review by George Simmers (see his Great War fiction blog)

Lord Tony’s Wife (1917) is the sixth in Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel series, set during the French Revolution. A prologue in 1789 shows the discontented peasantry rising against the arrogant Duc de Kernogan, and his ruthless execution of the ringleader’s innocent father. Four years later, the Duc is in exile, and bargaining to give his daughter to a rich merchant who promises funds to the royalist cause. Yvonne, the daughter, has other plans, and elopes with Lord Tony, one of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s loyal band. The Duc and the merchant plot to abduct her – but the reader knows what the Duc does not, that the supposed merchant is the revolt’s ringleader in disguise, and out for revenge on the whole family.

The Duc thinks that they are taking the girl to Holland, but the ship steers for Nantes, where the revolutionaries are in firm control, and atrocities like the mass drowning of priests have taken place. The second half of the book takes place in Nantes, as the Scarlet Pimpernel takes on the seemingly impossible task of rescuing Lord Tony’s wife from a fate worse than death.

This is a fast-paced adventure story which I thoroughly enjoyed, perhaps because it brought back memories of how much  the Scarlet Pimpernel series appealed to my imagination when I was about thirteen. Perhaps then I was less aware of the implausibilities – for instance the final rescue involves the Pimpernel disguising himself as two different Frenchmen, each well-known to the people he is deceiving. The literary convention of the impenetrability of disguise is very well-worked in this book.

The central plot device is the need to rescue a young woman from the hands of enemies; the young woman, Yvonne, is in jeopardy throughout, and the suspense is constant. This plot is a very common one in popular fiction of the time. It’s found, for example in novels about the Great War, in which a young woman has to be rescued from Belgium or occupied France. In Joseph Hocking’s Dearer than Life (1916) the two rival suitors of Margaret Herncastle combine to free her from Germany. In the 1920s,  Bulldog Drummond  adventures, and their many imitators, are often based around the need to rescue a young woman from the hands of villains.

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel is very like Drummond’s crew of helpers, or the men who rally round to help Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot in Buchan’s novels, or the group that Simon Templar could call on in the early ‘Saint’ adventures.  In contrast to the gang of evildoers, whose motives are either mercenary or perverted, these do the job for no reward. Whereas their enemies are always a group in conflict, distrusting one another, the followers of the Pimpernel, like those of Drummond, are united, They follow their leader without question: ‘for the members of that gallant league of the Scarlet Pimpernel there was no such word as “disobedience” and no such word as “fail”’ (190)

Lord Tony’s Wife is unusual in that most of the action is seen through the eyes of the villains, as they plot away fiendishly, confident of success. This means that the dominant mode of the novel is dramatic irony. We see the Duke planning his own daughter’s abduction, for example, with the man whom we know to have malign intentions for both of them. In the second half of the book, the revolutionaries plot to give the aristos a fate more degrading than the guillotine. We readers know that the Scarlet Pimpernel is in the offing, and therefore read alertly, looking for signs of his presence and wondering which of the supposedly French characters are really English rescuers in disguise.

The book is very specifically set in 1793, and there are many references to actual atrocities committed in Nantes. Two actual historical figures. Carrier and Lalouët have significant roles. The book assumes that the reader has some prior knowledge of previous adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and a some knowledge of the main course of the French Revolution. Its interpretation of the history – aristos were insensitive and cruel; the resentful people revolted; the revolutionary leaders were more cruel than the aristos they displaced – is very similar to that found in Carlyle’s French Revolution or Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. In the middle of the book there is a chapter summarising the history of the revolution in Nantes; the style of this seems to be very much an imitation of Carlyle’s: dramatic use of the historic present; non-sentences; exclamation marks; heavy irony. Even the vocabulary (‘wolflings’) seems to be taken from Carlyle.

Orczy hints at a homosexual relationship between the villains Carrier and Lalouët. (I don’t know whether this is taken from  any sources, or Orczy’s own invention). This reminded me of Ulric von Stumm, the German villain of Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916)  whose effeminate furnishings suggest his ‘queer other side…that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army.’

The book’s relation to the times in which it was written is interesting. Orczy was a fierce supporter of the war effort and in 1914 founded the ‘Active Service League’ – which recruited women to persuade their menfolk to enlist; members pledged ‘never to be seen in public with any man who being in every way fit and free… has refused to respond to his country’s call’. The fact that in 1917 the French were currently the allies of Britain does not prevent Orczy from stereotyping them negatively in this novel. The aristos are arrogant and selfish; the peasants are  gross and stupid; the revolutionaries are mean-spirited, resentful and cruel. The only French character who is positively presented is Yvonne, Lord Tony’s wife. She is the prize that all the plotters strive for – but she displays little personality; her only notable characteristic is her beauty. Orczy does allow herself one dig at England’s current enemy, the Germans:

He had a way of laughing–just like that—in a peculiar mirthless, derisive manner, as if with joy at another man’s discomfiture, at another’s material or moral downfall. There is only one language in the world which has a word to express that type of mirth; the word is Schadenfreude. (36)

The book’s first readers might well have connected its story with the events in Russia, since it was first published in 1917, appearing at some time between the deposition of the Tsar and  the takeover of the revolution by Lenin. Orczy’s novels (together with the works of Dickens and Carlyle) would have presented readers with a template for understanding events and upheavals in Russia. In the 1920s, many works would use the French Revolution to comment on what was happening in Russia. The opening intertitles of D.W.Griffith’s epic film ‘Orphans of the Storm’ for example, explicitly tell the cinema audience:

Our story is of two little orphans who suffer first through the tyranny of Kingly bosses, nobles and aristocrats. After the king’s government falls they suffer with the rest of the people as much through the new government, established by the pussy-footing Robespierre through Anarchy and Bolshevism. Strange that both these evil rulers were otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID. The French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism.

In comparison with ‘Orphans of the Storm’, the melodrama of ‘Lord Tony’s Wife’ is relatively restrained. The climax of the film has Danton racing to the guillotine to dramatically rescue Lilian Gish from the cruelty of Robespierre. I don’t think Baroness Orczy ever stretched history quite that far.

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One thought on “Lord Tony’s Wife by Baroness Orczy (1917)

  1. Orczy says in her autobiography that she had intended Lord Tony’s Wife to be her last Pimpernel novel – and in many ways it’s a pity she didn’t stick to her resolve. There’s a distinct falling off after this one…

    I think I’d make the contemporary resonances more evenly balanced between the Russian Revolution and the Germans in WW1 than you imply: especially as ‘schadenfreude’ is invoked at the same time as the description of the mass drownings of priests and nuns in the noyades. Smacks to me of all those tales of German atrocities against the Belgians…

    If for ‘French’ you read ‘honorary Germans’ – with Orczy applying the age-old rivalry between the French and English to the Germans as the 1917 current enemy – the apparent contradictions in Orczy’s treatment of the French disappear. My mother (born 1924) remembers playing ‘French’ v. ‘English’ in the school playground, suggesting that folk memories of the French as the national enemy survived well into the twentieth century despite shifting political alliances.

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