52 Books by 52 Women: The Scarlet Pimpernel

For a year I’m reading 52 books by women authors whose work I’ve never read before. Click here for previous installments.

Well, I knew I’d start falling behind sooner or later in my 52 Books by 52 Women challenge, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. Only six books in, and I’m already a week behind. I can catch up, of course, if I ever have any leisure time, but it’s a reminder that finding time to read 52 novels in the course of a year is difficult, especially when you work full time and are typically seeing plays and writing about them in your supposed off hours. But I knew all that when I took this project on, so there’s no sense in grousing about it.

Baroness Orczy.

Baroness Orczy.

This week’s book was a treat. As a comics fan I’m fond of pulpy adventure stories in general, and The Scarlet Pimpernel serves as a near ancestor to beloved pulp heroes such as the Shadow. In particular you can draw a direct line from the Pimpernel to Zorro to Batman, each a mysterious swashbuckling hero whose secret identity is an effete and foppish aristocrat whom everyone knows and no one would suspect of any derring-do. Many are familiar with the Scarlet Pimpernel from the 1934 Leslie Howard movie, the 1999 TV series with Richard E. Grant or any number of other screen adaptations, but far fewer have read the book or have any idea who wrote it.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was written by Baroness Orczy, a Hungarian aristocrat born Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy. Although the adventure is set in 1792, The Scarlet Pimpernel was first published in 1905. In fact, although she’d written it as a novel, she had a hard time finding any publisher interested in it, so in the meantime she adapted it into a play. One thing that keeps coming up in Gary Hoppenstand’s introduction to the Signet Classic edition is that the critics seemed to hate Orczy’s writing while the public loved it. The play was a popular success despite bad reviews, and the guy who finally published the book did so not because he liked it—he didn’t—but because his mother liked it, and he thought her taste to be a good barometer of what the public wanted. I found this a slightly worrisome sign, as if I was being subtly warned off the book before I’d even begun it. All Hoppenstand’s qualified superlatives (“arguably the best”) started to sound like faint praise.

The book and its many sequels that have fallen into obscurity take place during the “Reign of Terror” of the French Revolution. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the unknown leader of a network of English aristocrats who smuggle French aristocrats out of France before they can be beheaded as enemies of the state. A pimpernel, by the way, is a red flower, which the mysterious leader uses as his symbol and signature. A master of disguise, he’s reputed to have sneaked condemned nobles right past their pursuers while dressed as horrible peasants too disgusting to examine closely.

As Hoppenstand points out, this fantasy of heroic noblemen outwitting bloodthirsty peasants may have been a very personal one for Orczy. The daughter of a Hungarian baron, she and her family lost their estate when she was three years old because, at least as Hoppenstand tells it, “When Baron Orczy attempted to modernize his farm by bringing in harvesting machinery, the superstitious peasants rebelled, seeing the machinery as the work of the Devil. They eventually set fire to the fields, the stables, and the farm buildings, destroying everything.” That sent the family emigrating westward through Europe, with Emma finally settling in London when she was fifteen.

Reading this (again, before even starting the actual text), I started to see the already familiar story as the triumph of the one percent against the 99, the virtuous rich and well-born against the bloodthirsty unwashed masses, and with my good Berkeley Communist upbringing I couldn’t help but resent that message on principle, and I started reading very much on the lookout for classist propaganda. And certainly there’s some there to be found. What we see of the French peasants shows them as gruesomely vicious and filthy and eager to hunt any surviving nobles down. But the parallel simple English tavern keepers and the like that we meet are good-hearted folk, maybe not too bright but the proverbial salt of the earth. If anything, it seems to be more about the virtuous English versus the small-minded French than about patrician versus plebian. (When a Jewish character shows up, it’s pretty cringeworthy.)

One thing I didn’t realize until I read this book is that the real hero of the story is a woman. Not the elusive Pimpernel, but Lady Marguerite Blakeney, formerly a renowned French actress hailed as “the cleverest woman in Europe,” now married to a man with the reputation of being one of the dullest men in England. Although fabulously wealthy and fashionable, Sir Percy Blakeney is a lazy and trivial-minded fop, although pleasant, good-humored and generally well liked. The two Blakeneys are, however, estranged, however pleasant and polite they are with each other, and not for the obvious reason that she thinks him a buffoon. Percy found out some time ago that Marguerite denounced a marquis as an enemy to the state, marking him for execution, something he finds unforgiveable. What he doesn’t know is that she didn’t do it intentionally. She had just been complaining quite truthfully about what a horrible jerk the guy was for having her brother beaten up for wooing the marquis’s daughter, not realizing that she was complaining to exactly the wrong people.

Lady Blakeney runs into an old acquaintance of hers, Chauvelin, now an agent of the new French Republic dedicated to hunting down the Scarlet Pimpernel. Chauvelin blackmails her into helping him unmask and capture his quarry, though he’s a hero to her as he is to all England, by threatening her dear brother with execution. What’s Marguerite to do? And what if the Pimpernel turns out to be someone far closer to her than she imagined?

Orczy’s writing is on the florid side, with liberal use of words like “anent” and “whilst” that were archaic even then, and people are always starting dialogue with exclamations such as “La!” and “Odd’s fish!” And for an adventure novel there’s not much action in it, and no fighting at all. It’s all about suspense, fretting, the chase and misdirection—and the chases are either by slow boat, slower nag-drawn cart, or walking along behind that same cart. Most of its twists I could see coming pretty far in advance—not just because some of them I already knew, such as the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity, but because it was pretty obvious how he’d get out of this or that situation, or who was almost certainly him in disguise. But as it happened, that predictability wasn’t so much a drawback for me as part of the fun. You and our hero can congratulate yourselves on being clever and laugh at the foolish villain together.

It’s a little slow for its genre—all that fretting takes some time—but even so I found it charming. That said, I enjoy some pretty clunky and formulaic pulp fiction for what it is, so your mileage may very. I don’t know that I’ll read its many sequels for fear of diminishing returns—there’s probably a reason they haven’t stayed in print—but I’m glad to have finally read it. And I was positively thrilled to find that that my favorite part of the movie is actually in the book: Sir Percy’s droll little verse that he tosses off to amuse his fellows in fashionable society:

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?

It’s not quite as fun without that knowing chortle that Leslie Howard used to replace “Hell” when there were ladies present, but I’ll take it.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Book 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Book 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Book 3: Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

Book 4: Kurahashi Yumiko, The Woman with the Flying Head

Book 5: NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

Book 6: Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

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