The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emma Orczy. Originally published in 1905. 304 pages.
Hurricane Dorian passed us by with a whimper, but we were still in stand still mode for the better part of three days, which gave me all the time I needed to power through this engaging page turner.
Set in 1792 during what is known as French reign of terror, The Scarlet Pimpernel weaves a story of a mysterious English hero who is rescuing the doomed aristocrats, who have survived to date, from the guillotine. This hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, is a master of strategy and disguise as he outwits the French guards and whisks as many of the titled class as he can out of Paris, across the channel, and into the safety of England. England, where loyalty to the monarchy is high, and the very idea of the wholesale murder of noblemen in the name of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” is an anathema, welcomes the refugee aristocrats to the safety of their shores.
Baroness Orczy’s classic novel is equal courses of adventure, intrigue, and humor, with a side nibble of romance. Even though it was assigned to our kid as a part of her literature class this semester, I am certain that I enjoyed and appreciated the layers and nuances a lot more than she did.
The political intrigue and the character’s commentaries reveal Orczy’s understanding of the English astonishment and abhorrence of the murderous reign of Maximillien Robespierre. Even among our French heroes and heroines in The Scarlet Pimpernel, those who were more Republican than monarchist, there is an acute sentiment that the current actions of French’s republican government has gone too far.
“It is only in our beautiful France that wholesale slaughter is done lawfully, in the name of liberty and of brotherly love”
It is with this backdrop that we first meet Marguerite St. Jus Blankeney, the beautiful and intelligent young actress who is the toast of Paris, and not just for her artistic talents. An outspoken republican, Marguerite had recently married the rich, handsome and tall dullard Sir Percy Blankeney. The union was far from idyllic. Somewhere along the way, Sir Percy had turned out to be a totally different man from the one she thought she’d married, and while he adored her as the book opens, she held him in contempt, and she was far from alone in her assessment:
“…and in repose one might have admired so fine a specimen of English manhood, until the foppish ways, the affected movements, the perpetual inane laugh, brought one’s admiration of Sir Percy Blakeney to an abrupt close.”
Along the way, we learn that nothing is quite as it seems, and that Marguerite, for all her intelligence and beauty, has woefully underestimated and misjudged her husband, along with many other things.
“She looks very virtuous and very melancholy.”
“Virtue is like the precious odors, most fragrant when it is crushed.”
As the race ramps up for the Scarlet Pimpernel to save as many noblemen as he can, the political intrigue, adventurous shenanigans, and masterful strategery of the elusive and anonymous hero kept me plugged in from beginning to end.
I do recommend The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s a stellar novel.
Content advisory: Murder, mayhem and violence associated with the French revolution, largely contained to the beginning and end of the book.
4 out of 5 stars