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.
I’ve been wanting to read The Scarlet Pimpernel for a long time, especially after my 2013 NaNoWriMo project was set in an alternate history version of Revolutionary France. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t believe I waited so long!
This classic novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy is part swashbuckling adventure, part court intrigue. Set in 1792 during France’s Reign of Terror, which sent thousands of aristocrats, sympathizers, and suspected enemies of the Republic to death under the blade of “Madame Guillotine”, The Scarlet Pimpernel tells the story of a hero who works to save those destined to death. The Pimpernel, named after the little red flower he leaves on anonymously-penned notes, works under cover of darkness and cunning disguises to thwart the efforts of the Republic’s officers. One in particular, Chauvelin, has made it his mission to see the Pimpernel unmasked and on his way to the guillotine.
To do so, Chauvelin blackmails the Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a French citizen married to a foppish English Lord, holding over her head information that her own brother has been in league with the Pimpernel. Lady Blakeney is an intelligent, fashionable woman, devoted to her brother and torn between her deeply Republican beliefs and her understanding that the current bloody version of the Republic betrayed the core principles of the Revolution.
The language of the book is rich, but mostly doesn’t overwhelm with detail. There were only a few places where the story drags, and usually it’s because the author is giving us backstory for a character. It’s a fairly quick read, with the biggest question–who is the Pimpernel?–not being answered until well into the book. It’s a brilliant case of secret identity, a predecessor to the comic book and silver screen heroes most of us know well. And while you certainly couldn’t call it a romance, the estranged Blakeneys rebuilding their love after secrets strained it is central to the story. The author is herself an aristocrat, so her sympathies toward those of noble descent are obviously stated, but at the same time, she doesn’t really say the Revolution was unjust. Marguerite is undeniably Republican, but still believes the Pimpernel is a hero because she rejects the bloodbath happening in her homeland.
In short, I felt swept away to a different place and time when I read this. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a great read for anyone who loves historical fiction, or who is new to reading classics. I will likely be reading more of Orczy’s novels about the Pimpernel’s adventures soon. Do you have a favorite adaptation of the story? Or a favorite classic novel? Share your comments below! 🙂