Wednesday 10 July 2013

The Scarlet Pimpernel

A Scarlet Pimpernel flower.
Does anyone else out there have a problem with the French Revolution? My view of it is much the same as my view of the English Civil War, and is best summed up by Sellar and Yeatman, who maintain that the Royalists were romantic but wrong, while the Roundheads were repulsive but right (it’s in their amazingly funny history spoof ‘1066 And All That’). Only in the case of France it’s the Revolutionaries who are repulsive but right, which is a shame, because when it comes to ideology I’m with them all the way, same as I support Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians.

Baroness Orczy
But it’s hard to hard to know how much of our image of the French Revolution is shaped by  novels like Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I haven’t read for years and years and years – I think I may still have been at school when I last picked it up! Anyway, since I have embarked on a ‘virtual’ trip to Paris with Paris in July and Dreaming of France, I felt it was time to reacqaint myself with Sir Percy Blakeney, his wife Marguerite, and the devilish French spy Chauvelin. And I am so glad I did. The novel is ideologically unsound and extremely biased, so I feel guilty about enjoying it, and it certainly couldn’t be described as great literature. But it is SUCH fun. And I am SOOO in love with Sir Percy, just like I was as a teenager! It’s a real romp of a book, a love story and an adventure yarn, that could even be described as a mystery thriller I suppose.

And, before anybody quibbles, I know it is not really set in Paris, but it begins and ends there, and it is all about the Revolution, and the Revolution took place in Paris. Did it happen elsewhere in France I wonder? I must admit I don’t know a lot about it, but there must have been uprisings and incidents in other places – or did the rest of the country just follow where the capital led?

I’m sure most of you know the story. Here we have the inane, foppish Sir Percy Blakeney and his beautiful French wife Marguerite, dubbed ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ by those who know her.

Sir Percy Blakeney, as the chronicles of the time inform us, was in this
year of grace 1792, still a year or two on the right side of thirty.
Tall, above the average, even for an Englishman, broad-shouldered and
massively built, he would have been called unusually good-looking,
but for a certain lazy expression in his deep-set blue eyes, and that
perpetual inane laugh which seemed to disfigure his strong, clearly-cut

It was nearly a year ago now that Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., one of the
richest men in England, leader of all the fashions, and intimate friend
of the Prince of Wales, had astonished fashionable society in London
and Bath by bringing home, from one of his journeys abroad, a beautiful,
fascinating, clever, French wife. He, the sleepiest, dullest, most
British Britisher that had ever set a pretty woman yawning, had secured
a brilliant matrimonial prize for which, as all chroniclers aver, there
had been many competitors.

Leslie Howard Merle Oberon starred
in the 1934 movie of the book.
However, the couple seem to have fallen out of love within months of their whirlwind marriage, and appear to have nothing but contempt for each other. Marguerite, like the rest of her glittering social circle, is fascinated by the daring exploits of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a mysterious master of a disguise who risks his own life to snatch aristocratic victims from the jaws of the guillotine. His symbol - the tiny red flower of the scarlet pimpernel – has become extremely fashionable, and there is even a popular rhyme which everyone is quoting:

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.

At this point we meet Chauvelin, the scheming French envoy, who blackmails Marguerite into helping discover the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity. If she refuses, then it will death for her brother Armand, a republican supporter who has been revealed as a traitor to the cause.

Chauvelin was putting the knife to her throat. Marguerite felt herself
entangled in one of those webs, from which she could hope for no escape.
A precious hostage was being held for her obedience: for she knew that
this man would never make an empty threat. No doubt Armand was already signalled to the Committee of Public Safety as one of the "suspect";
he would not be allowed to leave France again, and would be ruthlessly
struck, if she refused to obey Chauvelin. For a moment--woman-like--she
still hoped to temporise. She held out her hand to this man, whom she
now feared and hated.

She is convinced she has failed in her task, because the only person at the meeting place she uncovers is her husband, who is fast asleep... Eventually she tells him about the threat to her brother, and he promptly heads off to France to save Armand.

Only now does Marguerite finally realise the awful truth – her dull, stupid husband is the clever, brave Scarlet Pimpernel... and she has unwittingly revealed him to his enemies. So she follows, determined to warn him, and the tension mounts as Chauvelin tries to catch his prey, Sir Percy tries to evade him, and Marguerite tries to catch up with her husband. She seems to spend a lot of time hiding behind hedges and things, and she gets dirtier and dirtier, and her fine clothes get tattered and torn, but eventually she and Sir Percy get back together, declare their undying love for each other, and sail off into the sunset... well, back to England at any rate. And, in case you are wondering, Armand does get rescued, along with the father of Marguerite’s old schoolfriend. So everyone is happy, which is good. I like a happy ending.

Karen, who runs the Book Bath blog, and Tamara, over at Thyme forTea, are organising Paris in July, while Paulita, at An Accidental Blog is hosting  Dreaming of France.


  1. I haven't read this since I was about thirteen but your summary immediately brought it all back -- how I loved it and how desperately I too loved Sir Percy. The Revolution did go on all over France, by the way!

    1. Well that's reassured me about the revolution Harriet! I think I was about the same age as you when I first read this - in those days it seemed to have huge appeal for teenage girls.

  2. I have never read this one Harriet but my partner loves it and he has always encouraged me to read it so I just might have to!

    1. Do give it go Karen - it romps along a tremendous pace, and is great fun.

  3. I love this book too - what a hero! *Really* want to re-read it now.

    1. Go on Vicki, have a re-read! I don't think it's meant to be taken seriously, it's just meant to be read and enjoyed. And I don't think Baroness had any literary aspirations - I gather she wrote to make money. She churned out more than 50 novels, as well as a handful of plays and short stories, but this is the only one I've read. I'm scared to try any others in case they are dreadful!

  4. I've never read this one either, but will chuck it into the TBR, it does sound fun, and exactly the sort of book I'd like.

  5. Fun description! I don't think I've read this but I remember watching the movie on television when I was a kid.