Brief synopsis: A wealthy English baronet by day, and a daring spy by night, the Scarlet Pimpernel is a wanted man in France. With the help of ingenious disguises and a wit as sharp as his sword, he rescues French aristocrats from the bloody clutches of Madame Guillotine and brings them to England, starting an international manhunt in the process. Yet nothing—not even Robespierre himself—fazes our hero, who enjoys thwarting French revolutionaries for sport. But when the Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a French socialite married to the wealthy English baron Sir Percy Blakeney, hears that her brother is condemned to death at the hands of a ruthless mob, will the Scarlet Pimpernel be able to outwit the French once again? How long can he keep it up before his secret identity is revealed?
Rating: Travel companion
Long story short: It’s a surprise more people don’t know about the Scarlet Pimpernel given that his character is considered by many to be the inspiration for Zorro, Batman, and other modern-day crime fighters with alter egos. He is intelligent, suave, handsome, and quite cheeky—an irresistible combination!
I had to work a bit to get through the first 30 pages (don’t worry, it’s a tiny book!), but from there the suspense kept me hooked until the end. There isn’t as much action as I had anticipated, and what there is is condensed in the final chapters of the novel, but I liked that the beginning read more like a thriller.
This is a good book to read if you’re on vacation or at the beach. The prose may be a bit tedious, but I recommend soldiering on if you get stuck—it gets easier the more you keep at it.
Continue reading for a more in-depth review (note: spoilers below).
Long story long: The Scarlet Pimpernel is none other than Sir Percy Blakeney, Lady Marguerite Blakeney’s husband. In order to keep his identity and the identities of the other members in his league a secret, Sir Percy works hard to create a persona that is above suspicion. He goes out of his way to look foolish and is known among acquaintances as a person who doesn’t take things seriously, which gives him the perfect cover.
Lady Marguerite is a French émigré who married Blakeney about a year or so earlier. She is approached by an old acquaintance, Citizen Chauvelin, an agent of the French Republic, who asks her to uncover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel in exchange for her brother Armand, who has been charged as a traitor for denouncing the new republic in a series of secret letters to the Scarlet Pimpernel. Lady Marguerite is torn between her love for Armand and her respect for the English hero.
The fascination Lady Marguerite has with the Scarlet Pimpernel has partly to do with her unhappy marriage. Not long after she marries Sir Percy she admits that while living in France she betrayed the family of Marquis de St. Cyr to the Committee of Public Safety, which was the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror. Sir Percy, disappointed to know that the woman he loves so dearly was capable of such a heinous crime, grows cold and distant. She waits to be asked to explain her actions, as in her mind they were justified, yet he does not pursue the subject further. Ironically, this marital unhappiness is the seed from which her affection and admiration for the Scarlet Pimpernel grows (don’t worry though, husband and wife become all lovey-dovey in the end).
Orczy does a good job of teasing out Lady Marguerite’s emotional turmoil. When Chauvelin first approaches her with his proposal, I was sure that she would choose to help Armand in an instant. However she hesitates to think about how her actions will affect the greater good.
Seriously, if you love Batman, go read this book. I mean, it doesn’t have villains as creepy as the Joker or Penguin, but had Sir Percy Blakeney existed in the DC Universe, he and Bruce Wayne would probably have been besties. I mean, wealthy men who pretend to be all superficial so they’re largely ignored and then BAM! fight crime full-time? Besties. Blakeney is a little more cheerful than Wayne, but I’m sure they’d have fun playing good-cop, bad-cop.
Have you read it? What are your thoughts?