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The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

by Baroness Orczy

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
6,888149924 (4.01)431
The first and most successful in the Baroness's series of books that feature Percy Blakeney, who leads a double life as an English fop and a swashbuckling rescuer of aristocrats, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" was the blueprint for what became known as the masked-avenger genre. As Anne Perry writes in her Introduction, the novel "has almost reached its first centenary, and it is as vivid and appealing as ever because the plotting is perfect. It is a classic example of how to construct, pace, and conclude a plot. . . . To rise on the crest of laughter without capsizing, to survive being written, rewritten, and reinterpreted by each generation, is the mark of a plot that is timeless and universal, even though it happens to be set in England and France of 1792."… (more)
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» See also 431 mentions

English (141)  Swedish (2)  French (2)  Italian (2)  Hungarian (1)  All languages (148)
Showing 1-5 of 141 (next | show all)
It hasn’t worn well

So many of the books I read and reread as a child have proved flawed, and The Scarlet Pimpernel is no exception. I am no longer entranced by aristocracy, oblivious to anti-Semitism, indifferent to misogyny, or ignorant of history, alas. I probably should not have tried to read one of my old favorite romantic adventures. But I did make it through the whole thing. ( )
  dmturner | Jun 29, 2020 |
I first read The Scarlet PImpernel over ten years ago, after catching half of the 1982 film and being intrigued by the characters, and have revisited Blakeney Manor and Paris on a regular basis ever since then. I also own many copies of the Baroness' definitive secret hero novel, thanks to my rule of 'new copy, new read'! And who could resist the beautiful hardback editions of the Macmillan Collector's Library?

'A book will live by the characters that people its story, characters that make the story real; it will never live by the story alone, however well constructed or interesting it may be. Do not be afraid about the future of your Scarlet Pimpernel. It will live because of its character long after far finer books have gone the way of oblivion.'

So the novelist Arnold Bennett once told the Baroness, with withering sarcasm - and he was bang on! Any reader who doesn't know about Orczy's original novel will no doubt be able to quote at least a line of Sir Percy Blakeney's verse: 'They seek him here ...' Blakeney and his alter ego - ironic spoiler alert! - are what maketh the book, leaving finer details like plot, historical setting and possibly even Marguerite, the Pimpernel's beautiful wife, for new generations of fans to discover via stage and screen productions. Orczy claimed that the personality of the Scarlet Pimpernel came to her while waiting on the Underground for a train to Kensington - 'I saw him in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands holding up his spy-glass: I heard his lazy drawling speech, his quaint laugh' - and that she promptly went home and dashed off the novel in five weeks. Apparently a 'round dozen' of publishers rejected her inspired manuscript, until one publisher sent the book to his mother for approval ('she is quite unsophisticated but knows what she likes'), after which Greening and Co. accepted The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the rest is history. (Undaunted by the negative treatment of her novel, Orczy also rewrote the story as a play, hoping to release both versions at the same time, but Fred Terry and Julia Neilson tweaked and promoted the stage production into a success two years before Mr Greening's mother gave the printed version the go-ahead.)

For those not in the know, the precis of the Baroness' magnum opus is probably more enticing than the actual novel, although I love the book dearly. While France is 'seething' in revolution, Marguerite Blakeney, a French actress lately married to tall, handsome but intellectually challenged English fop, is approached in Dover by a former acquaintance, the ex-Ambassador Armand Chauvelin, and blackmailed into helping him discover the identity of the mysterious and - yes - elusive Scarlet Pimpernel, who has been saving aristocrats from the guillotine across the Channel. I'm not sure if anyone is really surprised by the supposed secret identity of the Pimpernel these days, but for me, the heart of the story - and the reason why I fell in love with Orczy's novels nearly ten years ago - is the captivating heroine, Marguerite St Just, and the troubled, passionate, soul-deep OTP of her love for her husband, the Scarlet Pimpernel. I'm really that much of a girl.

Marguerite, Lady Blakeney, the oft misguided, always impulsive wife of Sir Percy, tends to drive modern readers mad. The first novel claims that she is 'the cleverest woman in Europe' - which I take to mean verbally witty, not overly intelligent or even very perceptive, but hey ho - yet Marguerite seems to spend the bulk of the series getting herself into trouble and waiting for her husband to rescue her. She is kidnapped or blackmailed in at least four novels, and probably only escapes in the others because she is reduced to walk-on roles. The Lady Blakeney version of being an 'active' heroine is to repeatedly take off across the Channel after her husband, whether he wants her with him or not. And not only is she forever falling into Chauvelin's cunning traps, but the trap is rarely more than a variation on a theme - she never learns!

But the same man passionately in love with such a woman as Marguerite Blakeney would count the world well lost for her sake.

In an age of retroactive gender equality in historical novels, Marguerite is surely an anachronism. But her charm for me is exactly that - she's a woman, she's weak, but she is also believable - the modern reader might want the heroine to get herself out of trouble every once in a while, but Marguerite can only do the best she can with what she has. Her wealth, status and reputation belong to Sir Percy - she gave up her own independence when she married and left Paris for England. So if enforced domesticity, beauty over brawn, and the occasional swoon work better for this heroine than shooting her way out of a tight corner, then who are her twenty-first century readers to argue? I love Marguerite for being a complete Mary Sue - beautiful, alluring, a man's woman who knows how to get what she wants, and an adored French actress to boot - but brave enough to risk all for those she loves. Granted, she is at her sharp-tongued, vivacious best in The Scarlet Pimpernel, taunting the haughty old Comtesse and flirting with her husband's friends and the Prince of Wales, but she remains a class act throughout the series.

Sir Percy has been captured in the lazy humour of Leslie Howard, the underlying intensity of Anthony Andrews, and the - (ahem) stature - of Douglas Sills. He is, to borrow a phrase, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma - raised on the lonely childhood of all romance heroes, brought up by an 'imbecile mother and a distracted father', only to inherit a fortune and marry the most revered actress in Paris after a whirlwind courtship. Sir Percy is handsome, well dressed, stinking rich and popular. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a brave and noble hero, who is constantly placing the lives of others before his own. What's not to love? Admittedly, Blakeney can become a little tiring, because he must always be right to the point of omniscience, but he is so demmed loveable with his 'six foot odd of gorgeousness' and supernatural good fortune. He and Marguerite are (literally) made for each other - consummate performers, they are both attractive, passionate and secretive.

If there is anyone who hasn't read The Scarlet Pimpernel, I can only recommend that they do so immediately! ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | Apr 30, 2020 |
DNF @ 37%. Marguerite is a self-absorbed asshole who has no feelings for anyone other than herself (and her brother). She considers herself intellectually superior to EVERYONE and she only married her husband because she thought he'd be a constant source of slavish devotion to her. I am feeling zero sympathy or tolerance for her right now, and its hard to see how this is going to change as the story continues, especially since she's the main character instead of to her husband, whose secret identity is the Scarlet Pimpernel.
  eurohackie | Apr 27, 2020 |
Spoilers because I talk about the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel and a casting choice that I would have made in the 1970s.

They seek him here, they seek him there… a man known as the Scarlet Pimpernel is driving the French government to distraction in the year of grace 1792, as he saves aristocrats from the clutches of Madame la Guillotine. The English think this is great sport, while the French government, in the form of agent Chauvelin, is bent on unmasking and dispatching him as quickly as possible.

This was a re-read for me, and I’m not sure how well it holds up as a re-read, because I spent the whole time thinking “Oh COME ON when are we getting to the bit where we find out who it is?” I felt like on re-reading that the clues were so obvious, but perhaps to a first-time reader they are not. I’d forgotten how much of a role Marguerite has, which was good, and I laughed out loud a bunch of times, particularly when Chauvelin was shown up (the bit where the Scarlet Pimpernel sees right through his priest disguise and Chauvelin chokes on his soup in horror made me guffaw).

It occurs to me that Tom Baker would have made a fantastic Percy Blakeney / Scarlet Pimpernel: in fact, his Doctor Who is a bit of this sort of character, because he’s constantly playing the fool but always has a plan and saves the day with a flourish. Plus, he has the height and the grin and the lovely voice that I think would be essential for a Blakeney. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Apr 13, 2020 |
The book was not what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting a dark and bloody story of the French Revolution, but instead I was introduced to James Bond's great great grandfather. A good action story for the time it was written and of course it is who tries to saves the day. The story reads like an old movie serial, fast moving story line, likeable (and hate-able) characters all in the right places. Good read for a weekend. ( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 141 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (92 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Orczy, Baronessprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cosham, RalphNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Daly, NicholasEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gheijn, Ed. van den, Jr.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lindström, SigfridTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mantel, HilaryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mauro, WalterIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morin, Maria EugeniaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Musterd-de Haas, ElsEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Page, MichaelNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Penzler, OttoIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Perry, AnneIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weller, LucyIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wildschut, MarjoleinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zimmermann, WalterNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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First words
A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.
We seek him here,
we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? -
Is he in hell?
That damned, elusive Pimpernel!
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
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Haiku summary
An English noble
saves French aristocracy
from the guillotine.
In France terror reigns,
Yet an Englishman slips through,
And bests them again.

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