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Such Mighty Rage (The Blakeney papers) by C…
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Such Mighty Rage (The Blakeney papers)

by C Guy Clayton

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After being thoroughly Shocked and Appalled by everything about the first novel in C. Guy Clayton's Pimpernel trilogy, from concept to characters, I decided to actually pay good money for the second and third instalments, thereby compounding my disgust. However, I don't know if my rediscovered appreciation of the original Scarlet Pimpernel novels is merely diluted, or perhaps my imagination may have been opened to all forms of derivative fiction, but I wasn't all that offended by Clayton's perverse pastiche this time around.

Such Mighty Rage follows on from Daughter of the Revolution, continuing with Marie-Marguerite-Armand's marriage to Sir Percy Blakeney and the plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. At times, Clayton veers completely out of character - Lord Tony's reputation suffering the worst - but manages to remain vaguely true to his source material. And making Marguerite an unreliable narrator is either a clever way of dodging irate fans and historical transgressions - 'the reader is left to decide which account is the more likely' - or one trick too many. I could never really believe in Clayton's Marguerite - her exploits are far too over the top, especially the cross-dressing alter ego, and the narrative style is ridiculously tongue-in-cheek. The danger is in taking the joke too far, when relying on fans of the original to understand and share in the sly digs at the Baroness' stories. In the first novel, Clayton seemed to turn against Orczy's loyal followers, who keep reading her novels for the adventure and the romance (not necessarily in that order). He turned Marguerite into a romance novel cliche, sleeping her way to the top of her game after being raped by an 'aristo', while inventing a 'brother' to allow her to both look and act like a man. I couldn't stand his 'dashing, charismatic heroine for all seasons', and hated such a cynical portrayal of my favourite characters.

In Such Mighty Rage, both Clayton and Marguerite have been toned down, and the contrast works better. There is a serious acknowledgement of Percy's heroic double life, instead of mocking the Pimpernel in order to make Marguerite look better. When Percy is forced to explain his foppish persona to his embarrassed wife, he tells her: 'You must understand, Marguerite, that your husband lives a very dangerous life, and that my safety depends on my being regarded as a fellow hardly capable of rational thought'. Orczy didn't need to spell out the need for Percy's perfomance in quite so many words, but I enjoyed the honest conversation all the same, and even approved of Marguerite's more active role in the League. I still find it sad that Clayton's Marguerite isn't allowed to stoop to actually loving her husband, but reading lines from Marguerite like 'I could spend a month raging inwardly at his unkindness, only for it to strike me with a pang how loveable he was' almost makes up for the lack of true romance!

The cross-dressing still narks me, I must admit - how does a beauty like Marguerite regularly pass for a man? - but Clayton covers his bases with glib ease ('being female and not unattractive in your own right gives you a certain disadvantage when you go about in male disguise'). He hits out at the Baroness' fairy tale romance, with the 'ever-suffering, ever-grieveing, ever-forgiving , ever-gentle child-woman' at home, waiting for the hero, yet lets Marguerite down at the Fisherman's Rest, during her confrontation with the Comtesse, and at Grenville's ball (instead of using the Prince of Wales to get back at the Comtesse, and then spying on Sir Andrew for Chauvelin, Clayton's Marguerite gets food poisoning and spends the evening throwing up!) And apart from a detour involving a nun and a cart full of stolen goods, the climax at Calais sails safely close to the original sequence of events, too.

I'm still not sure if Clayton is a friend or foe of Orczy's novels, but Such Mighty Rage turned out to be a fast-paced, creatively constructed and partly deferential twist on one of my favourite novels - almost exactly what a spin-off should be! Recommended to anyone who has at least a passing acquaintance with The Scarlet Pimpernel, but devoted fans should also find part two easier to stomach (just have one of the Baroness' own books on hand to counteract the teeth-gnashing!) ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | May 17, 2012 |
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