Friday, March 6, 2015

Adventure classics -- A fugitive baroness conjures romance

The Scarlet Pimpernel

by Baroness Emma Orczy


Fearing revolution, a noble family flees their homeland for England. Two young people, one an aristocrat, the other plebeian, find true love. A beautiful, quick-witted woman finds true love in the arms of her English husband. Is it the plot Emma Bristow (born Baroness Orczy) fashioned for her 1905 romantic thriller, The Scarlet Pimpernel? Or is it the story of her own life?

In the story, lovely, spirited young foreigner is French actress (and poor commoner) Marguerite St. Just. The devoted husband who brings her wealth and fame is the titled Sir Percy Blakeney. Together, they embark on a career of shared adventure. Life, of course, often has more twists than fiction. And in life, it was the impoverished baroness Emma who married the almost equally-strapped for cash commoner Montagu Barstow. But together, they embarked on a life, if not of adventure, at least of shared writing, that in the end made them famous and rich.

As the calendar here in the northern hemisphere draws near to spring (although there’s snow on the ground as I write this), I’m ready to set aside January and February’s tragic tales for something more frivolous, something sweet and romantic with, dare I hope, a happy ending. Something like The Scarlet Pimpernel. (Was it because English wasn’t Orczy’s native language that she chose a title whose sound, to American ears at least, is almost irresistibly comic?)

In the story, during the height of the French Revolution, wealthy English baronet Sir Percy Blakeney has fallen madly in love with, and married, beautiful French actress Marguerite St. Just. The day after their marriage, Percy learns that information passed on by Marguerite’ has brought about the death of an entire aristocratic French family. She is guilty of nothing worse than ill-considered gossip, but her own pride keeps her from excusing herself to Percy. Percy in turn is mortified by what seems to be his wife’s betrayal of his code of honor.

In fact, more than wounded pride is at the heart of Percy’s estrangement from Marguerite. Unknown to her, he and a band of friends have formed The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, named for a pretty little English wildflower, to rescue condemned nobles from the clutches of Madame Guillotine.

Now he finds himself married to a woman who has betrayed other aristocrats to their deaths. Will she also betray him?

Early in her marriage to Montagu Bristow, Hungarian émigré Emma had worked as a translator to help with the family finances. By 1903, having gained a small following of fans, she and her husband wrote a play, The Scarlet Pimpernel, based on one of her short story characters. Critics called the play old-fashioned (it is strongly reminiscent of the previous decade’s The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hopkins), but it was popular enough for Emma to market a book-length version.
The original dramatic form gave Pimpernel the fast-paced action and dialogue that have made it a natural for uncounted adaptations, including the 1934 film version starring Leslie Howard, whose poster is today’s illustration.

After Pimpernel, Howard would play many more romantic parts, in life and in art. But that’s a story for another post.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a March of thrills and suspense with The Scarlet Pimpernel.)

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