The Scarlet Pimpernel
by Baroness Emma Orczy
Could there have been a more timely moment in history for exiled Baroness Emma Orczy to have written The Scarlet Pimpernel than the early twentieth century’s autumn of empire? Within five years of the appearance of the Scarlet Pimpernel (aka fabulously wealthy English aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney) England’s King Edward VII, epicurean son of the straitlaced Victoria, would die, his lavish funeral marking the end of an era. Within less than a decade after the Scarlet Pimpernel attempted the triumph of aristocrats over rabble, Europe would be involved in a war in whose aftermath imperial heads would fall like leaves.
Isn’t it true that we always love the rich and famous more after they’re gone?
Why else would Marie Antoinette, pictured in the illustration for today’s post, have morphed from a weak queen, no worse but certainly no better than most women of her caste, into the saint-like being William Hamilton portrayed in his 1794 painting? Or why would the Romanovs and Ottomans and Hapsburgs whose dynasties perished in the First World War have become revered instead of reviled?
Strange what a difference a century or so makes in our collective memories.
I’m not crediting Orczy with prescience in writing her 1905 romantic adventure story about an aristocrat who dedicates his life to rescuing fellow aristocrats from the guillotines of the 18th century’s French Revolution. Critics labeled her potboiler old-fashioned. The public loved it. They knew in their bones that the world it depicted couldn’t last.
Last week, Adventure classics left Sir Percy Blakeney fearing that his beautiful plebian wife, Marguerite Blakeney (nee St. Just) might betray him to the notoriously sanguinary Committee for Public Safety. Now wonderfully villainous French agent Chauvelin uses threats against Marguerite’s beloved brother to urge her to uncover the identity of the notorious Scarlet Pimpernel.
Like all of fashionable London, where she now resides, Marguerite reveres the Scarlet Pimpernel for his courage, compassion and cunning. At least, Marguerite is certain, this hero can’t be her foppish husband Sir Percy. Or can he?
I wish I had seen the original play Orczy’s novel is based on. The exquisite middle of the book ends on a high note, with Marguerite in a filmy dressing gown confessing her fears to Sir Percy, hoping for a renewal of their love, but still not recognizing him (although everyone in the audience does) as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Only after Sir Percy excuses himself for a suddenly remembered “business” appointment does she find proof of his identity and realize she’s betrayed the man she loves, and who still loves her, to certain death.
Can the Scarlet Pimpernel escape Chauvelin’s machinations? Will Marguerite redeem herself in Sir Percy’s eyes, or -- which seems her only option -- can she at least die by his side?
At which point in the history of the Scarlet Pimpernel, matinee idol Lesley Howard will step in to reinterpret the hero to another generation, on the brink of another world-changing war.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics wonders how much The Scarlet Pimpernel’s reputation owes to the legend of Leslie Howard.)