Book: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: YA Historical Fiction (my book says Children’s Literature, but the content notes pretty much explain why I disagree)

Preferred Reading Environment: Sitting in an armchair by the fireplace

Reading Accoutrements: A cup of tea and maybe a small dog warming your feet (or lap)

Content Notes: sexual innuendo, Guillotine-style beheadings, fanaticism, and racism

April Showers bring May Flowers and since it’s May, I thought I’d review a book that’s named after a flower! I first read The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy as a sophomore in high school. Recently, the manager at one of my part-time jobs and I were discussing our favorite authors. She mentioned that she has always been a big fan of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. I asked if she had ever read The Scarlet Pimpernel and she hadn’t even heard of the book.

I’m going to be real with you all: I. Do. Not. Like. The Bronte sisters. Or Jane Austen. It has always irritated me that people focus on those three women when they talk about female authors, because there have been a lot more female novelists. Orczy wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1903 (though it went unpublished until it was turned into a wildly successful play in 1905), almost a century after Austen’s first novel was published (Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously in 1811). Orczy wrote several children’s books but was not widely published as a novelist. That, combined with the fact that “Young Adult” wasn’t a recognized literature classification until the 1950s or ‘60s. Maybe I like it so much because I’m a huge superhero fan and the trope Orczy used serves as the basis for a lot of superhero stories today, but I feel like she’s underrated by a lot of scholars.

Let me explain, The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place in Great Britain, 1792, during the French Revolution – NOT the Les Miserables revolution, the other one…with the guillotine, Robespierre, fleeing nobility, and Marie Antoinette…You know the one…Anyway, the parliament of Great Britain was torn between providing aid to the French nobility – Great Britain is still a monarchy, after all, and they wouldn’t want to encourage their own lower classes to have a revolution, or recognizing France’s new government and creating new trade agreements – France does have the best brandy and fashion.

Meanwhile, the bloody revolution is in full swing and more and more noble families are being taken to the guillotine. There is no hope for the French nobility…except for one thing! The Scarlet Pimpernel and his band of merry English lords, who sneak into Paris and then leave with whole families of French nobles with dates for the guillotine. To add insult to injury, the Pimpernel himself sends a note to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris, telling them that he will rescue a specific family that day. Then, just as the family makes their daring escape, he sends another note (signed with a little scarlet flower – a pimpernel – common to the English countryside) telling the Committee that they have been foiled again. This has made the Scarlet Pimpernel a most wanted man in Paris and throughout France, and a most celebrated hero amongst the French and English nobility. However, unless you are familiar with the story or a really great guesser, even the reader does not know who the Scarlet Pimpernel is – only the twenty or so English lords who aid his daring escape plots know his true identity. The only thing anyone can guess is that he must be an English lord himself of some influence and power, or else he would not be able to influence so many or afford to finance this venture at all.

See??? He’s the original Batman! Or Ironman! Or Arrow! Or –

Jeriann: Yeah Bethany, we know, you like Superheros, especially rich asshole ones.. Aren’t you supposed to be reviewing some 20th Century British Lit?

Right, sorry…The story actually follows Marguerite St. Just – now Blakeney – a (formerly) French bluestocking and leading actress of the Comédie Française until she met and married Sir Percy Blakeney, an exceedingly rich and powerful English lord with a reputation for being intellectually slow and for loving his wife with a passion. Marguerite and her brother, Armand, are very close and were both supportive of the revolution initially, though they both believe that it has gotten too far out of hand now that the streets of Paris run with the innocent blood of noble women and children.

Marguerite is approached by a French emissarie (and spy) named Chauvelin and asked to learn the name of the Scarlet Pimpernel, for the sake of her homeland, but she wants nothing more to do with the revolution and refuses. Until Chauvelin gives her evidence that Armand is working with the Scarlet Pimpernel and threatens her brother’s life should she not discover the identity of the problematic Englishman.

Marguerite is…a little bit of a whiny girl who feels that she has no control over her life…She is often described as “childlike,” sometimes even in the same sentence as she is called “the cleverest woman in Europe.” Her husband, who used to worship everything about her, seems to have begun to detest his wife almost overnight. Honestly, she reminds me of the main characters from no less than three of Jane Austen’s novels: clever, pretty, opinionated, and stubborn, with a tendency act on impulse without knowing all of the facts. She feels that she cannot go to anyone for help, because who could she trust? Instead, she does what she can to help her brother – what else can she do? Marguerite is nothing if not dramatic. She was an actress, after all.

Despite the fact that Marguerite is as irritating as all of the Jane Austen main characters rolled into one, I still prefer The Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy uses historical events and whimsy to give the reader a well-rounded experience. While Austen and the Brontes tended to be entirely drama and emotion – some situational humor and sarcasm, but no action or suspense, The Scarlet Pimpernel has action, suspense, problem-solving, sarcasm, situational humor, and just plain silliness. Added to that is a married couple learning to love each other for real – not just the schoolgirl fantasy version of each other – so I even get my romance!!! While, Austen and the Brontes tended to be entirely drama and emotion – some situational humor and sarcasm, but no action or suspense.

Do you have a favorite novel that gets overlooked? Let us know in the comments – we might have to check it out!

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