The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Adventure novel of derring-do in Revolutionary France.
Highly reminiscent of The Lady in the Lake, Orczy gets things off with a bang. Two pages in and the milieu is set: A teeming bloodthirsty mass against the lone, hidden hero.
The novel opens in Paris during the Reign of Terror. The Republicans are busily killing off every aristocrat they can get their hand on. The nobility for their part are doing whatever they can to get the hell out of France. A mysterious Englishman is spiriting blue bloods away even as they are on their way to the guillotine. He leaves notes to mark his triumphs and they are marked by a small, red flower known to the English as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Every citoyen of France is out to capture the Pimpernel and anyone who assists him.
I was surprised by how romantic this book is. It follows not the Pimpernel himself, whose identity is revealed about halfway through, but Marguerite St. Just, Lady Blakeney. She is a Frenchwoman married to an English nobleman, Sir Percy Blakeney. Sir Percy is widely acknowledged to be the most fashionable man in England and one of the stupidest. Because the plot is related through Marguerite’s experience it depicts her emotional journey rather than depicting relentless action.
Marguerite is blackmailed by agents of the French Revolutionary government. They have discovered that her brother is helping the Pimpernel. If she does not help them identify the man himself they will kill her brother. Marguerite discovers the identity of the hero and to her horror learns that she has betrayed her own husband. Percy has hidden in plain sight, acting the fop and the dullard when he is in truth a clever, daring hero. Aghast at her own perfidy, Marguerite races the French agent Chauvelin to the coast of France. She hopes to warn Percy of Chauvelin’s pursuit. At the very least, she is determined to prove her affection and dedication by dying with Percy if he is apprehended.
Marguerite’s journey is characterized by her initial guilt and the resultant determination to redeem her unwitting betrayal at any cost. It’s odd that she spends the first several chapters deriding her husband and then suddenly is utterly devoted to him. Marguerite fantasizes about the Pimpernel and what it would be like to love and be loved by such a man as she imagines him to be. When she discovers that her husband is the man she has been dreaming she doesn’t discard the fantasy. She effectively actualizes her adoration for the symbol to the man behind it. It’s not realistic but it does make sense in the context of the book.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was much more exciting than I thought it would be. I can see why it was an instant hit in 1905 and how the Pimpernel entered the pantheon of literary heroes so quickly.