The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy (1905)

Well! What a fun old time was had here. Let me take you back to the French Revolution in 1792. The women were beautiful, the men handsome and fearless, the French were scoundrels. These are the perilous tales of one secret agent and his brave band of loyal followers rescuing the French aristocracy who are in danger of losing their heads to Madame Guillotine. Thanks to the Scarlet Pimpernel these poor unfortunates are whisked away through a series of daring escapes from Paris, via Calais and then across to Dover where they can live as free men and women in the court of King George.

This particular Audible was read by Julian Rhind-Tutt who is a fabulous British actor. To this he brought a wonderful array of voices and characterisations that was a real joy to listen to as he evoked the airs and graces of the louche and effected of Georgian England.

And so we begin in Dover at an inn which is known to be frequented by agents of the Scarlet Pimpernel. On a dark night a party arrives fresh from across the channel – some English gentlemen and a Countess and her two children, who have escaped from the clutches of the murderous Republicans in Revolutionary France. To this interesting little party we add the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney and his beautiful wife Lady Marguerite. Oh, and I forgot to mention a couple of French spies. From these beginnings we are taken on a roller coaster ride with Lady Marguerite who, we learn, is in a desperately unhappy marriage. However, she is put in a bit of a pickle and for passing on information that will lead to the unmasking of the Scarlet Pimpernel her beloved brother will be saved from almost certain death. Quelle Horreure!

Of course she is not to know the real identity of this nobleman and it is only her unsurpassed intelligence that leads her to find out the truth. From this knowledge she enlists the help of her acquaintances and so begins a potentially life changing journey to France.

I evidently have a penchant for finding swashbuckling romance stories to read. This story has it in bucketloads! I read this many many years ago and, of course, had quite forgotten what happened. What surprised me is that it is told from the perspective of Lady Blakeney. If we had known from the outset the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel (*spoiler alert* it’s not Lady B) our sympathies would have lain very much with him which, perhaps, would have given a more limited arc and storyline. However, with Marguerite at the centre of this story, we see an extraordinary character arc whereby we oscillate between like and dislike of this character as she navigates her emotions and loyalties. How marvellous.

The author – who insisted on her title of ‘Baroness’ being used for her publications – perhaps drew on her own aristocratic upbringing and brought a delightful amount of detail to the description of the clothes and fashions as well as the sumptuous houses and rooms. I wonder if Georgette Heyer read, or maybe was even, inspired by these novels. Although Heyer’s research transcended many authors in the 20th Century and her knowledge was perhaps only second to those who actually lived during the Regency years!

What we do know is that Orczy set the bar for swashbuckling heroes and it won’t be a surprise to learn how this has influenced the likes of numerous characters that followed in the wake of her publication. The Batman creators – Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Ian Fleming (James Bond) and Russel Thorndike (author of the Dr Syn stories) have all created characters who present a different persona by day to the crime fighting alter-ego that always wins the day. Knowing that ‘Batman’s’ origins can be found in the Regency era is quite pleasing.

Further to my previous post we are back to female written historical adventure/romance, which further supports my thoughts that few men were writing historical fiction in the early part of the 20th Century – although do remember that I’m quite niche with my reading so there’s probably swathes of authors out there who all dabble in the Regency. However, an article about Heyer does identify some of her favourite contemporary novelists writing in this genre and there are several (unknown to me) male authors, so I may have to look into their work (2021).

In any case I thoroughly enjoyed this story and hearing about the cunning ways in which the Scarlet Pimpernel was able to travel through France without detection. The Baroness certainly had a flair for adventure.

Photo by Miriam Fischer on Pexels.com

Zille, Tom. “Georgette Heyer and the Language of the Historical Novel.” Georgette Heyer, History and Historical Fiction, edited by Samantha J. Rayner and Kim Wilkins, UCL Press, 2021, pp. 187–212. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv15d818n.16. Accessed 20 Jun. 2022.

6 thoughts on “The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy (1905)

    1. Thank you Dave! It’s a tremendous story I have to say – such a lot of fun! And yes, I was quite surprised when I found out that the Scarlet Pimpernel was leading the way in this alter-ego genre. I think I read a quote by Stan Lee who had enjoyed these books as a boy, so the superheroes really do owe a lot to the Baroness and her creation!

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