Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy

An archetypal hero, but a so-so debut
The Scarlet Pimpernel, an adventure novel by Hungarian-born British author Baroness Emma Orczy, was published in 1905. It is based on her 1903 play of the same title. The story takes place during the French Revolution. The new Republican government of France is rounding up aristocrats to lop off their heads with the guillotine. Much to the chagrin of these bloodthirsty revolutionaries, a mysterious Englishman has been rescuing those destined for the blade and spiriting them off to Britain where their heads remain firmly attached to their necks. The identity of this daring savior is unknown. He is referred to by the name of the flower he uses as his signature—the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The book kicks off to a great start with the titular hero pulling off some ingenious capers that baffle and infuriate his French antagonists. They never know where or when this master of disguise will show up to snatch potential victims from their clutches. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t maintain this high level of excitement, and drags quite a bit in the middle. Those expecting the sort of swashbuckling one finds in the movie versions will be disappointed. The Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t actually appear much in the book. He is an elusive legend, always off in the wings somewhere. We know of him mostly through references made by other characters. Though written in the third person, we experience the story primarily from the point of view of Marguerite Blakeney, the French-born wife of an English nobleman, who through plot twists better left unsaid is tasked with discovering the secret identity of the Pimpernel. By 1905 standards, Marguerite may have been a strong and independent female protagonist, but by 21st-century standards, she’s still a damsel in distress. By centering the story around her, Orczy leads the narrative into heavy melodrama. Marguerite spends much of the novel fretting over her marriage, her brother, and the whereabouts of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Of all the literature set in the French Revolution, this is the most overwhelmingly anti-Revolutionary work I’ve seen. It’s not just about saving people from the guillotine; Orczy is advocating the salvation of the very class hierarchy that spawned the conflict in the first place. She barely acknowledges the Republican cause or the concept of democracy. Orczy, an aristocrat herself, thinks France should have retained the British system where gentleman are born gentleman, servants are born servants, peasants are born peasants, and everyone keeps their place. Such feudalistic conservatism could be overlooked if the novel were fun, but it’s not quite fun enough. The identity of the Pimpernel is truly a mystery at first, but soon becomes obvious. Orczy herself reveals the secret about halfway through. The climactic confrontation between the Pimpernel and his French nemesis is far less exciting than the exploits alluded to earlier in the novel. There’s an intended surprise twist that’s painfully obvious, and the Pimpernel’s success hinges on some unbelievably stupid moves on the part of his pursuers.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a great character, but his debut novel is merely good at best. Judging from this book, I prefer the adventures of Pimpernel knockoffs like Johnston McCulley’s Zorro or Bob Kane’s Batman. Orczy wrote a whole series of sequels, and I suspect there’s probably a good story among them somewhere. If nothing else, this novel deserves to be praised for the profound influence it’s had on later generations of heroes. For that, fans of adventure fiction owe Orczy a great debt.
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