The Scarlet Pimpernel – Book Review
The Scarlet Pimpernel, written by Baroness Emma Orczy and published in 1905, was based on a popular play also written by the Baroness first performed in 1903. The novel itself was hugely popular and the covert operations of its hero were the prototype for many subsequent espionage novels.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was also a prototype for superheroes like Batman, in that Sir Percy Blakeney leads a double life: first as a foppish and effete member of the upper-class and second as the heroic but anonymous Scarlet Pimpernel.
The Scarlet Pimpernel: Title
The title uses a classic title archetype, the Problem: everyone wants to know who the Scarlet Pimpernel is. Sir Percy sums this up in his classic verse about the Scarlet Pimpernel:
We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
The Scarlet Pimpernel: Logline
During the French Revolution, a French diplomat blackmails an expatriate Frenchwoman into discovering who the anonymous hero rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine is. Shocked by the discovery of the true identity of the hero she has betrayed, she attempts to save him from the French trap.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
The Scarlet Pimpernel: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1792, during the terror of the French revolution and the revolutionaries are guillotining aristocrats by the dozen.
Each evening, the mob gather at the gates of Paris as aristocrats try to escape, under the noses of the guards. The guards, and the mob, take great delight in dragging the aristocrats from their hiding places.
Rumours are rife that a mysterious Englishman, hiding behind the pseudonym ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, is helping aristos escape from Paris into exile in Britain. Fanciful tales of his exploits have left the guards determined not to be fooled again. However, when a cart driven by a notorious tricoteuse (woman who watches executions) pulls up and she says her son has smallpox, the guards wave her through. Soon after, a captain of the guard arrives. He tells the guards that the tricoteuse was in fact the Scarlet Pimpernel. They’ve just let him escape with a cart full of aristos.
Who is the Pimpernel?
In England, two members of the ‘League of the Scarlet Pimpernel’ stop at an inn. They’re escorting the group of French aristocrats that the Scarlet Pimpernel rescued. At the inn, they’re joined by Sir Percy Blakeney, the richest and most fashionable man in England, but also, reputably, the stupidest. With Sir Percy is his wife, Lady Blakeney, formerly Marguerite St. Just of the Comédie Française, who, besides her beauty, is famously the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’.
Before her marriage to Sir Percy, Marguerite had inadvertently been responsible for the arrest of a French aristocrat, the Marquis de St. Cyr, who was sent to the guillotine. On their wedding day, Marguerite confessed her part in the Marquis’s death to Sir Percy, to his horror and incomprehension. Ever since, he has kept her at a distance, treating her with polite detachment. Heartbroken, but too proud to explain herself, Marguerite has taken to needling her amiable but dim-witted husband.
Also in the inn is a French diplomat, Citizen Chauvelin, who the French have sent to unmask the Scarlet Pimpernel. Chauvelin asks Marguerite for her help, suggesting that she has access to English upper-class society and appealing to her patriotism, but she refuses. Chauvelin then blackmails her, saying he can prove her brother is aiding the Scarlet Pimpernel. To save her brother, Marguerite agrees to discover the Pimpernel’s identity.
Surely it can’t be…
Marguerite and Sir Percy attend a ball given by the Prince of Wales. There, Marguerite discovers that the Scarlet Pimpernel will be in the dining room at midnight before leaving for France the next day. She passes this information on to Chauvelin, who goes to the dining room. However, he finds no-one except Sir Percy, who’s asleep in an alcove. Later that night, Marguerite finally tells Sir Percy that her brother’s life is in danger. He says he will do what he can to save him.
In the morning, Sir Percy suddenly leaves home. This makes Marguerite suspicious, as he was in the dining room at midnight and has left for France – two things the Pimpernel said they were going to do. She searches his private study and discovers a ring engraved with a Scarlet Pimpernel. Suddenly all is clear to her: [blackout]Sir Percy is the Pimpernel, and he has only adopted his foppish persona to keep his anonymity. He has been distant, not because he doesn’t love her, but because he doesn’t trust her.[/blackout]
Of course, this also means [blackout]she has unwittingly betrayed her own husband to Chauvelin[blackout].
Desperate to atone, she also leaves for France to warn the Pimpernel that Chauvelin has set a trap for him. When he attempts to rescue her brother, Chauvelin will arrest him and have him sent to the guillotine.
Marguerite arrives in Calais and [blackout]goes to the meeting place of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, where she hides in the attic. Chauvelin arrives, and then Sir Percy, who escapes Chauvelin after offering him pepper disguised as snuff.[/blackout]
Chauvelin [blackout]knows the aristos are hiding in a hut on the coast, ready to be taken to Britain by the Scarlet Pimpernel. However, he doesn’t know exactly where the hut is. So, he hires a ‘dirty and cowardly Jew’ who knows the hut’s location to take him there. Marguerite follows. At the hut, Chauvelin discovers Marguerite’s brother and other aristos are inside. He stakes out the hut, but the Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t appear. The aristos leave without interference, as Chauvelin gave rigid orders to his soldiers not to reveal themselves until the Pimpernel appears.[/blackout]
Chauvelin [blackout]finds a letter in the now empty hut suggesting the Scarlet Pimpernel is returning to Calais. He rushes off, leaving Marguerite alone with the Jew. Once Chauvelin leaves, the Jew pulls off his disguise, revealing himself to Marguerite as Sir Percy.[/blackout]
With [blackout]Marguerite’s trustworthiness proven by her desperate attempt to warn him, Sir Percy can allow himself to admit his love. The couple reconcile and return to England together.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
The Scarlet Pimpernel: Analysis
The Scarlet Pimpernel has a ‘mission’ plot (see Spy Novel Plots) with mystery elements.
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
Is the Scarlet Pimpernel a spy novel?
Baroness Orczy wrote the Scarlet Pimpernel shortly after the first generally acknowledged spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands. What it really shows is the continuity between the adventure novel and the espionage novel, as it has many of the characteristics of both:
- Covert operations
- ‘Rogue’ operators acting outside the law
- Simple motives (the Pimpernel rescues aristos ‘for sport’)
- Intrigue, close shaves and miraculous escapes
- Disguises and secret identities
- Treachery and double crossing
- Evil foreigners and their nefarious schemes
- Brutal antagonists outwitted by resourceful protagonists
- A romantic subplot
The Pimpernel is a secret agent rather than a spy. But Marguerite literally calls herself a spy. In response, Chauvelin, the agent running her, delivers the classic phrase, ‘spying is an ugly word’. Despite this, he treats Marguerite in the way a handler treats a spy, first attempting to appeal to her patriotism, then blackmailing her and finally threatening her in order to force her to take monumental risks to deliver the information he needs (the identity of the enemy agent).
Another espionage theme is that the Pimpernel is running what they would later call an escape line. In fact, in real life, people who have helped others escape persecution get called ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of…’
The Protagonist of The Scarlet Pimpernel is not the Scarlet Pimpernel, it’s Marguerite.
Chauvelin forces her mission on her and, after being blackmailed by Chauvelin into discovering the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, she investigates him, and betrays him to save her brother.
But, when she realises she has [blackout]betrayed her own husband[/blackout], she switches sides, rallies the Pimpernel’s friends to save him and races after him to warn him of his impending doom. Although she has no plan other than to warn him he’s heading into a trap and perhaps share his fate, she doesn’t give up as the stakes get higher and higher.
However, despite being reputedly the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’, Marguerite doesn’t actually do anything clever in the novel, except perhaps discover who the Pimpernel is, which is something it turns out she’s uniquely qualified to do, [blackout]being married to him[/blackout].
In the end, her presence just makes the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mission more difficult for him. She doesn’t actually manage to warn him about the trap and he escapes because, first, he’s a master of disguise, and, second, through a thin plot-contrivance: Chauvelin leaves Marguerite and an unrecognised Pimpernel on the cliff top for no good reason, enabling them to escape.
One thing that kinda bugged me about The Scarlet Pimpernel is its childish politics. It seems like Baroness Orczy doesn’t like the French Revolution, not because it’s right or wrong, but because it’s icky.
In the novel, anyone who supports the French Revolution is stupid, or evil, and all the revolutionaries are dirty, crude monsters. Meanwhile, all the aristos are refined, charming and polite.
And, apparently, that’s all you need to know: clean is good and dirty is bad.
The Baroness certainly doesn’t ask why the peasants are poor and dirty and uneducated while the aristos are spotless and sophisticated. She was, after all, an aristo herself…
I can’t help comparing The Scarlet Pimpernel with A Tale of Two Cities, which at least understands what’s driven the peasants to revolution, even if it agrees that the terror has gone too far.
You know, nobody really swashes any buckles in The Scarlet Pimpernel. There’s not a single sword-fight, or actually any fights of any sort. There aren’t even many witty one-liners. Really, in the end, it’s as much a romance as a spy thriller.
The Scarlet Pimpernel: My Verdict
The hero who launched a thousand copycats. Worth reading for its influence alone. A classic.
The Scarlet Pimpernel: The Sequels
Baroness Orczy wrote ten other Pimpernel novels, two collections of short stories and three related books.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel
- Sir Percy Leads the Band
- I Will Repay
- The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel
- Lord Tony’s Wife
- The Elusive Pimpernel
- Mam’zelle Guillotine
- Sir Percy Hits Back
- The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel
- A Child of the Revolution
The novels often feature historical characters, such as the Baron de Batz, Robespierre and Chauvelin. Many of them only feature the Pimpernel peripherally, usually arriving to save the day after the main character has fallen foul of the French mob.
The Scarlet Pimpernel: The Movies
Movie studios have filmed The Scarlet Pimpernel dozens of times, but curiously, Eldorado, one of the sequel novels, supplies the plot for most of the movies.
One of the best movie versions is the one from the 1980s staring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. The story varies significantly from the novel, but is faithful to its spirit, focussing on the romance between Sir Percy and Marguerite.
Want to read it?
The Scarlet Pimpernel is available for free on the Gutenberg Project here.
The Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour movie version is available on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.
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