Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.
Back in 1982, a TV-movie version of The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan aired in the US. My high school BFF and I were completely enthralled, particularly by Anthony Andrews. Honestly, I still am today. After watching clips of it on YouTube, I believe it has withstood the test of time. For me, Anthony Andrews’ Percy Blakeney/Scarlet Pimpernel is the definitive one. Reading the novel, finally, some 32 years later, I was both entertained and surprised. As usual, novel and movie don’t exactly match up, and I have to say that this is one of those rare occasions where the movie is better than the book.
The story of The Scarlet Pimpernel should sound familiar. He is a masked man who plays the foppish, obscenely rich fool by day, and the cunning, daring hero by night. Before Bruce Wayne and Batman, there was Percy Blakeney, Baronet, and his alter ego The Scarlet Pimpernel. And Baroness Orczy wrote this in 1905, before there even was a Batman, so nyah!! Anyway, the year is 1792 and the Terror is in full swing in Paris. In case you have forgotten your history, this is when the French Revolution took a turn for the bloody, with royals, aristos and clergy being put to death by guillotine. In England, as in other countries where kings and queens reigned, the terror caused much anguish and fear, particularly among the nobility. The Scarlet Pimpernel and his band of followers, some 20 men, all members of the English nobility acting covertly, cross the channel on a regular basis to stage bold and daring rescues of imprisoned aristocrats, bringing them safe and sound to England. The Pimpernel and his men are anonymous heroes in London but are, of course, loathed by the Committee of Public Safety in Paris. It is their goal to capture and execute the Scarlet Pimpernel, and to this end, they send their agent Chauvelin to London as an envoy of the French government.
Once in England, Chauvelin blackmails French ex-patriate Marguerite St. Just Blakeney into helping him. Marguerite had been an actress and hostess of a celebrated salon in Paris in the early days of the revolution. She was known all across Europe for her intelligence and wit. Marguerite and her husband Percy are now the leaders of London high society; they are close to the Prince of Wales, they set the fashion trends, and everyone watches their every move with fascination and admiration. They’re like Beyonce and Jay Z. The thing is, Marguerite and Percy’s once passionate love for each other has cooled. Marguerite, unaware of her husband’s secret identity, thinks Percy is an idiot and has lost respect for him. Percy, aware of a terrible secret in his wife’s past, is too prideful and cautious to let her too close. Chauvelin, that dastardly villain, maneuvers the pieces of his plot into place while Marguerite hates herself for helping him and slowly comes to see the truth of what she has done. The story really does get quite exciting as Marguerite tries to undo the damage and save innocent lives.
One of the things I liked about the novel is that it is told from Marguerite’s perspective. While she is beautiful and intelligent, and she seems to have a conscience and good intentions, she also screws up. In the TV version, the secret from her past involved further blackmail by Chauvelin — it was his malevolence that led to an injustice. In the novel, Marguerite’s pride and stupidity are to blame for what happens and she has to own it. Also, Marguerite becomes a leader in trying to fix the mess she has helped create, putting her celebrated wit and intelligence to good use.
The problem I have with the novel is lack of development. Orczy could have and should have fleshed out the story more. Instead of developing her main characters and their history, the reader is simply told important plot points as matters of fact. For example, we are told repeatedly of Marguerite’s reputation for wit, about how deeply she and Percy once loved each other, about her very close relationship with her brother, but none of the background for this, none of the evidence, is provided. I also wanted more Percy! I wanted more of him acting the fop in public, like this scene from the TV movie that is not in the book. And I wanted more information on the daring rescues. Again, we get it in the movie, but I would’ve expected a novelist to have a field day making up stuff about his incredible rescues.
The Scarlet Pimpernel would make for a really fun graphic novel. And according to the annotated version that I read, Marguerite and Percy were named as 18th-century members of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The annotated version also claims that Raoul Wallenberg, who courageously saved thousands of Jews in Hungary before disappearing at the end of WWII (and most likely dying in a Soviet Gulag), was a fan and perhaps was inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s a fun book, and I’m glad I read it, but watch the movie, too.