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The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

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11 янв. 2018 г.


Designed to appeal to the book lover, the Macmillan Collector’s Library is a series of beautiful gift editions of much loved classic titles. Macmillan Collector’s Library are books to love and treasure.

The French Revolution is in full swing and the aristocracy are being sent to the guillotine in their hundreds. In the shadows, English dandy Sir Peter Blakeney – working under his alter ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel – is breaking the condemned out of prison and leaving his distinctive calling card, a picture of a red flower, to torment the French authorities. A master of disguise, infamous escape artist and flamboyant swordsman, his identity is such a closely guarded secret that even his wife is in the dark. But, with enemy agents on close his tail, his failure to trust her might be his undoing.

The very first hero with a secret identity, the Scarlet Pimpernel is a worthy precursor to Zorro and Batman. His daring antics (and undeniable flair) are just as delightful today as they were a century ago.

11 янв. 2018 г.

Об авторе

Baroness Orczy (1865–1947) was a Hungarian-born British author, best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel novels. Her Teahouse Detective, who features in Unravelled Knots, was one of the first fictional sleuths created in response to the Sherlock Holmes stories' huge success. Initially serialised in magazines, the stories in this collection were first published in book form in 1908 and have since been adapted for radio, television and film. Two other collections of Teahouse Detective mysteries are available from Pushkin Vertigo.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy




When the Bastille was taken in July 1789, the Whig politician Charles James Fox exclaimed, ‘How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the history of the world, and how much the best!’ The Times, on the other hand, forecast disaster: ‘Liberty, which has for some time past been the favourite hope of the French people, is a blessing of too solid a nature for the meagre understanding of that people [. . .] Licentiousness will beget anarchy’. A great debate had already begun, on the basis of insufficient information. History was being made at breakneck speed, too fast for analysis. Fictions flourished. In August, the proprietor of Astley’s Amphitheatre in London staged the Revolution as a giant pageant called PARIS IN AN UPROAR (nightly at half-past six). When rival shows opened, with even more brilliant special effects, Mr Astley placed an advertisement pointing out to the public that if they cared for accuracy they should stick to his show, for there had been positively no fireworks at the fall of the Bastille.

The recasting of the Revolution into fiction began, then, scarcely a month after the first mass action. In England – and I mean England, not the British Isles – the fictional tradition has been a reactionary one. French Revolutionaries of all complexions have been vilified as crazed blood-drinkers, while a thousand bejewelled gallants and a thousand tear-streaked ladies with High Hair have had their way with our sympathies. It may be that the English misunderstand the Revolution on purpose. At the time of the Terror, they did not care to be reminded that it was they who had set the fashion for decapitating kings.

George Orwell blamed Charles Dickens: as well he might. In A Tale of Two Cities, Orwell said,

he gives the impression of a frenzied massacre lasting for years, whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared to one of Napoleon’s battles [. . .] To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads.

We have a problem with the scale. We have a problem with the chronology. Baroness Orczy, with her hugely popular Scarlet Pimpernel stories, made a heroic contribution to both problems. Who was she? Had she a Christian name, or did she always insist on ‘Baroness’?

Her family called her Emmuska; she was born in 1865, on the Hungarian estate which had been in her family for generations. The Hungarian aristocracy then, she claimed, preserved itself in a feudal isolation from the modern world. Two ancient Transylvanian aunts, when travelling to Budapest, would refuse to take the eighteen-hour train journey and preferred to travel in a carriage-and-six, with postilions and relays. It took them five days. The approach to the twentieth century was reluctant indeed. When the first motor cars appeared in the cathedral square in which they lived, the aunts simply drew the blinds and shut them out.

Emmuska grew up in a house with thirty-six guestrooms, and its own gymnasium and swimming baths. It was a house built for lavish hospitality: ‘early peaches and nectarines and pomegranates swimming in maraschino [. . .] And the gypsy band played unceasingly’. Her father, Felix, was not really a farmer. He was a musician and a friend of Liszt, who is said to have described him as the most talented amateur in Europe. Perhaps it was because his heart was not in estate management that one day his peasants revolted. They razed his steam-mill, an innovation they found worrying; and generally indulged in what the Press calls ‘an orgy of destruction’. The family left for Budapest, and never came back.

In Budapest, Felix took up a court appointment in the National Theatre. He was a temperamental man, and there was a good deal of cliquish infighting. The family stayed for three years, then became peripatetic. Emmuska and her sister were deposited in a Brussels convent, where her sister died. There was a spell in a Paris convent; then, when Emmuska was fifteen, her parents decided to settle in London for a while. England at last – ‘my real, my spiritual birthplace’.

Exactly why the Baroness felt her soul was English is difficult to work out from her autobiography, Links in The Chain of Life. She is also reticent about her long and seemingly happy marriage to Montagu Barstow, an artist and illustrator. But she is very clear about the moment her career as a writer began. An acquaintance ‘from the wilds of Derbyshire’, a young woman of a family ‘who know nothing of life, and never have spoken to anyone who might have taught them something’, succeeded in getting a short story accepted for publication. The Baroness swung into action.

Here I am who have known so many brilliantly clever people, who have travelled and seen and appreciated so many marvels of this wide, wide world, who have studied art and music, history and drama, why shouldn’t I try to write something, I would like to know.

Her first book sold only ninety copies, but she did not falter. She wrote detective stories, at £60 for six, but wanted to do ‘something big’. One of her early books brought in scores of letters from Scottish readers, who were angered by her careless description of their legal system. ‘I never again embarked on a statement of facts before feeling satisfied that I knew – yes, knew, what I was writing about.’ This is an astonishing claim. Can she have believed it? A little hitch about the duties of the procurator fiscal is as nothing compared to the knots she would tie herself into when she came to write about the French Revolution. To put it kindly: the Baroness’s fiction demonstrates the workings of the uninformed imagination. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a romantic adventure story; or a romance with swashbuckling interludes. One should not be too serious about it, perhaps, one should not take it to task for inaccuracy. And yet it surprises . . . It is, at some levels, a book less ignorable and more unpleasant than one had thought.

Baroness Orczy first saw Sir Percy Blakeney – the Scarlet Pimpernel himself – on the London Underground, at Temple station. He was no flesh-and-blood Londoner, no lawyer or lawyer’s clerk; he was a construct of her strong visual sense, which she reckoned was all that remained of a disappointing early career as an artist. She could see, but not realize on canvas; she could realize on the page. Her hero stood before her, three-dimensional:

I saw him in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands holding up his spy-glass: I heard his lazy drawling speech, his quaint laugh [. . .] it was the whole life-story of the Scarlet Pimpernel that was there and then revealed to me.

She began writing next day, and five weeks later had completed the novel that would transform her life and make her fortune. Success was not instant, though. She tried to market Sir Percy’s deeds both as a book and a play. The play had its premiere at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham in 1903, and in a modified form enjoyed a run of two thousand London performances, adored by audiences and reviled by critics. The novel was turned down by twelve London publishers, and eventually published in 1905 by a small firm called Greening & Co., on the advice of an ancient lady living in Cornwall: she was the proprietor’s mother, employed by him (no doubt unpaid) as an arbiter of taste.

Whatever the Baroness wrote afterwards, she would always be ‘author of The Scarlet Pimpernel’. Not that she tried too hard to evade Sir Percy. There were ten Scarlet Pimpernel novels, and two volumes of short stories. Alexander Korda’s film (1934) made her hero a household name. (Charles Laughton was the original choice for the part; after the news leaked, and ‘film fans’ protested, Leslie Howard was cast.) In 1932, she produced a novel called A Child of the Revolution, ‘one of the most interesting pieces of work I ever set myself to do’, which was an attempt to see those years from ‘the point of view of the many intellectuals who felt that nothing short of a complete overthrow of every one of her timeworn traditions would make France, great once more, able to take her place among the cultured and progressive nations of the world’. It would be interesting to know which intellectuals the Baroness studied, in her attempt at reversing her sympathies; Condorcet, one would think, rather than Dr Marat. She obviously didn’t convince herself of the merits of the revolutionary case, because soon it was business as usual with The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Sir Percy Leads the Band.

Emmuska’s Revolution, like that of Marie Antoinette, was a monolith. The unlucky queen could not distinguish between revolutionaries. They were all one to her, and all traitors: even those even-tempered gentlemen who only sought to limit her expenditure and bring in a mild copy of the English constitution. For Emmuska too, the Revolution was a matter of Aristocrats v. The Rest. The Scarlet Pimpernel opens in the month of September 1792, at a point where ‘during the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work’. A hundred heads had fallen that day, we are told, and a hundred would fall next day. Alas for the Baroness and her superheated sympathy: there were only seventy-two executions that month. To say this is not to exonerate, merely to state a fact.

The monarchy had fallen in August. September saw one of the bloodiest episodes of the Revolution in Paris; some three thousand people died when mobs broke into the prisons and massacred the inhabitants, including many women and children. It was an atrocity which Baroness Orczy describes as the culmination of the ‘Reign of Terror’; in fact, it preceded it. The early pages of The Scarlet Pimpernel depict ‘A surging, seething, murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name [. . .] savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate’. The aristocrats are trying to flee Paris, to escape the teeth of these animals and ‘to evade the clutches of the Committee of Public Safety’ – not a matter of great difficulty, one would think, since at the date in question the Committee of Public Safety did not exist.

Thirty minutes with a chronology of the Revolution, and Emmuska’s inner world might have melted away. Somehow, though, you doubt she’d have let facts get in the way of her engagement with Sir Percy Blakeney, the tall, handsome man about town who affects a foppish disregard of current affairs, whose limp epigrams amuse the Prince of Wales: Sir Percy, the richest man in England, and the laziest. Only his devoted band of nineteen followers know that he is in fact the man who – by way of almost superhuman cunning – whisks aristocrats from under the nose of the executioner. Even Sir Percy’s wife hasn’t fathomed his alias. Although she is described as ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’, she is remarkably slow on the uptake.

Sir Percy’s bride is a French actress, Marguerite St Just. They are desperately in love with each other, but they have been driven apart by a misunderstanding about Margot’s past. She was a republican, and now regrets it; but did she denounce a noble family to revenge a personal slight? Margot has a brother back in Paris – another republican who is now repentant. The Pimpernel has to rescue him, along with the father of his wife’s old schoolfriend.

It is time to stop and ask: why was Baroness Orczy so monstrously successful as an author? One can see some reasons. The plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel is weak; it depends on people who are said to be clever and quick-witted doing stupid things very slowly, and dropping messages saying, ‘I will be in the supper-room at one o’clock precisely’. And yet, the characters have the vast, crude, overwhelming emotions that are demanded by popular fiction. We do not have to get anxious about them because we know they are not real; they don’t wear clothes, but ‘the picturesque costume of the period’. (The Baroness, who wrote so vividly of her own early ballgowns, is unreliable about 1790s fashions.) The story trit-trots along, sometimes canters, sometimes gallops; and there is no unnecessary idealization of the young men who follow the Pimpernel. ‘Hair-breadth escapes . . . the devil’s own risks!—Tally-ho!—and away we go!’

The source of her power does lie, as she herself believed, with the vivid, cinematographic quality of her writing. Imagine Marguerite in a box at the opera, attending to Glück while the evil Chauvelin hisses threats in her ear; Marguerite crouching in the loft of an inn near Calais, peeping from behind a ragged blue and white gingham curtain at the cutlery and napkin laid for the approaching Pimpernel; the schooner Day Dream lying at anchor under the moon, her sails white against a silver sea. The shots are perfectly framed for us, and it hardly matters that the pictures are cast into language which is ordinary in itself, though not ungraceful in rhythm. This writer is a dramatist by instinct, driving the story forward scene by scene, always striking an effective balance between dialogue and narrative.

Then again, it is the power of the stereotype that pulls an audience in her wake. All authors who meet their public know that certain questions are asked again and again, and the Baroness’s favourite question was: ‘how comes it that you, a pure-blooded Hungarian [. . .] have such a wonderful understanding of the British character and have created such a perfect representation of an English gentleman?’ For Sir Percy embodies a dream of grace under pressure, of daring nonchalance, of stainless honour. He runs into danger for the love of the thing, not because he must. He tests himself to the limits, and passes every time.

A more subtle, underground stereotyping might be traced when it comes to the Pimpernel’s arch-enemy, Chauvelin, described as ‘the accredited agent of the French government’. There was a real-life Chauvelin, a marquis who became Master of the King’s Wardrobe in 1789, when he was twenty-three years old. When the king’s wardrobe ceased to be of the slightest importance, Chauvelin served in the army, then went to London as ambassador in 1792; perhaps it was thought that the English would find his pedigree reassuring. His mission was to keep England neutral in the approaching hostilities. After the execution of King Louis – ‘Louis the Last’, as the Jacobins called him optimistically – Chauvelin was expelled from England. He was imprisoned under the Terror, and released after the fall of Robespierre.

Baroness Orczy’s Chauvelin is a man in middle age, described as ‘foxy’, and ‘fox-like’: described as such, again and again, so that the reader begins to whimper and groan, ‘Vulpine, Baroness, give me vulpine!’ He is sneaky and low and packed with menace, sharp of feature and small of stature: one can’t help but wonder whether the Baroness was reproducing the popular idea of Robespierre, playing on the images that had been implanted so easily after the leader’s death. Did the nuns use him as an awful warning, did young Emmuska tremble when she imagined she heard the Incorruptible’s light tread? One virtue she does grant Chauvelin; he is sincere.

There is another, nastier stereotyping which the modern reader may find it hard to forgive, and it would be hypocritical to write this introduction without drawing attention to it. Sir Percy is, of course, a master of disguise. The disguise in which his daring rescue is managed here is that of an elderly Jew of ‘peculiarly dirty and loathsome appearance [. . .] with the peculiar shuffling gait which has remained the characteristic of the Jew trader in continental Europe to this day’. (One could just about stomach the plot device, were it not for the Baroness’s own throwaway comments.) Baroness Orczy’s premise is that no Frenchman of that era (or her own) would willingly stand near a Jew, so the disguise is unlikely to be scrutinized too closely. Dirty, abject, cringing . . . the adjectives heap themselves up. No doubt she is right about the extent of prejudice in the ordinary Frenchman, though it is worth noting that all Jews on French soil were granted civil equality in 1791. The legislators were ahead of the populace, but they were marching them towards the side of the light. And no doubt she is right about the extent of prejudice in her own era; even the Baroness will have known about the Dreyfus case. But her approach is repellent; there is no other word. It is possible to take a robust attitude in these matters – if you are not Jewish – and to suggest that old writing must be seen in its context, that it is educational to hear the uncensored voice of an age. Each reader must make up his or her mind. I would argue against bowdlerization; I wouldn’t, either, give The Scarlet Pimpernel to a child.

But who else is it fit for? A rattling yarn with romantic longueurs, a romance with fisticuffs, a hero handsome, rich and brave, a ‘childlike’ heroine of winsome appeal, a French baddy who inhales pepper which he believes is snuff . . . it’s not for grown-ups, not really. And yet the impulses behind it are carefully calculated, those of a real crowd-pleaser, a woman who knew her trade and learned it early. Like Sir Percy, the Baroness is ‘demned elusive’. One is condemned to track her through her whimsicalities, without knowing whether they are of the least importance.

A case in point: why did she give Sir Percy’s wife the maiden name of St Just and a brother called Armand, a ‘moderate’ republican? Why choose a name so close to that of Antoine Saint-Just, the icy robespierriste who was so devoted to the mechanism of Terror, and who went to the guillotine with unflinching hauteur? What did Baroness Orczy know about the real Saint-Just, or think she knew? She often described the Revolution as run by ‘Utopians’, and Saint-Just was certainly one of those; despite his politics, she perhaps admired him more than the exhausted pragmatists in the airless back rooms, those contingency-battered souls who ground the Revolution forward from day to day. Perhaps she admired the manner of his death. Perhaps she had seen his portrait – Saint-Just was impeccably handsome. Perhaps she just liked the name, and thought the rest didn’t matter. It’s a mystery. So let the Baroness sign off:

‘Ah! Monsieur,’ sighed the Comtesse, ‘it all sounds like a romance, and I cannot understand it at all.’

‘Why should you try, madame?’


Paris: September, 1792

A surging, seething, murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant raised an undying monument to the nation’s glory and his own vanity.

During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity. The carnage had only ceased at this late hour of the day because there were other more interesting sights for the people to witness, a little while before the final closing of the barricades for the night.

And so the crowd rushed away from the Place de la Grève and made for the various barricades in order to watch this interesting and amusing sight.

It was to be seen every day, for those aristos were such fools! They were traitors to the people, of course, all of them, men, women, and children who happened to be descendants of the great men who since the Crusades had made the glory of France: her old noblesse. Their ancestors had oppressed the people, had crushed them under the scarlet heels of their dainty buckled shoes, and now the people had become the rulers of France and crushed their former masters—not beneath their heel, for they went shoeless mostly in these days—but beneath a more effectual weight, the knife of the guillotine.

And daily, hourly, the hideous instrument of torture claimed its many victims—old men, young women, tiny children, even until the day when it would finally demand the head of a King and of a beautiful young Queen.

But this was as it should be: were not the people now the rulers of France? Every aristocrat was a traitor, as his ancestors had been before him: for two hundred years now the people had sweated, and toiled and starved, to keep a lustful court in lavish extravagance; now the descendants of those who had helped to make those courts brilliant had to hide for their lives—to fly, if they wished to avoid the tardy vengeance of the people.

And they did try to hide, and tried to fly: that was just the fun of the whole thing. Every afternoon before the gates closed and the market carts went out in procession by the various barricades, some fool of an aristo endeavoured to evade the clutches of the Committee of Public Safety. In various disguises, under various pretexts, they tried to slip through the barriers which were so well guarded by citizen soldiers of the Republic. Men in women’s clothes, women in male attire, children disguised in beggars’ rags: there were some of all sorts: ci-devant counts, marquises, even dukes, who wanted to fly from France, reach England, or some other equally accursed country, and there try to rouse foreign feeling against the glorious Revolution, or to raise an army in order to liberate the wretched prisoners in the Temple, who had once called themselves sovereigns of France.

But they were nearly always caught at the barricades. Sergeant Bibot especially at the West Gate had a wonderful nose for scenting an aristo in the most perfect disguise. Then, of course, the fun began. Bibot would look at his prey as a cat looks upon the mouse, play with him, sometimes for quite a quarter of an hour, pretend to be hoodwinked by the disguise, by the wigs and other bits of theatrical make-up which hid the identity of a ci-devant noble marquise or count.

Oh! Bibot had a keen sense of humour, and it was well worth hanging round that West Barricade, in order to see him catch an aristo in the very act of trying to flee from the vengeance of the people.

Sometimes Bibot would let his prey actually out by the gates, allowing him to think for the space of two minutes at least that he really had escaped out of Paris, and might even manage to reach the coast of England in safety: but Bibot would let the unfortunate wretch walk about ten mètres towards the open country, then he would send two men after him and bring him back stripped of his disguise.

Oh! that was extremely funny, for as often as not the fugitive would prove to be a woman, some proud marchioness, who looked terribly comical when she found herself in Bibot’s clutches after all, and knew that a summary trial would await her the next day, and after that the fond embrace of Madame la Guillotine.

No wonder that on this fine afternoon in September the crowd round Bibot’s gate was eager and excited. The lust of blood grows with its satisfaction, there is no satiety: the crowd had seen a hundred noble heads fall beneath the guillotine to-day, it wanted to make sure that it would see another hundred fall on the morrow.

Bibot was sitting on an overturned and empty cask close by the gate of the barricade; a small detachment of citoyen soldiers were under his command. The work had been very hot lately. Those cursed aristos were becoming terrified and tried their hardest to slip out of Paris: men, women and children, whose ancestors, even in remote ages, had served those traitorous Bourbons, were all traitors themselves and right food for the guillotine. Every day Bibot had had the satisfaction of unmasking some fugitive royalists and sending them back to be tried by the Committee of Public Safety, presided over by that good patriot, Citoyen Foucquier-Tinville.

Robespierre and Danton both had commended Bibot for his zeal, and Bibot was proud of the fact that he on his own initiative had sent at least fifty aristos to the guillotine.

But to-day all the sergeants in command at the various barricades had had special orders. Recently a very great number of aristos had succeeded in escaping out of France and reaching England in safety. There were curious rumours about these escapes; they had become very frequent and singularly daring; the people’s minds were coming strangely excited about it all. Sergeant Grospierre had been sent to the guillotine for allowing a whole family of aristos to slip out of the North Gate under his very nose.

It was asserted that these escapes were organized by a band of Englishmen, whose daring seemed to be unparalleled and who, from sheer desire to meddle in what did not concern them, spent their spare time in snatching away lawful victims destined for Madame la Guillotine. These rumours soon grew in extravagance; there was no doubt that this band of meddlesome Englishmen did exist; moreover, they seemed to be under the leadership of a man whose pluck and audacity were almost fabulous. Strange stories were afloat of how he and those aristos whom he rescued became suddenly invisible as they reached the barricades, and escaped out of the gates by sheer supernatural agency.

No one had seen these mysterious Englishmen; as for their leader, he was never spoken of, save with a superstitious shudder. Citoyen Foucquier Tinville would in the course of the day receive a scrap of paper from some mysterious source; sometimes he would find it in the pocket of his coat, at others it would be handed to him by some one in the crowd, whilst he was on his way to the sitting of the Committee of Public Safety. The paper

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  • (4/5)
    A fun book. A combination of mystery, adventure, and romance. Some what predictable, but an enjoyable story in an interesting history of the French revolution.
  • (4/5)
    Excellent book, if you like the films you will like this book
  • (4/5)
    I struggled whether to give this book, 3 1/2 or 4 stars, and in the end settled with 4. For being a romance novel, the Scarlet Pimpernel was a pretty good read. The character development was strong and the plot moved at a fairly quick pace. The only thing that would keep me from giving this book a perfect score is its predictability. Intensity had a hard time building up because of how obvious a coming plot turn was going to be.
  • (5/5)
    No fair! I thought this was an adventure tale, but I think half of the story goes on in the heroine's head! It's almost a chick flick, er, book. (Maybe it is... I haven't intentionally read any "chick books" to compare with.) But it's still an enjoyable read. There are two main threads: one is the mystery of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The year is 1792 and the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution is running rampant. However, some clever Englishmen, known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, are systematically rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine. The leader and mastermind behind the league is a man of mystery, one that French agent Chauvelin is determined to unmask and arrest. The second plot thread is the marital troubles of the heroine, Marguirite Lady Blakeney. Her husband, Sir Percy, has been quite unloving to her since he heard that she was instrumental in the arrest and execution of the Marquis de St. Cyr and his family. She has a good explanation, but fears that her husband will never care to hear it. How do these two plots come together? Well, read the book and find out. It wasn't much of a mystery to me, but then I had known the answer before I read it. Besides, I am quite familiar with the concept of "secret identities" from all my comic book reading. Anyway, the book is still worth putting on my shelf.--J.
  • (5/5)
    This is quite possibly my favorite classic. I love books that take place during the French Revolution. The derivative works such as the musical and movies were good, but nothing beats the book.
  • (5/5)
    I love this story first as a book, then in the many movie versions and also as a musical. While the Anthony Andrews is the version I love best, the old Leslie Howard version caught my heart and he actually kissed the ground she walked on and it did't look cheesy.
  • (3/5)
    pretty much told from the wife's point of view which is different to the films. not bad but not enough swashbuckling for me
  • (3/5)
    Justly famous for it's theatrical style, outrageous intrigue and less-than-2-percent-body-fat plot. I enjoyed it despite the florid writing and simplistic, one-sided view of historic events. Still, I must say, if the French secret police were really this dense, I too could have duped them as often and with equal panache.
  • (3/5)
    I had a vague idea that this book was a minor classic, an ignorant assumption based on a notion that any book written over 100 years ago and still in circulation is probably pretty good. I was wrong. The Scarlet Pimpernel is your typical cheesy romance. It's the same bad writing you can find in any bodice ripper only without the sex. At least it's short.
  • (2/5)
    If you are older and like detailed books then this would be for you, I did not like this because I am a bad age to read it. This is a action/mystery/suspense book about a man who saves nobles from the french revolution's guillotene.
  • (5/5)
    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!So goes the rhyme written about the secretive Englishman who stealthily smuggles French royals into his country to escape their fates at the guilletine. A master of wit and clever disguise, none know the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel who takes his name from the flower he signs his letters with. Filled with love and adventure, this story is a charming tale and a delightful read for all ages.
  • (4/5)
    I remember reading an abridged version of this book when I was about 10 or 11 years old because I liked the title, but I didn't remember the story at all so it was a delightful surprise adventure for me to the time of the Reign of Terror. I loved it and usually Classics are not my forte.The Scarlet Pimpernel is an adventurer who risks his life to free the terrified royalists who are awaiting execution during the Reign of Terror. We hear of the exploits of this courageous man as he smuggles men, women, and children out of France before their date with guillotine. He is threatened with exposure and yet manages to continue his mission.What surprised me most about this book is the story - not the main plot but the underlying tale of rescue of Frenchmen by a band of Englishmen. First, you have Englishmen trying to free Frenchmen which is unusual given the animosity between the two countries that had existed since the time of Henry V, then you have the fact that the English had tried 10 years earlier to prevent the Americans from freeing themselves from England, and last the Key point for me, was the major difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Seeing the violence of the French Revolution and the overthrow of the government as the chief point in that Revolution, makes me appreciate more the struggle that the American colonists undertook to gain their own freedom.
  • (4/5)
    The Scarlet Pimpernel is a very fast-paced adventure story, quick to read and with a finale as exciting as any Bruckheimer movie.
  • (5/5)
    The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of those books I reread regularly. It takes me a couple of hours, comforts me when I am tired or sad, distracts me when I'm worried, entertains me when I'm bored. But the strange thing is that it really shouldn't.I have a vague literary allergy that makes me break out in metaphorical hives when I read bad writing, badly researched books or romance too blatantly based on stereotypes. And The Scarlet Pimpernel does all those things. All at once. It is not only the opening chapter which informs us that the brutal and monstrous revolutionaries of France executed a hundred aristocrats a day (!), or the perfect beauty of the female protagonist, who is repeatedly referred to as "the cleverest woman in Europe" in addition to her brilliant blue eyes, white shoulders and impressive figure. It is a book of easy distinctions. One in which the bad guys are very bad, the beautiful women very beautiful and the heroes very heroic. Facts or high literature be hanged. And yet. And yet I adore it. I mostly put this down to three reasons working together to undermine my credentials as a literary snob.The first, Sir Percy Blackney. I doubt there is need to say much more. If you haven't read the book, I couldn't explain without ruining it; if you have, you know. He was my first literary crush, and remains one of the more powerful. I think this is down to the fact that Baroness Orczy never really described him. Yes, she makes it very clear that he is tall, handsome, rich, beautifully attired, and really rather brilliant. But throughout most of the book, the man himself is mostly all suggestion. And I work well with suggestion. The second, related, reason is the fact that I was very young when I first read it. I had never heard of Mills and Boon, never yet learnt that there was a genre (which this book in part helped start) of easy literature that is little more than clichéed soap. It was my first romance novel, and in retrospect I am very happy with this turn of events. The third is precisely that it is an early example of the strong man caped crusader saving the damsel in distress. It gains some standing, as I see it, not only because I had not read (or heard of) a million books of the same type, but because no one had. It is an original where others are cheap knock-offs. Whether that is reflected in literary value is probably dependent on convention, but I do take that into account when I judge its merit for myself, at least. I do scoff, occasionally, when reading this book. It is hard not to when the feminine distress of Lady Blackney is emphasised, or her brilliant eyes swelling with tears. But mostly I do not read it with ironic detachment. And that is rare when I am confronted with genre literature. I suspect this review is a little confused. That is because I am confused about my attitude to this book. I should not like it; but I do. And there it is.
  • (3/5)
    Great history, from both the classic sense of history and also in the sense of history of plotting in a mystery. The historical landscape is carefully described. It is also counterintuitive in terms of underdog/favorite dynamics. And the plotting itself is very clever, particularly so when you place it early on the development of mystery plotting. The chapters are short so it is also easy to pick up and set down.
  • (4/5)
    That was good fun.
  • (5/5)
    I read this book when I was younger and just fell in love with it. The romanticism charmed me at the time, and I memorised the "They seek him here, they seek him there..." chant. A great book for anyone, especially me when I was growing up!
  • (4/5)
    When I first saw this on my list as a book to read in honor of love and Valentine's Day I almost thought there was a mistake. The beginning of the book is mayhem. Taking place during the French Revolution and the Year of Terror people are being sent to the "Madame Guillotine" left and right. To make matters worse, the heroine of the story, Lady Marguerite Blakeney is disgusted by her dull, slow-witted, lazy husband. Death and indifference. What kind of love story is that?My advice? Keep reading. This is a classic love story wrapped up in an adventure mystery full of intrigue. Lady Marguerite harbors a horrible skeleton in her closet. Out of revenge for her brother (because blood is thicker than water) she sent an entire family to the guillotine. The punishment didn't fit the crime and Marguerite is ashamed of her prior actions. However, this event taints her marriage to Sir Percy Blakeney and as time goes on their relationship grows colder and colder, falling further and further out of love. Complicating matters is a crafty hero calling himself the Scarlet Pimpernel. He and his "League" are going around and rescuing citizens from the guillotine. His arch enemy, Chauvelin, is determined to uncover his real identity and he enlists Marguerite's help using her brother as bait. What Marguerite doesn't know is that her dull, slow-witted, lazy husband is none other than the Scarlet Pimpernel himself.
  • (5/5)
    Oh what a lovely book. Don't let the historical setup fool you- it's basically a good old fashioned melodrama with a few thriller moments thrown in. I saw the old black-and-white movie a while ago, and while entertaining, it does not do justice to the story and the characters. It's truly a "big R" Romantic novel- larger than life heroes and villains, life-and-death choices, tragedy, humor and a few distinct love stories all blended together in a tightly written plot. Do yourself a favor- take a break from modern fast paced, world-weary fiction and spend some time with the characters and the world of Scarlet Pimpernel. You'd be surprised at how enjoyable the experience will be.
  • (5/5)
    Hands down my all-time favourite book. I've always adored and identified with Marguerite, and I can't believe there's a female out there who wouldn't fall in love with Sir Percy. (Six foot odd of gorgeousness!). The ancestor of modern adventure stories -- truly a classic.
  • (4/5)
    Defined at its most basic level, a superhero is a vigilante with a secret identity and a gimmick that sets them apart from ordinary vigilantes. Hungarian-born British playwright Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci’s The Scarlet Pimpernel features as its titular main character a British aristocrat who uses disguises to conceal his identity as he aids nobles in their escape from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, signing his notes to his accomplices and his taunts to the French authorities with a scarlet pimpernel flower (Anagallis arvensis). Baroness Orczy based this 1905 novel on her original 1903 play, with her superhero predating Johnston McCulley’s Zorro by 14 years and Walter B. Gibson’s The Shadow by at least 25 years (depending on if one begins with the play or novel and counts The Shadow’s first radio appearance or the first magazine story), though the first superheroes as most know them wouldn’t appear until 1938 and ’39 with Superman and the Batman, respectively. Baroness Orci published five further novels and one short story collection before the appearance of Zorro in 1919, an additional four novels and short story collection before the appearance of The Shadow, and three more novels before the first appearance of Superman, with her final Scarlet Pimpernel novel, Mam’zelle Guillotine, appearing in 1940. In total, Baroness Orczy’s superhero appears in eleven novels and two short story collections, with the series also including two novels about his ancestor and one about his descendant.The basic plot revolves around Sir Percy Blakeney, a baronet who uses the guise of the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue French aristocrats. Like the Batman years later, Sir Percy Blakeney acts “the lazy nincompoop, the effete fop, whose life seemed spent in card and supper rooms” so as to throw off those who would discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel (pg. 128). Madame Orczy describes Sir Blakeney’s mansion in terms that similarly recall Wayne Manor, all of it a further part of his disguise as a vain aristocrat (pg. 129). Citizen Chauvelin pursues the Pimpernel on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety, seeking to discover his identity and prevent him aiding aristocrats in their escape. Meanwhile, Marguerite Blakeney, the wife of Sir Percy, stumbles across and inadvertently reveals his identity after Chauvelin’s attempts to blackmail her by threatening her brother, Armand St. Just, who still resides in France and is threatened by the republican forces currently orchestrating the Reign of Terror. In many way, the various aristocrats’ discussion of the Scarlet Pimpernel coupled with the misunderstandings between Marguerite and others reflect some of the drawing room farces popular only a decade prior to the novel’s publication in the Victorian era. Like any proper superhero story, the Pimpernel’s adventures continued as Baroness Orczy published a sequel, I Will Repay, one year later in 1906. The third act does have some alarming ethnic stereotypes reflective of the period in which Baroness Orczy wrote, but the rest is entertaining and the work itself is worthy of study for its place in genre fiction. This edition, part of ImPress’s “The Best Mysteries of All Time” series, reprints the original 1905 text in its entirety with a red leather cover. It makes a lovely gift edition for fans of the original work or book collectors looking to add to their shelves.
  • (3/5)
    The Scarlet Pimpernel has attained the status of a classic by some unknown mechanism, since it isn't really very good. A short novel at just over 200 pages, it is often regarded as "juvenile fiction", which it is, since it's, well, juvenile. It deals in elitism, sexism, and a bunch of other unpopular isms, along with being clunky, overwritten, and by now clichéd. Deeds are, yes, dastardly. Our hero is handsome, our heroine is beautiful, and a snob: "The same feeling of good-humoured contempt which one feels for an animal or a faithful servant, made her turn away with a smile from the man who should have been her moral support in this heart-rending crisis through which she was passing: who should have been her cool-headed adviser, when feminine sympathy and sentiment tossed her hither and thither, between her love for her brother, who was far away and in mortal peril, and horror of the awful service which Chauvelin had exacted from her, in exchange for Armand's safety." They don't write sentences like that anymore, and it's a good thing.Marguerite (that's her name) is also somewhat dim-witted, since we are repeated told that she is the smartest woman in Europe, but she can't figure out that her husband consistently disappears just before a French aristocrat is snatched from the jaws of the guillotine and smuggled over to England. This does not bode well for the future of European civilization if she's the best of the bunch, cognitively speaking.However, the book has some virtues: it's fast-paced and exciting, yet very little violence takes place. Unlike most adventure stories, it's told from a woman's point of view. And it's fun in the same way as an old B movie. Even so, I'd rather read something by Dumas.
  • (5/5)
    This is an awesome book! It has a wonderful style mixed with mystery. Also, can be compared with the movie.
  • (5/5)
    What a swashbuckling, great read. The story, set during the French Revolution, is full of daring, quick wittedness, and passion. Just plain fun!
  • (1/5)
    Dreadful, dreadful book. And this is the type of book I like. Started skimming after 120 pages, and as far as I can tell, it remains awful throughout. I still like the poem, however...(12.28.07)
  • (5/5)
    Though not very serious or dramatic, the silliness of this novel and its characters makes for a very entertaining read from cover to cover. Easy to read for people of all ages, this book is highly recommended.
  • (3/5)
    I found this engaging at times, I liked the title character and the heroine, but the amount of waffle proved tiresome.The Scarlet Pimpernel's identity was easy to work out, as were certain plotlines. In short, not as good as expected.
  • (4/5)
    One of the better romance/adventures. The book is more Marguerite's story than the Scarlet Pimpernel's, unlike every stage and screen adaptation (so far as I'm aware). It leans towards melodrama at moments- to be expected of a book that follows the Tale of Two Cities version of the French Revolution, with numbers of executions happening daily in 1792 which weren't reached except for the worst parts of 1794- but the original duel identity hero who has influenced everything from Zorro to Batman holds his own in the test of time.
  • (5/5)
    WOW!! This book was amazing! A classic and a must read! I am not going to write a real review because it would be all spoilers anyway, so just know that you should read this! Some parts were hard from me to get through (lotttts of description!) but I am glad I kept at it, and in the end, this is now one of my favorite classics!
  • (4/5)
    Because I originally read this in high school English class, I always had the idea that this book was considered capital-L Literature, but I've since realized that it's actually rather trashy. It goes down smooth--quick and very easy to read.

    This rereading left me with the idea of The Scarlet Pimpernel as the Twilight of its time, only with an adventure/historical fiction theme instead of fantasy. Between the melodrama and angst, the sweeping mysteries and secrets, the excessive physical descriptions, the sometimes lolarious writing...I'm sorry to say that I caught a resemblance.

    That said, I really like The Scarlet Pimpernel. The late-night scene between Percy and Marguerite after the Lord Grenville's ball is a favorite. I have a hard time picturing Marguerite as a blue-eyed strawberry blonde, despite what Orczy has to say about it.