Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Lady Marguerite Blakeney, darling of English high society, is in trouble.
Her brother Armand St Just, risking his life in Revolutionary France, has just been denounced to Citizen Chauvelin as a member of the famous League of the Scarlet Pimpernel—a group of young English and French gentlement whose business and pleasure it is to rescue aristocrats condemned to the guillotine. And if Marguerite doesn't use her position and influence in English society to discover their brave and gallant leader, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, and turn him in to Chauvelin, then her brother perishes on the guillotine.
If only there was someone to whom Marguerite could turn in trouble! But she has nobody. Back when she was the most feted actress in Paris, known as 'the cleverest woman in Europe', she might have turned to anyone; perhaps even to her fabulously wealthy and devoted suitor, Sir Percy Blakeney. But now Percy and Marguerite's marriage is on the rocks: Sir Percy seems to have retreated into a shell of languid indifference, and even Marguerite is beginning to wonder if she really did ever see more in Percy than a devoted affection for cravats and a brain which couldn't even make a pair of cami-knickers for a canary.
But the Scarlet Pimpernel, now! There's a man with wit, daring, and gallantry! In unguarded moments, Marguerite wishes that he had appeared to sweep her off her feet before she married Sir Percy. To be forced to betray him—whoever he is—is more than she can bear.
Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel? Can Marguerite save her brother and the Pimpernel? Is Sir Percy really the witless wonder he appears to be? You will, of course, need to read the book to find out.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fine adventure story and an enjoyable romance, but as far as historical fact goes, do not expect to learn much. From The Scarlet Pimpernel, you might expect that those who perished on the guillotine in the Reign of Terror were mainly aristocrats. In fact only a fraction—Wikipedia says 8 percent—of those killed were aristocrats. The vast majority (72 percent) were workers or peasants, while a further 14 percent were middle-classed.
I don't mean to suggest, by correcting Orczy here, that the French Revolution was only bad because it resulted in a slaughter of the humbler classes. No matter whether the aristocrats deserved it or not (Marie-Antoinette certainly did not; Philippe 'Egalite', the scheming and demoralising Duc D'Orleans and a major fomentor of revolutionary feeling, certainly did), the French Revolution was a pretty sorry affair. George Grant says in his lecture The French Revolution:
The French Revolution declared itself by its slogan, its motto, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” But while it promised liberty it resulted in totalitarianism. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion were all crushed within a span of just a few short years. The most free, the most prosperous, and the most religious nation in all of Europe was turned entirely upside down and brought under the weight of a fierce tyranny the likes of which the world had not seen since ancient antiquity and the rule of the Caesars. It promised equality but the result of the French Revolution was really extreme inequality and injustice, particularly during the Reign of Terror, during which time forty thousand citizens were ultimately brought under the bar of judgement and executed. More than three hundred and fifty thousand Parisians alone spent time in jail during the Reign of Terror. […] It was a time when the greatest aspirations of man demonstrated themselves in the worst behaviour of man.
You will learn none of this from Orczy's book. No, The Scarlet Pimpernel is not really about the French Revolution. It is about Marguerite, and how delightfully melodramatic her life is. Ballroom intrigue, brilliant disguises, aching romance, and midnight adventure are the order of the day. It's a very short book, with deft characterisation but a somewhat short and superficial plot; most film adaptations expand the story immensely, borrowing plot elements from sequels and digging back into the novel's hinted past.
The only real complaint I have about The Scarlet Pimpernel is that it is not about four times longer. Otherwise, good clean fun in the time of the Terror. I particularly recommend it to thirteen-year-old girls, though there is no reason why it should not appeal to just about everybody.
The only film adaptation I have seen is the 1982 version with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, and Ian MacKellan. It's a fine attempt, with more plot and slightly more history in it (though I had to sniff with disgust when the Pimpernel rescues the infamous Duc D'Orleans), great acting and a nice script. However there are a couple of scenes I'd rather have avoided. I do recommend parental guidance.

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