Monday, April 22, 2013

Eldorado by Baroness Orczy

When her stage-play-turned-novel The Scarlet Pimpernel became a runaway bestseller, Baroness Orczy did what any bestselling author worth her salt does: she wrote a sequel, and then went on merrily writing them until she was quite exhausted.

The result, as usual, was a little uneven and fans of The Scarlet Pimpernel--the kind of short, light, tight novel that comes out of a good melodramatic short story--are divided on which ones are worth reading and which are not. Eldorado, however, is often ranked first among these sequels.

My only criticism of The Scarlet Pimpernel is that it is too short. Eldorado is a good deal more substantial both in length and in themes, although it lacks the tightly-woven plot of the original.

Just a few months after the events of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the League gathers in Paris to plot their most daring enterprise yet: the rescue of the Dauphin, the young son of the guillotined Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. This time, impulsive young Armand St Just--the brother-in-law of the Pimpernel himself--has asked for and received his first assignment in Paris, headquarters of the Revolution itself, where he is still in danger for his association with the Scarlet Pimpernel. As plots and counter-plots swirl around the young Dauphin, Armand is sucked into danger when he loses his heart to a young actress and meets the Scarlet Pimpernel's implacable enemy--Chauvelin, who gleefully presents him with a sadistic choice: betray his beloved leader to a lingering death by torture, or watch his fiancee perish on the guillotine. How will the Scarlet Pimpernel escape this time?

This book comes in three parts, and honestly, I was yawning during the first part, during which we watch Armand St Just sulk about his Jeanne and make a succession of very silly decisions. Orczy's overwrought style doesn't help much, for she never met the five-syllable word she didn't love:
Already a year and a half ago the excesses of the party had horrified him, and that was long before they had degenerated into the sickening orgies which were culminating to-day in wholesale massacres and bloody hecatombs of innocent victims.
The plot kicks up a gear, however, in Parts II and III, where the narrative focus shifts to our old friend Marguerite, the melodrama ticks up a notch or two, and we realise just where Armand's foolishness has led him.

There were a couple of interesting things to note about this book. The way Orczy speaks about the guillotined Louis and Marie-Antoinette is oddly messianical--"their last ignominious Calvary" she says of their deaths, and they, the Dauphin, and the Scarlet Pimpernel are all variously described in her purple prose as "martyrs". These quasi-religious references are unusual, even for the period in which she was writing. Are the Scarlet Pimpernel books a hagiography for the ancien regime? To be certain, I think Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were probably sincere Christians, and the influences of Christendom on the ancien regime were part of what the Revolution sought to destroy, but can they be said to have died for their faith? Whether they can or not, is it because of their faith that Orczy calls them martyrs, or because they represent a shabby substitute faith in blue blood and titles?

I tend towards the latter explanation. But then, God and Providence are regularly invoked in this book, and at one moment, the division between the ancien regime and the revolutionaries is explicitly stated in terms of Christian faith:
"In the name of God, Sir Percy," he said roughly, as he brought his clenched fist crashing down upon the table, "this situation is intolerable. Bring it to an end to-night!"
"Why, sir?" retorted Blakeney, "methought you and your kind did not believe in God."
"No. But you English do."
"We do. But we do not care to hear His name on your lips."
Another interesting thing about Eldorado is the relationship of Sir Percy and Marguerite Blakeney. I mention this because in most melodramatically emotional vintage novels, romantic love is the most important thing in the world--and even the quote above ends in Sir Percy getting more annoyed about Chauvelin bringing Marguerite into the conversation than the name of God. And yet, if there's one theme that ties this book together, it's that some things are more important than romantic love. Armand's predicament stems from his inability to learn this. Percy dreams of being at home with Marguerite, and she wishes her husband didn't spend most of his time risking his life in France instead of safely at home. But both of them realise that their own happiness is not this important.

In the end I enjoyed Eldorado a lot more than I expected to, despite Orczy's hilariously overwrought prose. If you are fond of The Scarlet Pimpernel, I recommend reading this one.

Eldorado has not to my knowledge been filmed itself, but elements of the plot are generally used in adaptations of the original book. I've seen the 1982 Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, and Ian McKellan, a fun adaptation of both novels.

1 comment:

Lady Bibliophile said...

Eldorado is my favorite of the Sir Percy series for its racing plot. It gets me every single time. I mean, the Scarlet Pimpernel can't lose. But how is he going to get out of *this* one? So far it hasn't lost its suspense, though I must confess I haven't revisited this book in several years. I've had it on my list, and I must return to it soon.

I think Orczy expressed the idea of love very well in "I Will Repay". Her books drip with romantic affection, but Sir Percy says it well after Deroulede protests that Juliette is an angel:

"And 'twill be when you understand that your idol has feet of clay that you'll learn the real lesson of love," said Blakeney earnestly. "Is it love to worship a saint in heaven, whom you dare not touch, who hovers above you like a cloud, which floats away from you even as you gaze? To love is to feel one being in the world at one with us, our equal in sin as well as in virtue."

Orczy surely did enjoy sensationalism in her descriptions. :) Especially in "The Elusive Pimpernel".


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