The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Scarlet Pimpernel occupies a strange place in the literary canon. It's often considered a classic, and its inspirations are derived from Regency literature, with maybe some Cyrano de Bergerac and Robin Hood legend thrown in. What it has inspired, though, includes pulp classics and superhero comics.
The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place during the French Revolution. The title character smuggles French aristocrats and their families to England, where they're safe from the guillotine's blade. It's told in third-person omniscient, with most of the book told through the perspective of Marguerite St. Just, a French former actress who's married a foppish English gentleman, Percy Blakeney. She's lonely, because her husband's courting affection seems to have turned into disdain as soon as he said "I do." The only person in the world she cares about is her older brother, Armand. She, like most women in England, also has a crush on the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel.
If you're familiar with the stories this has inspired, you know who the Scarlet Pimpernel long before Marguerite stumbles across the evidence. He's the one who set the archetype for Zorro and Batman to follow. It's good Marguerite doesn't know that, though, because she's blackmailed to find out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is to save her beloved brother. She fails in that, but she does pass enough information to Chauvelin, a French spy, that he figures it out.
When Marguerite realizes what she's done, she bravely sets out to warn the Scarlet Pimpernel about the trap Chauvelin sets for him. Unfortunately, her role mostly consists of her hiding, fretting, and talking herself out of doing anything. This does add to the tension and allows the reader to experience revelations along with Marguerite, but it also makes for a passive heroine. It also grates; Marguerite spends a lot of time reiterating things she's already stressed out about, and repeats things the reader is already well aware of. It detracts from the action we've already been shown.
The Scarlet Pimpernel strikes this modern reader as a strange sort of hero. His strength isn't in his ability to fight, but in his quick thinking, his ability to disguise himself, and his bravery. He recognizes that fighting the authorities would serve against his interests. If he can slip past them without ever alerting them to his plans, he can keep rescuing people without giving his identity away. It makes for a fascinating literary hero, but not a cinematic one. No nail-biting chases, dashing sword fights, or edge-of-your-seat moments. Just a lot of points where you realize how thoroughly the Scarlet Pimpernel has outsmarted the bad guys.
Despite Marguerite's passivity, the ending is satisfying and romantic, in the classic and modern senses of the word. It's easy to see why the Scarlet Pimpernel has become the blueprint for many modern heroes with a secret identity. He's impressive.
I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Stephen Crossly. He was able to capture a wide range of accents, and his default narration voice was pleasant to listen to. He certainly didn't detract from my enjoyment of this adventure story.
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