This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Set during the early, bloodthirsty years of the French Revolution, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) tells the tale of young Lady Marguerite Blakeney, the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’, wife of Sir Percy Blakeney, a lazy foppish ‘nincompoop’ of the English nobility. Once the star of the Comedie Francais, Marguerite is French-born, a republican whose careless remarks caused one of France’s most noble families to be sent to the guillotine. Her husband only hears her side of it after they are married and, though they make a good public show, they have been estranged ever since. Yet Marguerite often feels she would be bored with him even if they were talking. His ‘inane’ laugh and foolish habits make her marriage feel more like a prison sentence and she can barely contain her contempt for him, even publicly.
So, instead, she daydreams about the Scarlet Pimpernel. For many months, London society has been swept with whispers of the adventures of this elusive hero and his band of anonymous young men who risk their lives, ‘for sport’, to smuggle French aristocrats out of the hands of the revolutionaries and across the Channel to safety. They manage to work in plain sight without being seen, and the only trace they leave is a note of explanation signed with the drawing of a small red flower. Marguerite, as with everyone, is entranced by the daring of the Pimpernel’s exploits.
Then, one night Marguerite is blackmailed Citizen Chauvelin, a French envoy and spy. His agents agents have stolen an incriminating letter that proves her beloved brother Armand is not the republican he claims, but really one of the Pimpernel’s most trusted French connections. Chauvelin offers to trade Armand’s life for her help against the Pimpernel. Feeling she has no one she can turn to, certainly not her idiot husband, for advice, she reluctantly agrees. At a ball held by Lord Grenville in London, Marguerite discovers information about the Pimpernel’s next move, information that would enable Chauvelin to uncover the Pimpernel’s true identity.
That same night, Marguerite finally admits to Percy the situation she has got herself into and the danger her brother is in, and begs for his assistance. Despite their estrangement, Percy clearly does still love her and promises to save him. The next morning, in case you couldn’t see it coming, Percy unexpectedly leaves for France and ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ finally works out that he is the Pimpernel. Horrified by her actions and desperate to save him, Marguerite races to Calais in an attempt to warn her husband of the trap that awaits.
Hereafter comes a series of disguises, chases, captures and clever plots which see Chauvelin outwitted, a gaggle of French aristocrats rescued and Percy and Marguerite happily reconciled and sailing back to England.
It is perhaps Baroness Orczy’s most famous work, though perhaps unsurprisingly it was a good few years before she could get it published. Politely, it’s not the best piece of fiction. Orczy’s devotion to the aristocracy, insistence on some truly appalling lower class dialects, and endless sartorial landscaping are laughable and awful at the same time. The ‘twist’ can be spotted a mile off; the wits of ‘cleverest woman in Europe’ leave much to be desired; and while the various prejudices rampant throughout may be in keeping with its time, they are nonetheless pretty galling.
However, I did still rather enjoy it. When I allowed myself to be thrown into the spirit of things, the melodrama was no worse than what you’d find in most soaps. The innumerable tiny white hands and sprays of sparkling garnets, the broad Mechlin lace-bedecked chests and braying laughs punctuate an otherwise engaging premise. Blakeney comes out almost Bondian as the suave, efficient secret agent who sweeps through enemy territory to risk his own life in order to save the lives of others. Orczy does successfully paint a terrible picture of revolutionary France, ‘Every man nowadays was a spy upon his fellows: the most innocent word in jest might at any time be brought up as proof of aristocratic tendencies, or of treachery against the people.’
Two things that interest me in particular are the depiction of the French commoners and the emphasis on the power of the written word. (Very quickly now, because I have to leave in a minute.)
The depiction of the French commoners is strangely sympathetic, given Orczy’s otherwise blind admiration for the aristocracy (not completely surprising, she was one herself), and if not sympathetic then certainly revealing. Brogard, keeper of the Calais in Marguerite finds herself in, is surly, rude and utterly sneering towards anything that might think itself above him. The equality Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite has given him means that he can treat anyone, particularly those who were once his social superiors, as badly as he pleases, ‘as any free-born citizen who was anybody’s equal should do’. He behaves as the sacres aristos once did to him. In this way, Orczy seems to be offering an unconscious criticism of the very aristocracy she seems to go out of her way to defend. If the equality of the French common folk offends, it is because it betrays the model of equality between ‘free-born citizens’ they have usurped.
As with many novels in the genre to come, incriminating papers and the interception of notes passed between accomplices plays a heavy part throughout. In fact, the thing that gets the entire plot moving is the small sheaf of papers Chauvelin manages to procure, which both confirm his suspicions about the Scarlet Pimpernel and, as an added bonus, provides him with ammunition against Marguerite and her brother. Marguerite bargains for not only her brother’s life but also possession for the offensive letter. She succeeds in detecting the Pimpernel’s inner circle by observing a group of men discreetly passing notes. She is able to confirm this by interrupting Sir Andrew in the act of burning his note, to get rid of the evidence, and covers herself by teasing him, saying the note is from his lover (not unheard of in balls at the time). At the end, Blakeney is able to complete his mission by arranging for a decoy note to be left behind, so fooling Chauvelin and allowing for their escape. Notes, thus, are evidence that are both necessary and dangerous; they are emblematic of the secrets they might betray, yet remain reliably unreliable.