The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emma Orczy

I was familiar with the general story of The Scarlet Pimpernel mostly through the classic film featuring Leslie Howard in the title role.  I bring this up only because I thought it was an okay film but Howard plays such a fop in the film that I knew it would affect how I read the book: with Howard’s voice and image running through my mind as I read. I was right, and there’s good and bad sides to that. Howard was a little more slight and light than Orczy’s description. But without Howard playing the part I don’t think I’d have had an easy time picturing Sir Percy Blakeney pulling off being such a buffoon with his tall, broad-shouldered frame and dark hair.

In doing a little research on the book I was surprised that this book is considered the prototype of the masked hero. Without The Scarlet Pimpernel, and its success as a book, play, and movie the public may not have accepted the idea of a Batman or Spider Man, to say nothing of Zorro or The Lone Ranger. Sir Percy lives his life playing a shallow nobleman, even to his much-suffering wife, while living a secret life as a master of disguise who executes brilliant plans to save nobles from the guillotine of the French Revolution.

The revolutionists are angry about this and send a particularly ruthless agent to England to try to identify and capture the Pimpernel. His leverage is Marguerite the brilliant and beautiful wife of Sir Percy. She is a French aristocrat whose brother is being held in a French prison. If she’ll help in identifying the Pimpernel the brother will not be harmed.

Marguerite is the true center of the book. Because she denounced a French nobleman which led to his and his family’s execution (for completely understandable reasons, we discover) Sir Percy no longer trusts her and continues his buffoonish act even in private with her. She figures out too late that all of Sir Percy’s business trips up north have actually been his trips to rescue still more unfortunate victims of the Revolution, a mission of mercy that might only have been concocted and condoned by an exiled Hungarian baroness living in England. She works out a way to follow Sir Percy to France to try to save him from her accidental betrayal.

For a book written a few years before World War I the book is surprisingly uncreaky. It’s also a delight to read a woman writer (compared to, say, Sandra Brown or Nora Roberts) writing a woman character who is both brilliant and beautiful, who acts with heroism, and has more interests in male characters than their tight abs and manly arms. As such, it’s still a book that a teenage boy could enjoy as much as adults of any gender.