Imperial fiction: The Scarlet Pimpernel

Marguerite noticed with a shudder that, instead of the laughing, merry countenance habitual to her own countrymen, their faces now invariably wore a look of sly distrust.
Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

‘But, Lady Blakeney,’ said the young man, touched by the gentle earnestness of this exquisitely beautiful woman, ‘do you know that what you propose doing is man’s work?’
Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

As with some of the other pieces I’ve looked at in this series (The Four Feathers, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Beau Geste), the story of The Scarlet Pimpernel is, I think, most familiar these days from the movies, of which there have been more than a dozen.

The best known are probably those starring Leslie Howard (1934), David Niven (1950), and Anthony Andrews (1982). The latter has a particularly dedicated following, thanks to Andrews’s performance, which went so far over the top that it has yet to return. Or possibly the best known incarnation is Sid James as the parody figure of the Black Fingernail in Carry On: Don’t Lose Your Head (1966).pimpernel 7

All of these are entertaining enough, but they don’t really represent the original novel. Because Baroness Emma Orczy’s book isn’t the adventure story that it’s normally presented as. Rather, it’s the old romance theme of a spirited, beautiful woman falling for a strong, manly hero. With the one rather splendid variation that in this case they’re already a married couple.

Orczy’s tale is set in 1792, at the height of the Reign of Terror in France, with Paris having descended into murderous madness and no end in sight to the execution of aristocrats: ‘The lust of blood grows with its satisfaction, there is no satiety: the crowd had seen a hundred noble heads fall beneath the guillotine to-day, it wanted to make sure that it would see another hundred fall on the morrow.’

Those who can get away seek refuge in Britain, but escape is now almost impossible; anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state has been arrested, and there are guards on all roads out of Paris and beyond. As an aristocrat, your best – perhaps your only – hope is that you might be rescued by the mysterious Englishman who’s become the talk of two countries.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, they call him, a reference to the flower that he uses as his signature. No one knows his true identity, but they know of ‘his reckless daring, his mad bravery, his worship of his own word of honour’. He’s a master of disguise, and he commands a small, but absolutely loyal gang of followers. For him, walls and armed guards seem not to be impediments, and – through audacity, cunning and courage – he has saved dozens of lives already. Perhaps, some whisper, he’s not even human, for ‘though the Republic had abolished God, it had not quite succeeded in killing the fear of the supernatural in the hearts of the people’.

Meanwhile, one of the French exiles in Britain is the former actress Marguerite St Just, now Lady Blakeney, married to the foppish Sir Percy. She has a guilty secret, for it was some injudicious words of hers that sent an aristocrat to the guillotine. But her secret has spread, Sir Percy has found out and – since they’re both too proud to talk about what actually happened – it’s caused him to become cold toward her. In return, she’s come to despise him. In short, they’ve fallen out of love with each other.

The one person Marguerite can count on is her brother, Armand, so when the French ambassador to London, Citizen Chauvelin, tells her that he’s been arrested back in France, she agrees to do anything in order to save him. The price for Armand’s safety turns out to be her co-operation in identifying the Scarlet Pimpernel. She pays that price, and then discovers to her horror that she’s betrayed her own husband. Because it transpires that Sir Percy himself is the Scarlet Pimpernel. He’s not really a brainless dandy after all, he’s not ‘the sleepiest, dullest, most British Britisher that had ever set a pretty woman yawning’; he only dons that guise to conceal his undercover activities.

It may already be too late to save Sir Percy, since he’s already sailed for France on yet another mission, but Marguerite resolves to do everything she can, and prepares to follow him: ‘It will be a race between Chauvelin and me across the Channel to-night,’ she declares, ‘and the prize – the life of the Scarlet Pimpernel.’pimpernel 6

Like John Buchan’s heroes, she discovers that action is the best option in pretty much any situation: ‘She had no time for despair now. She was up and doing and had no leisure to think.’ Told that her mission is too dangerous, she becomes more resolute still: ‘Oh, I hope there are risks!’ she murmurs softly, ‘I hope there are dangers, too! I have so much to atone for.’

The pacing isn’t perfect. It takes Marguerite more than half the novel to learn of her husband’s alter ego, which is considerably longer than it takes the reader, and most of the story is set in England, rather than France where the action is. Happily, there’s stuff to keep us amused while we wait for things to kick off.

Here, for example, is a pen-portrait of an incidental character:

Facing the hearth, his legs wide apart, a long clay pipe in his mouth, stood mine host himself, worthy Mr Jellyband, landlord of The Fisherman’s Rest, as his father had before him, aye, and his grandfather and great-grandfather too, for that matter. Portly in build, jovial in countenance and somewhat bald of pate, Mr Jellyband was indeed a typical rural John Bull of those days – the days when our prejudiced insularity was at its height, when to an Englishman, be he lord, yeoman, or peasant, the whole of the continent of Europe was a den of immorality and the rest of the world an unexploited land of savages and cannibals.

Later on, Jellyband suspects that Marguerite is having an affair and is saddened, but concludes that ‘her ladyship was after all only one of them “furriners”; what wonder that she was immoral like the rest of them?’

This theme of English culture clashing with that of its continental neighbours runs through the book. The preoccupation stems presumably from the experience of Orczy herself, who was born in Hungary and only came to Britain at the age of fourteen, unable then to speak the language. So she makes the usual notes, identifying, for instance, the inability to articulate feelings:

In every century, and ever since England has been what it is, an Englishman has always felt somewhat ashamed of his own emotion and of his own sympathy. And so the two young men said nothing, and busied themselves in trying to hide their feelings, only succeeding in looking immeasurably sheepish.

It’s not necessarily an original observation, but it is central to the plot of the book: if Sir Percy had been able to communicate with Marguerite, they would not be estranged, and the story would have developed very differently. This implied criticism of the buttoned-up, repressed nature of the Englishman is characteristic of the popular literature of the time: it’s also, for example, the crucial element in the plots of The Half-Hearted and The Four Feathers.

Then there’s the rule of law to be observed, even when skulduggery is the more obvious option. Marguerite rejects the suggestion that they just kill Chauvelin: ‘What you suggest is impossible! The laws of this country do not permit of murder! It is only in our beautiful France that wholesale slaughter is done lawfully, in the name of Liberty and of brotherly love.’

The big question, of course, is why Englishmen would risk their lives trying to save French people. A rescued aristocrat asks one of the Pimpernel’s associates, and is surprised by his response:

‘Sport, Madame la Comtesse, sport,’ asserted Lord Antony, with his jovial, loud and pleasant voice; ‘we are a nation of sportsmen, you know, and just now it is the fashion to pull the hare from between the teeth of the hound.’

This is another side of an Englishman’s reticence. Obviously, one doesn’t wish to speak of justice and morality – that looks a little pretentious and self-dramatizing – so one shrugs off the risking of one’s life as a minor divertissment. Not being English herself, Marguerite accepts this assessment of her husband’s motives at face value:

All for the sheer sport and devilry of course! – saving men, women and children from death, as other men destroy and kill animals for the excitement, the love of the thing. The idle, rich man wanted some aim in life – he, and the few young bucks he enrolled under his banner, had amused themselves for months in risking their lives for the sake of an innocent few.

Up against this spirit of English amateurism is the fiendishly fanatical Frenchman, Citizen Chauvelin, no Corinthian he:

He was blindly enthusiastic for the revolutionary cause, he despised all social inequalities, and he had a burning love for his own country: these three sentiments made him supremely indifferent to the snubs he received in this fog-ridden, loyalist, old-fashioned England.

So, he’s fiendish and fanatical, certainly, but still inherently funny, because he is, after all, a ‘furriner’. His language and his vanity prepares the way for the likes of M. Hanaud and Hercule Poirot. This is him talking about the Pimpernel: ‘the man whose energies has outdone me, whose ingenuity has baffled me, whose audacity has set me wondering – yes! me! – who have seen a trick or two in my time.’pimpernel 8

And on the subject of the French, there’s a nice little detail, when Percy – now on French soil – disguises himself as an elderly Jewish trader, confident that this will keep him safe from Chauvelin: ‘I know these Frenchmen out and out. They so loathe a Jew, that they never come nearer than a couple of yards of him.’

The real interest, I think, is in the development of the hero with an alternative identity. There had been something of a vogue for men with secret lives in recent fiction, ever since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Chief amongst them was A.J. Raffles, the third series of whose exploits, chronicled by E.W. Hornung, was appearing in the Pall Mall Magazine even as The Scarlet Pimpernel was being published.

But Jekyll and Raffles had both taken up parallel identities in order to enjoy things forbidden by the social norms of their time. In those instances, the surface was respectable, the life below was morally reprehensible. Sir Percy Blakeney, on the other hand, has a secret identity in order that he can do good deeds, a very different proposition altogether.

As it happens, I don’t think he’s entirely satisfactory in the dual-role. The problem is that as a fop, he’s a bit of a let-down. He’s so damned active, not only adept at riding a horse, but also in controlling a team of the animals (which I assume is more difficult, though I’ve never done either): ‘He loved driving his spirited horses along the lonely, moonlit roads,’ we’re told. He’s also a fine yachtsman – ‘Sir Percy handled a schooner as well as any master mariner’ – whose crew are ‘devoted to him heart and soul.’ This isn’t nearly foppish enough; there should be a more definite dividing line between his worlds.

In the greatest era of British popular fiction – when the magazine-stands and circulating libraries were teeming with some of the most memorable characters ever created – Sir Percy is frankly a bit wooden. We keep getting told of his ‘superhuman cunning’, that he’s ‘the most cunning and audacious plotter those stirring times had ever seen’, but he comes over as little better than bland for much of the time, even when he’s being noble and heroic. There’s a good reason why Anthony Andrews camped him up so much: it’s an actor’s best chance of keeping the character interesting.

Nonetheless, Sir Percy, with his secret do-gooding alter ego, is in effect the first superhero, setting the pattern for Batman some thirty-five years later. And if that’s much less interesting and less subversive than Raffles, it’s still a fair legacy. And, for a female character in Edwardian literature, Marguerite’s own adventures and feats of courage are pretty impressive as well.

Just in passing… As I noted in my book The Man Who Invented the Daleks, the influence of Orczy is evident too in Terry Nation’s science-fiction television series Blake’s 7 (1978–81) – you can see it in the names of the two principal opponents, Blake and Servalan, echoing Blakeney and Chauvelin.


Jane Seymour & Anthony Andrews, from The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

Originally The Scarlet Pimpernel was a play, written by Orczy and her husband, and credited to Orczy-Barstow. Billed as a comedy-drama, or sometimes as a romantic comedy, it starred husband-and-wife team Fred Terry (younger and less successful brother of Ellen) and Julia Neilson, and opened in Nottingham in October 1903, arriving in London, at the New Theatre, at the beginning of 1905. The critics weren’t entirely hostile, but the praise seldom got much beyond lukewarm; here are some of the notices:

  • ‘That the play has any dramatic grip or is in any full sense important or significant, we will not maintain. It has, however, plenty of action.’
  • ‘The plotting throughout the piece addles the brain.’
  • ‘It is far from being a great play in any sense.’
  • ‘A good conventional piece of stage-work of the melodramatic order.’
  • ‘The play failed to entirely please.’
  • ‘Some mild doses of excitement.’

Audiences, however, were much more enthusiastic, as were readers of the novel that was published to coincide with the West End production, this time arriving under the name of Baroness Orczy alone. And the book was somewhat better received; no one acclaimed it a classic – ‘an unaffected melodrama of the conventional type’ was more the mark – but the consensus seemed to be that it worked better on the page than the stage. It was a ‘very thrilling story’, ‘very pleasant reading’, ‘well conceived, vividly told and stirring from start to finish’. Even those who mocked the hammy period language conceded that it was a decent bit of yarn-spinning: ‘A good deal of the dialogue is interspersed with “Odd’s fish!” and “Zooks!” and “Lud!” but the story is thoroughly engrossing.’ (Incidentally, the catchphrase ‘Sink me!’ – derived from the nautical oath, ‘Sink my soul!’ – turns up first in the movies, only appearing in one late volume of the book series.)

Julia Neilson and Horace Hodges - Scarlet Pimpernel

Julia Neilson & Horace Hodges in the 1905 stage production

By April 1905, the book was on its fourth printing, while the London stage production was reaching a milestone of a hundred performances, and finally getting some grudging recognition. ‘Its situations may be stale and not even worked to the best sensational account,’ noted the papers, ‘but it is certainly possessed of a really ingenious idea.’

All those verdicts are pretty sound. The novel is indeed a bit silly and dated and melodramatic, but it is also very readable. There were a further ten novels about the Pimpernel, plus two volumes of short stories, two prequels about Blakeney’s ancestors, and a sequel about a descendant. This amounts to considerably more Pimpernel than I shall ever read, but the original’s still worth spending a couple of hours with.

see also:

The Secret Adversary



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