Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1905 and was, as the saying goers, a publishing phenomenon. So successful was it that she produced no less than thirteen sequels. With this novel she also created a new type of hero, a hero who would have countless successors.
Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci, usually known as Emmuska, was born in Hungary in 1865. Her family were forced to leave Hungary and eventually settled in London where the fifteen-year-old Emmuska began to learn English, the language in which her vast output of novels and stories would be written. Initially her literary endeavours met with mixed success. The Scarlet Pimpernel, her second novel, was rejected by a dozen publishers. She turned it into a play which became a hit after which the novel finally found a publisher and promptly became a bestseller. As well as the many Pimpernel sequels she wrote many other works of historical and spy fiction as well as a considerable number of detective stories (of which the Old Man in the Corner series is very highly regarded).
Baroness Orczy was an aristocratic by both birth and inclination so that when she decided to try her hand at historical adventure fiction it’s perhaps not surprising that the grim fate of the French aristocracy after the Revolution should have attracted her attention. Her hero, an English aristocrat, would be a man with a dual identity. To outward appearances Sir Percy Blakeney is one of the biggest fools in England, an effete dandy who would be even more widely despised if he were not so rich. In reality Blakeney is a bold, brave, daring and very intelligent man who works as a kind of freelance secret agent. With a group of other young English noblemen he rescues French aristocrats from the shadow of the guillotine at the height of the Terror in the early 1790s.
The hero with a secret identity would go on to become one of the most ubiquitous devices in popular fiction. Zorro, Batman, the Green Hornet - these heroes were all based directed on Orczy’s model.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is as much a romance as a tale of adventure. Sir Percy Blakeney has a wife named Marguerite, a Frenchwoman. Lady Blakeney is, ironically suspected of betraying French aristocrats into the hands of the dreaded Committee of Public Safety and thus leading them to the guillotine. This has soured her marriage although she has no idea that her inane good-natured husband is really the Scarlet Pimpernel. Of course things are not so simple as they appear to be. The resolution of their romantic difficulties occupies a good deal of the author’s time.
It has to be admitted that these two strands of the story, the romantic and the adventurous, are woven together with great dexterity.
In this first adventure the Scarlet Pimpernel must not only rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, he must also keep himself out of the clutches of the dangerous and determined representative of the Committee of Public Safety, Chauvelin. While he is thus occupied Marguerite must find a way to save her husband from the consequences of her own indiscretions.
A modern reader may find that there’s not as much action as might be expected. In fact there’s rather less action than can be found in other contemporary swashbucklers such as Anthony Hope’s 1894 The Prisoner of Zenda. While Orczy might be a little weak on action scenes she’s undeniably skillful when it comes to building suspense, and she’s very skillful indeed in putting her hero in situations from which we feel he cannot possibly escape (but of course he does). The Scarlet Pimpernel relies on his wits rather than on swordsmanship or fisticuffs. In that respect he is of course a quite plausible hero; real-life spies are likely to find that cunning is rather more useful than fighting skills.
Sir Percy Blakeney is one of the great popular fiction heroes. He was the template for later similar heroes but none surpassed him for sheer heroic bravado or for the skill with which he wore the mask of the fool.
In Chauvelin he has a worthy adversary - an implacable fanatic of great intelligence and extraordinary deviousness and one of the great literary villains.
Sir Percy Blakeney’s own political views are never explicitly mentioned - his passionate opposition to the French Revolutionaries is moral rather than political. For all their high talk of liberty, equality and brotherhood they have only succeeded in creating a bloodbath and a police state. Both the author and her hero also have a shrewd understanding of the way that Revolutions inevitably devour their own. It is made quite clear that those who live in greatest fear are the Revolutionaries themselves - at any moment they may be denounced for a lack of revolutionary zeal and find themselves facing the guillotine themselves. Terror breeds more terror and no-one is safe.
This story is pure melodrama but there’s nothing wrong with melodrama when it’s well executed, as it is here. The mix of suspense, romance and humour is consistently engaging. The Scarlet Pimpernel has a great deal of historical importance as having inspired so much of the adventure fiction of the 20th century and for that reason alone it is essential reading for fans of the genre. It’s also a highly entertaining tale in its own right. Recommended.