Opening Passages: Orczy does beginnings very well, so it's worth indulging in some longer quotations. From The Scarlet Pimpernel:
A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant raised an undying monument to the nation’s glory and his own vanity.
During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity. The carnage had only ceased at this late hour of the day because there were other more interesting sights for the people to witness, a little while before the final closing of the barricades for the night.
And so the crowd rushed away from the Place de la Grève and made for the various barricades in order to watch this interesting and amusing sight.
It was to be seen every day, for those aristos were such fools! They were traitors to the people of course, all of them, men, women, and children, who happened to be descendants of the great men who since the Crusades had made the glory of France: her old noblesse. Their ancestors had oppressed the people, had crushed them under the scarlet heels of their dainty buckled shoes, and now the people had become the rulers of France and crushed their former masters—not beneath their heel, for they went shoeless mostly in these days—but beneath a more effectual weight, the knife of the guillotine.
From I Will Repay:
"Coward! Coward! Coward!"
The words rang out, clear, strident, passionate, in a crescendo of agonised humiliation.
The boy, quivering with rage, had sprung to his feet, and, losing his balance, he fell forward clutching at the table, whilst with a convulsive movement of the lids, he tried in vain to suppress the tears of shame which were blinding him.
From The Elusive Pimpernel:
There was not even a reaction.
On! ever on! in that wild, surging torrent; sowing the wind of anarchy, of terrorism, of lust of blood and hate, and reaping a hurricane of destruction and of horror.
On! ever on! France, with Paris and all her children still rushes blindly, madly on; defies the powerful coalition,—Austria, England, Spain, Prussia, all joined together to stem the flow of carnage,—defies the Universe and defies God!
Paris this September 1793!—or shall we call it Vendemiaire, Year I. of the Republic?—call it what we will! Paris! a city of bloodshed, of humanity in its lowest, most degraded aspect. France herself a gigantic self-devouring monster, her fairest cities destroyed, Lyons razed to the ground, Toulon, Marseilles, masses of blackened ruins, her bravest sons turned to lustful brutes or to abject cowards seeking safety at the cost of any humiliation.
That is thy reward, oh mighty, holy Revolution! apotheosis of equality and fraternity! grand rival of decadent Christianity.
From "Sir Percy Explains", the first short story in The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel:
It was not, Heaven help us all! a very uncommon occurrence these days: a woman almost unsexed by misery, starvation, and the abnormal excitement engendered by daily spectacles of revenge and of cruelty. They were to be met with every day, round every street corner, these harridans, more terrible far than were the men.
This one was still comparatively young, thirty at most; would have been good-looking too, for the features were really delicate, the nose chiselled, the brow straight, the chin round and small. But the mouth! Heavens, what a mouth! Hard and cruel and thin-lipped; and those eyes! sunken and rimmed with purple; eyes that told tales of sorrow and, yes! of degradation. The crowd stood round her, sullen and apathetic; poor, miserable wretches like herself, staring at her antics with lack-lustre eyes and an ever-recurrent contemptuous shrug of the shoulders.
Summary: When The Scarlet Pimpernel opens, it is late 1792. The French Revolution has created the First Republic of France; the Reign of Terror is slowly beginning to take form, and any ci-devant (i.e., former) aristocrats ("aristos"), or their sympathizers, who are deemed to stand in the way of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, are in danger of the guillotine. However, Revolutionary France is ablaze not just with upheaval but also with rumors of a man, known only under the nom de guerre of the Scarlet Pimpernel who, in almost supernatural ways, has been whisking ci-devants away from the threat of the Madame le Guillotine to the safety of England.
Needless to say, the Scarlet Pimpernel is all the talk in England, as well, where the extraordinarily beautiful and intelligent Frenchwoman, Marguerite St. Just, has married Sir Percy Blakeney, an extraordinarily wealthy and foppish Englishman. They had married for love, but after the marriage, Sir Percy had discovered that Marguerite had denounced an aristocrat, the Marquis de St. Cyr, to the Revolutionary government; she had background personal reasons, but when Sir Percy learned of it, their relationship chilled, with Sir Percy treating her in the same inane, foppish way he treats everyone else, and Marguerite, unhappy, responding by mocking him in public with an art at which only a Frenchwoman can excel. At this point, a new player enters the scene, Citizen Chauvelin, a representative on the Revolutionary government now in England as an envoy, who knew Marguerite before her marriage. Chauvelin has evidence that Marguerite's brother Armand is in contact with the Scarlet Pimpernel, and uses it to blackmail Marguerite into getting information that can lead to identifying the mysterious man. It is not much of a spoiler to note that Sir Percy is in fact the Scarlet Pimpernel; Chauvelin figures it out relatively quickly, and Marguerite not long after. (Indeed, it is a peculiarity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, at least for those of us who know comic-book-style characters who inherit some of his features, that while his identity is a secret, he does not really rely very much on keeping it secret. The secret identity is the least important tool in his kit, and, in fact, he uses it more to build a reputation around what he is doing than to protect himself.) Chauvelin hatches a plan to capture him. But he has not reckoned with the sheer audacity of the man he is hunting.
I Will Repay tells of Juliette de Marny, who had been made to swear as a young girl to avenge the death of her brother, seeking out her vengeance against the man who killed him, Paul Déroulède. It is August of 1793 when Juliette puts her plan into motion; revolutionary tribunals have been set up to try people on suspicion of aristocracy and bad citizenship, and there is an ongoing push to expand who counts as a suspect. She tricks her way into Déroulède's household, where she finds that he is going to be appointed Governor of the prison that is holding Marie Antoinette, and more particularly overhears him discussing with his friend, Sir Percy Blakeney, a plan to free her from prison. In the meantime, the Law of Suspects has been passed, which makes even being a suspected opponent of the Revolution -- defined in a fairly broad way -- a crime. But Juliette realizes a bit too late that she has fallen in love with the man she has essentially sentenced to the guillotine, and no one can extricate them from the mess except the Scarlet Pimpernel.
With The Elusive Pimpernel we get the return of Chauvelin. Chauvelin was somewhat disgraced by his failure to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel before, but, a cunning man, he has used the fact that he is the only one in the Revolutionary government who knows who the Scarlet Pimpernel is to save himself from a harsher fate. Now he is out to redeem himself for the past failure and revenge himself on the Scarlet Pimpernel. He arranges for a French actress living in England to wear a set of distinctive jewels once belonging to the de Marny family to a party hosted by the Blakeneys for the Prince of Wales. He does this knowing that Juliette de Marny has been staying with the Blakeneys, and he uses to instigate a situation in which he and Sir Percy, as a matter of honor, are pledged to a duel in France on a certain day. Chauvelin, of course, does not intend to duel Sir Percy but to seize him, knowing that Sir Percy cannot back down from a duel he was pledged to fight in the presence of the Prince of Wales, but he has also given himself insurance this time by tricking Marguerite so that she becomes his prisoner and hostage. In addition, Robespierre and the Revolutionary government have added a layer of insurance of their own, holding the entire city of Boulogne hostage, threatening to kill the breadwinner of every family if Marguerite St. Just escapes. This was, I think, very well done; Chauvelin's plot covers all bases very well, and the problem of how the Scarlet Pimpernel will save not only himself but also Marguerite and the entire city of Boulogne is one with no obvious solution. But it does have a solution. Chauvelin, here and elsewhere, is always portrayed as an extremely intelligent villain, someone who can plan a brilliant trap, but he is always outmatched by the Scarlet Pimpernel, whose plans are always audaciously simple, precisely because the latter's plans are audaciously simple, and Chauvelin's well-designed plans unravel around actions of the Scarlet Pimpernel that are so impudently bold that Chauvelin could not have anticipated them.
The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel is a collection of short stories, generally taking place throughout 1793, that give us a greater insight into how the Scarlet Pimpernel uses one of his tools, the League of the title, and also lets us see his actions from different perspectives. We also see additional dark sides of the Revolutionary Terror, such as the stealing and degradation of aristocratic children, the September Massacres, and endless layers of entrapment. The antagonists are various, but Chauvelin appears in three of these: "Sir Percy Explains", "Needs Must--", and "A Battle of Wits". As the title of the last of these indicates, in each Chauvelin seems to come within a hair's breadth of outwitting the Scarlet Pimpernal, but each time finds himself outmatched.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is primarily able to accomplish what he accomplishes by four things: boldness, a lot of wealth to spread among a very bribable populace, an extraordinary talent for disguise, and a profound knowledge of human nature. The combination of these are very well depicted; the sheer extent of Blakeney's ability to disguise himself is perhaps at the edge of believability, but only at the edge, and everything is brought together in a plausible way in a fantastic feat. I particularly liked how the Scarlet Pimpernel is consistently able to turn the Revolution against itself. For instance, despite the Revolutionary talk of liberty, in Revolutionary France you don't ever want to be seen as standing in the way of government business, because that leads to the guillotine, so someone who can pass himself off as the right kind of government official at the right time can get away with almost anything. Likewise, the Revolution makes a fuss about equality, but in fact people with a certain kind background are, if not quite above suspicion, nonetheless protected in ways that other people aren't. And the Revolution may speak of fraternity, but in a society of informers where you can be killed just for associating with the wrong people, mutual suspicion and enmity provides chinks in what seems otherwise to be an impressive state apparatus. Meanwhile, who is actually representative of liberty, equality, and fraternity, if not the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel?
I also watched the 1934 and 1982 film adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel, or rather re-watched, since I had seen both before. (Strictly speaking, the film adaptations mingle The Scarlet Pimpernel with elements of other Scarlet Pimpernel books, most notably Eldorado.) Of the two, the 1934 version (with Leslie Howard as Sir Percy, Merle Oberon as Marguerie, and Raymond Massey as Chauvelin) is the better adaptation. It has a tighter story and better pacing. The 1982 adapation (with Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy, Jane Seymour as Marguerie, and Ian McKellan as Chauvelin) does have some nice features. But, as I said, I had seen both of these movies before, and whereas I had vivid memory of some of the 1934 scenes, I didn't even recall that I had seen the 1982 version before, until I started watching it again. In any case, I don't have much to say about them, beyond the fact that I saw the 1934 version when I was a teenager, and have never forgotten the scene in which Sir Percy first delivers the lines which weave in and out of the stories:
We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? -- Is he in hell?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel?
Favorite Passage: There are remarkably many good passages. Some of the humor is very well done. From The Elusive Pimpernel:
“Ah!” said Chauvelin with a sigh of satisfaction, “I see that we are about to understand one another.... I have always felt it was a pity, Sir Percy, that you and I could not discuss certain matters pleasantly with one another.... Now, about this unfortunate incident of Lady Blakeney's incarceration, I would like you to believe that I had no part in the arrangements which have been made for her detention in Paris. My colleagues have arranged it all... and I have vainly tried to protest against the rigorous measures which are to be enforced against her in the Temple prison.... But these are answering so completely in the case of the ex-queen, they have so completely broken her spirit and her pride, that my colleagues felt that they would prove equally useful in order to bring the Scarlet Pimpernel—through his wife—to an humbler frame of mind.”
He paused a moment, distinctly pleased with his peroration, satisfied that his voice had been without a tremor and his face impassive, and wondering what effect this somewhat lengthy preamble had upon Sir Percy, who through it all had remained singularly quiet. Chauvelin was preparing himself for the next effect which he hoped to produce, and was vaguely seeking for the best words with which to fully express his meaning, when he was suddenly startled by a sound as unexpected as it was disconcerting.
It was the sound of a loud and prolonged snore. He pushed the candle aside, which somewhat obstructed his line of vision, and casting a rapid glance at the enemy, with whose life he was toying even as a cat doth with that of a mouse, he saw that the aforesaid mouse was calmly and unmistakably asleep.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
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