September Swashbucklers: The Scarlet Pimpernel

Liz: The idle fop is secretly a dashing hero. This may make you think of Zorro, but it’s French aristocrats, not peons, that need saving in The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baronness Orczy.

I wonder if it’s the love of the unexpected or the feeling of being in on a secret that makes stories of heroes in disguise so thrilling. Whatever it is, that attraction is certainly present in The Scarlet Pimpernel. In addition, there’s brilliant disguises, danger, threats, secret note burnings, daring rescues, quick-witted remarks, and, for romance lovers, a man desperately in love with a woman he must pretend to be relatively indifferent to. All the makings of a great swashbuckler.

PLUS, it has a poem! One of my favorites! Think fop with monotone voice and monocle: “They seek him here. They seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven—is he in — (Ladies gasp and turn away!) That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.”

Despite the action and romance of the story, Sir Percy reciting that poem is my favorite scene.

I have watched two movie versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel. A 1934 version with Leslie Howard, and the 1982 version with Jane Seymour as Marguerite Blakeney. I prefer the 1982 version, though it differs from the book. The most notable difference is that Percy does not try to rescue the dauphin in the book, but the father of Marguerite’s friend. I was surprised to learn that Baroness Orczy wrote several books on Percy and Marguerite, so some of the adventures in the movie may be in later stories.

Having read the book more recently than watched the movie, I won’t say too much about the movie. I also don’t want to spoil anything for those who don’t know the story. And I highly recommend watching the movie and reading the book.

Only one criticism comes to mind with regard to the book: the romance is a little too worshipful. Too much talk on how beautiful, dainty, clever, etc., Marguerite is and how she’s adored. That’s a trifle annoying, but, otherwise, it’s a great novel.

Jaz: There’s no doubt about it, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel is over the top. She overuses words like “superhuman,” “childlike” and “whilst,” and the tender love scene made me laugh aloud. But that’s all part of its charm.

Whilst I reread this novel of – perchance – superhuman writing effort, my childlike wonder was awakened like a precious rosebud unfurling itself in the dim, grey light of early dawn.

Okay, not really. However, there’s plenty of action contained within, enough to last for a pleasant afternoon or two. Pride, passion, intrigue, and violence intertwined at the dawn of the French Revolution make for an entertaining read. And at the center of it all, snatching condemned aristocrats from a bloody death at the guillotine, stands a mysterious English hero known only as “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” What’s even more fun is that Orczy doesn’t reveal the hero’s identity right away – although it may be obvious to astute readers (or cheaters who google it).

On rereading The Scarlet Pimpernel, some things didn’t make much sense to me. Such as, if Armand were under the Scarlet Pimpernel’s care, why did Marguerite freak out so much about Chauvelin’s threat? Surely the fact that the Pimpernel saved countless lives meant that one extra person would be no burden.

Plus, I couldn’t empathize with the heroine. Marguerite is haughty, selfish and privileged, only caring about her husband, Percy Blakeney, once she realizes he no longer worships the ground she walks on. She deserved a good put-down (which she got, thankfully).

As for the 1934 film version … I have to say it: what a bore! The story dragged, situations were changed and new ones added in for who knows why. The film reveals the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity in the opening scenes, spoiling any mystery involved, and also altered the end. And Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon’s chemistry left something to be desired. Like chemistry. Am I being too mean? Okay, I’ll be nicer.

Aside from the chemistry thing, Howard played his part well, as did Raymond Massey in the role of Citizen Chauvelin. His villainous performance was a delight to watch. Scene-wise, one stood out: Marguerite’s dramatic moment of realization.

There are several adapations of the novel, but if you want to watch another version, might I suggest “The Scarlet Pumpernickel,” starring Daffy Duck? It’s equally inaccurate, and I guarantee you’ll laugh.