The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy. New York: Puffin Books, 1997 (originally published in 1905).
Summary: An adventure set in Revolutionary France as a secret league led by the Scarlet Pimpernel rescues prisoners headed to the guillotine as a French agent ruthlessly seeks to track him down.
It’s 1792 in Revolutionary France. Day after day the aristocracy is going to the guillotine. All it takes is the denunciation of a citizen. The whole story of the Scarlet Pimpernel centers around one aristocrat family denounced by the beautiful French actress, Marguerite St. Just. The Marquis de St. Cyr had beaten her brother Armand for his interest in the Marquis’s daughter Suzanne. Marguerite’s denunciation sent them to prison, awaiting execution.
Except. They have the fortune to be rescued by the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, so named for the little flower that appeared on the dispatches of the leader of this secret society. The St. Cyrs make it through the barricades secreted in a wagon driven by an old hag, one of the disguises used by the Pimpernel himself, known for accomplishing impossible rescues.
Marguerite has done well for herself, marrying a wealthy English baronet, Sir Percy Blakeney. He is a fun-loving fop of a man and they make a dashing couple. Then, they encounter Suzanne and her mother and brother at a coastal inn, and Marguerite is shunned by them for her role in denouncing them to the French. This knowledge creates an estrangement between Marguerite and Percy, who looks down at her for betraying the St. Cyrs, although he remains unfailingly courteous.
Enter the French agent Chauvelin, who follows the refugees to England, determined to find the Scarlet Pimpernel. From papers on two league members, he discovers that Marguerite’s brother Armand is part of the League and has gone back to Paris to assist in the rescue of the Marquis de St. Cyr. He uses this and Marguerite’s privileged access to English society to pressure her to help him discover the Scarlet Pimpernel to save Armand. She detests him but reluctantly agrees, only discover that the information points to someone else very close to her, who she had least suspected!
The climax takes her back to France to warn off the Pimpernel, only to fall into Chauvelin’s grasp, even as he tightens the cordon on the Pimpernel himself. I’ll leave you to discover how things end.
This is a classic adventure story for both youth and adults and made a diverting summer vacation read. Chauvelin is the classic villain and the Scarlet Pimpernel the classic swashbuckling hero. The characters are stereotypes and the writing can be overblown at times, yet in the end this was a satisfying and engaging read. Baroness Orczy tells a great story!
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