Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel

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!

Review: Scaramouche

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wish I could come up with an opening line to a review (or blog) as good as “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” So opens Scaramouche, something of a swashbuckling adventure novel set in the French Revolution. Andre’-Louis Moreau, whose parents are unknown to him, grows up under the care of godfather M. de Kercadiou in Brittany. He trains to be a lawyer and makes good progress along these lines until the day his divinity student friend Phlippe de Vilmorin is lured into a duel of swords with the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr, a master swordsman who easily kills him. From then on, Moreau and the Marquis become mortal enemies. First, Moreau takes up Vilmorin’s cause of revolutionary advocacy until his success in arousing the crowds makes him most wanted. He escapes via a traveling theatrical company and becomes the character Scaramouche, a roguish mask-wearing clown character, discovering in the process that he is Scaramouche.

Meanwhile, the Marquis courts Kercadiou’s daughter Aline who was Moreau’s childhood playmate, and thus further infuriates Moreau. When the Marquis comes to the theatre to see the troupe, (and in the process seduces la Binet, the actress Moreau had pledged to marry) Moreau seizes the opportunity in the character of Scaramouche to incite the crowd against the Marquis, who barely escapes the ensuing riot with his life. He then flees to Paris, becomes a fencing instructor and so perfects his technique that he becomes a formidable swordsman. When the Marquis uses the same technique he used against Vilmorin to dispatch other enemies of his in the Third Estate, Moreau ends up becoming a Representative in place of one of the slain, setting up the climactic confrontation.

Behind all the swashbuckling runs a political commentary on the relative merits of the status quo of ruling class-dominated rule versus the radical republican ideas of the Revolution that raises the interesting question of “can a society exist that does not have a governing class?”

Sabatini keeps this from becoming overly heavy through the interplay of characters, the intrigue, and the romantic interest that everyone but the title character sees between Moreau and Aline. Well-written and great good fun!

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