Welcome to a Late to the Party of a book that launched a franchise and invented the secret identity: Baroness Emma Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, adapted from her 1903 play and first published in 1905. Though there are countless earlier examples of characters taking on other identities or impersonating someone else, this is recognized as the first time a character maintained dual identities: the well-known hero and the meek, unassuming civilian. It’s a fairly straight line from Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to The Shadow and other pulp heroes to superheroes like Superman and Batman.
There will be spoilers here so be forewarned. But, also, it’s a 115 year old book.
How’d We Get Here?
I probably first learned about the character from Chuck Jones’ 1950 cartoon The Scarlet Pumpernickel starring Daffy Duck and a surprisingly high number of guest stars. I probably heard of the original character reading through my elementary school library’s The Encyclopedia of Superheroes by Jeff Rovin. If you needed to know about a superhero who existed prior to the early 1980s, this was the book for you. That inspired me to get this book since I already liked adventure novels but it just sat on my shelf. But at least I recognized the main characters making appearances as members of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or references to them in Sailor Moon’s Tuxedo Mask throwing a red rose, or The Last Jedi’s Master Codebreaker being identifiable by wearing a “red plom bloom.” And I can’t prove it but I think the number of rings in Lord of the Rings is related to The Scarlet Pimpernel’s league (“one to command, and nineteen to obey.”)
With the excuse of Late to the Party, I at last cracked the spine in this $5.99 book that’s moved twice.
But I had developed one reservation about it: its classism. The book is by a Baroness who as a child fled her native Hungaria fearing a peasant revolution eventually settling in England who then told tales of a wealthy Englishman protecting wealthy Frenchmen from a revolution. I’m an eat-the-rich liberal. I post in the PT. Would the book annoy me? To get in the mood for the book, I listened to the French Revolution episodes of Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast.
It’s a very easy book to read. It skips by and is dialogue heavy. It’s not surprising to learn it was adapted from a play. There are multiple chapters that all take place in the same location with the characters making dramatic entrances and exits. It’s also got a few characters with thick accents which may have been fun for audiences but were a chore to read. (“Lud! Mr. ‘Arry, ‘ow you made me jump!”)
The worst sin of the writing is its repetitiveness. We’re told about Percy Blakeney’s “inane laugh” 11 times. A waitress is described as “buxom” twice in four pages. We get it, we didn’t forget. Our primary protagonist Marguerite Blakeney gets blackmailed and we are reminded of this fact multiple times in a single page. Here’s how the narrator explains some backstory in Chapter 8: “The next night he was waylaid just outside Paris by the valets of the Marquis de St. Cyr, and ignominiously thrashed—thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life—because he had dared to raise his eyes to the daughter of the aristocrat.” And here’s a character telling the same story in Chapter 16: “the Marquis de St. Cyr had my brother Armand thrashed—thrashed by his lacqueys—that brother whom I loved better than all the world! And his offence? That he, a plebeian, had dared to love the daughter of the aristocrat; for that he was waylaid and thrashed … thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life!” I wound up skimming some paragraphs because I got the gist and there wasn’t anything in engaging in the language.
The timing of the story is interesting in that from the beginning, it plays fast and loose with history. Chapter 1 is titled “Paris: September, 1792” but it depicts events and organizations (Robspierre and The Committee of Public Safety) that wouldn’t come to power until April 1793. Why doesn’t it actually take place in April 1793? Because England and France went to war in February 1793 which would complicate the travel necessary for the plot. Why not reflect what was actually happening in September 1792? Because it’s not the bloody apex people think of when they hear “the French Revolution.” The plot requires the guillotine to be piling up heads. One added twist of this proprietary timeline is that the climax takes place on my birthday. The only specific date mentioned in the book is my birthday which I read a week beforehand. That was… unnerving.
So what happens? No sword fights that’s what. This is not the rousing adventure that Daffy Duck pitched to Jack Warner. No one wears a mask, apparently that’s Zorro’s contribution to the archetype. Outside of his small team, no one knows they’re interacting with the Scarlet Pimpernel until after the fact. The book is less an adventure than a mystery. We are not following Percy Blakeney as he alternates projecting the life of an idle, rich dullard while arranging and enacting daring escapes. Instead we follow his wife Marguerite Blakeney (née St Just), the most fashionable woman in all of Europe, who is blackmailed into discovering the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel on behalf of the French government.
This switch of expectations almost works except that Marguerite isn’t clever or forceful enough to do much but fret and observe. Her role is determined by her backstory. She and her brother grew up in France with rich friends and acquaintances but were not rich themselves as they could be thrashed like a dog within an inch of their life. When Marguerite could extract revenge on the man who had her brother thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life, she reported the man’s betrayal to the French Republican government and he and his family were executed. Later, she met and married the richest man in England and after their wedding, she confessed that she snitched on the dead guy. Their marriage turns cold and they rarely speak.
Now, to save her brother from French imprisonment, she is forced to identify the Scarlet Pimpernel even though she doesn’t know who he is. She manages to find and provide the French a clue so they can identify him and release her from her bond. Afterwards, Marguerite has the first of two meaningful conversations in the book with her husband, she connects the dots and realizes the French are after her husband. So she contacts one of the Pimpernel’s assistants and he makes the arrangements so they can head to France. There she watches other characters first from an attic and then running behind a wagon before being captured until Percy unties her. She’s the last one to solve the mystery and doesn’t do much after she does.
Percy is also underserved by being kept at arm’s length. Even after the mystery is over, we spend almost no time with the real him. We see the rich idiot he pretends to be and the disguises he wears as an 18th Century coyote but never behind those veils. We never get inside his head and learn why he does what he does. The closest we come is knowing he didn’t trust Marguerite with his secrets.
That’s a recurring problem with the book: it doesn’t go deep enough into its material. Marguerite feels guilty for the family’s execution but what did she think would happen to a treasonous man in the French Revolution? There is no discussion of her brother’s reaction to the girl he loved being executed. Though we know he joined the Scarlet Pimpernel’s League but what does he think of his sister? Her past is not a secret as other French characters know. How does he feel about keeping her in the dark? We don’t know because it doesn’t come up in the one brief chapter he appears in.
Sadly, my classist fears were correct. The book presents the French Revolution as being entirely about the poor rising up against the rich. The book only deals with the problems of the rich. Orczy doesn’t acknowledge, for example, those accused of being counter-revolutionaries or not virtuous enough. The Scarlet Pimpernel and his League will save a few people from the Second Estate but leave the majority to die. How do they decide who to save? Again, we don’t know.
Beyond it’s simplistic view of the Revolution, visits to two pubs reveal an anti-French outlook. The characters twice visit an English pub staffed by simple folks who are dedicated to customer service, take pride in their work, are trustworthy and go out of their way to help their rich customers. But they also look down on the local fishermen. Meanwhile, the staff of a French pub the characters visit are insulting, inattentive and slovenly.
There’s also a lengthy antisemitic section at the end. Percy disguises himself as a Jewish person by evoking every stereotype possible. He does this because he knows “these Frenchmen […] so loathe a Jew, that they never come nearer than a couple of yards of him, and begad! I fancy that I contrived to make myself look about as loathsome an object as it is possible to conceive.” One could make a case that the characters are antisemitic but the narration agrees and repeatedly details each of these stereotypes as facts. It was tough.
Having read the book, I decided to watch the 1934 film adaptation It was directed by Harold Young and starred Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon as Percy and Marguerite, respectively. And… this mostly fixes my problems with the structure. They abandon the mystery and instead we see Percy change between identities. There’s a well-done switch when he needs to become a silly idiot to distract and drive away people.
There is a change to the backstory that I think it rather inventive. Marguerite’s revenge on the executed family is for herself, not her brother which raises less questions about him. (Though she was not thrashed like a dog within an inch of her life.) She tells this rumor to the villain who later blackmails her into hunting the Pimpernel which provides them a shared history. And Percy says that he witnessed that execution (“the first” of its kind) though refuses to confirm that’s why he does what he does. This ties the three characters together giving their later collision greater emotional stakes.
There’s more action in it. Still no sword fights but we see the escapes rather than just being told about them after the fact. The characters are more confrontational. The ending is redone to avoid the unnecessary antisemitism and reduce the number of locations/sets which speeds things up. Marguerite still doesn’t do much but she tries.
There’s also an attempt to introduce a Percy-Marguerite-Scarlet Pimpernel love triangle. It doesn’t work but it’s a fun idea. There are more scenes with Percy and Marguerite talking to each other which is necessary since there’s no narrator to explain their marriage has grown cold. It’s less a quiet stalemate than a cold war. At one point, he tells her that she’s in love with the Pimpernel which is confusing for her and the audience as she isn’t shown to think about him other than now being forced to find him. But the seed here is planted that would sprout into actual two-person love triangles like Clark-Lois-Superman a few years later.
My Final Thoughts
I could complain that it’s not a swashbuckling hero in a mask and cape throwing a flower down after swinging in and rescuing a damsel in distress. But that’s my preconceived notions. I have to judge the book by what it is, not what I imagined it would be.
The book reads quickly but it spends too much time repeating itself instead of adding depth or engaging with it’s material. Making our protagonist not be the titular character was a welcome surprise but then she’s ineffective and uninspiring. Baroness Orczy wrote 13 sequels and prequels and several short stories about or related to the Scarlet Pimpernel. Perhaps Marguerite is more of a partner and active in the other books that star them but I’m not tempted to find out. There’s no denying the book was an innovator but others took the secret identity idea and did it better.