The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

In May 2020, I began a project to review classic spy novels. I selected eleven books to review, and I went to Powell’s City of Books in Portland to buy them. I was so proud of myself! I expected the project would take a year or eighteen months or even two years to complete, but here it is, three years later, and I’m not even halfway through. I wish that I could blame the stroke for that—and do partly, after all, I lost a year’s worth reviewing due to the stroke—but the project was in trouble before the stroke. 


Streaming services. YouTube videos. Vimeo videos. Computer games. Did I mention streaming services? I did, didn’t I? 

I suffer the modern curse of a low attention span. Or is it suffered—past tense? Hopefully. I canceled Netflix and, and I took YouTube and Vimeo off my television. I still watch YouTube videos, but on my tablet, and only when nothing else is going on. And I still play computer games, or I still play Civilization VI, because that’s the only game I play. What are you going to do? On television, I am watching Wondrium while I eat my meals. These programs, in approximate half hours intervals, teach me educational topics. I am now learning about the Civil War. 

And I reading more. With reading more, I am prepared to return my attention to my blog, which includes my spy thriller project. If you want to read my review for The Spy, Kim, The Secret Agent, or The Man Who Was Thursday, hit the appropriate link.

She looked at Sir Andrew with eager curiosity. The young man’s face had become almost transfigured. His eyes shore with enthusiasm; hero-worship, love, admiration for his leader seemed literally to glow upon his face. “The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle,” he said at last, “is the name of a humble England wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do.”

The French had a problem. The year was 1792, Reign of Terror, and they had all these aristocrats to behead, but they had a meddlesome Brit, who called himself The Scarlet Pimpernel, helping them to escape and to flee France. To solve the problem, they sent a spy, Chauvelin, to England to identify The Scarlet Pimpernel and put him out of…you know, business. Apparently, the French really really wanted to behead aristocrats.

Enter Marguerite Blakeley, the protagonist, who, as a French nationist living in England, was in a good position to learn the identity of the titular character. Or so Chauvelin thought. When she lived in France, she betrayed a family to the guillotine, which is why Chauvelin assumed she will help him now. Little did he know, she felt guilty about that episode in her life, which is why she came to England and married Percy Blakeley.  

As it turned out, she could help him find The Scarlet Pimpernel. She learned the Pimpernel will be at a certain place at a certain time, and she sent Chauvelin to that place to find what he will. Chauvelin had dirt on her brother, which is why she decided to help. But once she helped him, she felt guilty. She rushed to France to warn the Pimpernel and, if she can, save her brother. 

The narration has two major problems, I believe. Though Orczy tried to shield the identity of the titular character so it will be a surprise to the reader, I guessed the man’s identity almost instantly. And when he’s been identified, he donned a disguise to hide it again. Though Orczy intended the disguise to surprise the reader, I again guessed it too early. Since I’m not more clever than my readers, I imagine they will guess the identity too. Since together they account for the novel’s surprises, I would call The Scarlet Pimpernel a novel with no surprises, where everything is clear from the first to the end.

No surprises are the first but not the most significant problem with the novel. The novel lacked a climax! Or rather, it was anticlimactic. Usually, in spy thrillers, the protagonist takes decisive action to ensure their side wins, but Marguerita did nothing. Her brother and the Comte he was escorted were allowed to board the ship to England with no help from her or The Scarlet Pimpernel. I won’t tell you what befell The Scarlet Pimpernel, but let it suffice to say, it had nothing to do with the mission. 

Despite these problems, I found The Scarlet Pimpernel a charming read. It’s a novelization of the play Orczy wrote with her husband. The play’s success inspired the novel, and both were highly regarded and popular. 

For The Scarlet Pimpernel skills, Wikipedia listed fencing, but there was no swordplay in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I think that the latter works—there are eleven novels and two short story collections—is where his swordsmanship show. In this novel, we encounter his other skill; he was a master of disguise. In fact, the disguise he adopted fooled Chauvelin and Marguerite, two people who knew him well. 

Another skill he has: he inspired the loyalty of English and French men who worked for his goals. The Scarlet Pimpernel is less a specific person and more an organization of like-minded individuals. I don’t know what future novels and stories do with this, but it is the number one reason, perhaps my only reason, for reading them in the future. I haven’t decided I’m going to read the other novels, but if I do then it will be to see how the organization develops and grow, what relationship he has with men, and how he coaches and instructs them. In short, I am interested in The Scarlet Pimpernel as a leader. 

For his counterspy, Chauvelin has some explaining to do. With all his resources, including a company of soldiers, he couldn’t capture the Pimpernel. Twice! I would think that failure would inspire his own appointment with Madame Guillotine. What was his plan? Ask Marguerite for a name, get the name, and head back to France to arrest him! And failing! 

Marguerite deserves mention for she represents my favorite spy-novel motif—the reluctant spy. What she lacked in skill, she made up in courage. We can call her a double agent, for at first she helped Chauvelin and then she helped The Scarlet Pimpernel.  

Chauvelin looked at Marguerite long and scrutinizingly. I seemed as if those keen, pale eyes of his were reading every one of her thoughts. They were alone together; the evening air was quite still, and their soft whispers were drowned in the noise which came fro the coffee-room. Still, Chauvelin took a step or two from under the porch, looked quickly and keenly all round him, then, seeing that indeed no one was within earshot, he once more came back close to Marguerite.

“Will you render France a small service, citoyenne?” he asked, with a sudden change of manner, which lent his thin, fox-like face singular earnestness.

“La, man!” she replied flippantly, “how serious you look all of a sudden…Indeed I do not know if I would render France a small service—at any rate, it depends upon the kind of service she—or you—want.”

“Have you ever heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Citoyenne St. Just?” asked Chauvelin abruptly.

Born with the impossible name of Emma Magdalena Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci, she published under the name Baroness Orczy. She was born in Hungry in 1865, but her family had to flee to England when she was 14. Being aristocrats, perhaps they worried, when Hungry went into its revolution, about the placement of their own heads. She stayed in England the rest of her life, and she married George Barstow in 1892. She died in 1947. 

I’m glad I read The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I didn’t find it a sophisticated spy novel. Will I read other installments of the story? I don’t know, for sure. They might entertain me on a winter night, but right now, I feel there are better stories to read. 

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