The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Emmuska Orczy

imageBook Description (Amazon): An irresistible blend of romance, intrigue, and suspense, this timeless historical adventure recalls the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, when ruthless mobs ruled the streets of Paris and hundreds of royals were condemned to face the guillotine each day. The only hope of many was a courageous leader who spirited aristocrats across the Channel to England and safety. Known by the name of the wildflower he leaves as a calling card, the Pimpernel becomes the darling of the people and is particularly admired by Marguerite Blakeney, who scorns her foppish husband as ardently as she esteems this gallant hero.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: cunning

This is one of my mom’s favorite books, and recently a girl in my book club brought it for a swap. She was raving about it, and I thought, OK, it’s time to actually read it. Since it’s a classic, it’s available for free download through the Project Gutenberg which I love. This book has something that I hate, and it’s not anything to do with the book itself. I hate when I read a book that was amazing and creative and totally new…a hundred years after it was amazing and creative and totally new. So by now, people are familiar with the idea of a hero who has a disguise. And because of that, I guessed who the Scarlet Pimpernel was very early in the book. And that was disappointing to me.

The book is set in the midst of the French Revolution when all aristocracy and anyone who might even be remotely aristocratic are being sent to the guillotine. Savage frog eaters! Meanwhile in England, a man known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel and his league of heroes have been running wild operations including dressing as old ladies to rescue as many of the aristocracy as possible. No one knows the identity of this man, but of course the French would love to know.

After the intro in France, we go to a pub “The Fisherman’s Rest” in Dover and are introduced to Andrew Ffoulkes and Antony Dewherst, two members of the league. They are waiting for some recently rescued aristocracy to arrive. Eventually the Comtesse de Tournay and her son and daughter arrive. Shortly thereafter, the most clever woman in the world, Marguerite St. Just Blakeney arrives and a fight occurs between the Comptesse and Lady Blakeney. Lady Blakeney is accused of being the one who turned the de St. Cyrs, another aristocratic family, into the authorities and the husband is still in France and will probably be executed because of her. (Marguerite was a French actress and moved to England and got married to Sir Percy Blakeney, a rich, but foolish man.)

Percy then arrives and the Comtesse’s son challenges Percy to a duel (since Percy’s wife insulted his mother). Percy continues to decline Vicomte until Marguerite steps in and basically mocks them into stopping. Marguerite then steps out to bid farewell to her brother, Armand.  During her goodbye to him, she tells her brother that Sir Percy knows about the situation regarding the Comtesse. But he doesn’t know the full story and that is why they are estranged. He leaves to go to France.

Percy leaves and Marguerite thinks back on the situation with the Marquis de St. Cyr, the family she turned into the authorities. When they were younger, her brother Armand loved one of the de St. Cyrs, but he was a mere plebeian. Despite that, he sent her a poem, and the next day he was beaten within an inch of his life for even considering the idea. After the Revolution began, she thoughtlessly mentioned the story to some people who then conveyed the story to those in charge who promptly arrested him and his family. Once they were arrested, there was nothing she could do. She was unaware how much this would upset Percy when she told him.

Marguerite heads back to The Fisherman’s Rest and runs into Chavelin, a Frenchman she was familiar with. He tells her he is there to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel and take him back to France to the guillotine.  He asks Marguerite to help him, but she laughs it off.

Later that evening only Ffoulkes and Dewherst are hanging out in the coffee room of the pub. Once they are alone, they begin to reveal that they are both working for the Scarlet Pimpernel. They are reading the instructions on how to proceed on rescuing Comte de Tournay when they are attacked by Chauvelin and his men. And in the process of searching him, they find a letter from Armand. Now Chauvelin has some blackmail to make Marguerite help him.

Chauvelin corners Marguerite at the opera, revealing her brother’s letter. She agrees to help him with his plan. She is to watch everyone who Ffoulkes and Dewherst speak to at the party they are all going to the following evening. If she succeeds in helping Chauvelin discover who the Scarlet Pimpernel is, he will return Armand’s letter to her and set him free. When Percy joins her in the booth, she doesn’t tell him anything.

At the party, she is the real belle of the ball. She manages to read a note of Dewherst’s from the Scarlet Pimpernel and uses her acting skills to evade his suspicion. She relays the information to Chauvelin. “I start tomorrow. If you wish to speak to me, I shall be in the supper room at one o’clock precisely.” Chauvelin goes into the supper room and finds Sir Blakeney napping. He waits and sees no one else until Blakeney is awakened for Marguerite to go home.

Percy and Marguerite leave the party late and head to their house on the river. Her great moral dilemma with her brother or the Scarlet Pimpernel brought her to tell Percy the full story about the de St. Cyrs. He does not seem to change his opinion of her. Eventually the story leads to her confessing that Armand is in trouble. He promises to help.

Marguerite goes to bed and awakes suddenly to find a note slipped under her door. Her husband is leaving (presumably to rescue Armand) and he is leaving immediately. She runs out to catch him, but he reveals little more.

While Percy is gone, she goes into his study, which she rarely does. Suddenly she realizes that Percy cannot be as foolish as everyone thinks since he flawlessly manages the vast fortune that he inherited. As she is pondering this, she finds the ring of the Scarlet Pimpernel (to no one’s surprise). Shortly thereafter, a runner brings her the letter that Armand wrote (which means that Chauvelin knows who the Scarlet Pimpernel is). Marguerite is completely gutted, but she keeps her senses. She goes immediately to Ffoulkes and tells him what has happened.

He agrees to help her. She sets off in her carriage and he meets her at The Fisherman’s Rest when he arrives. The intention is to sail to Calais the following day and hopefully arrive before or near Chauvelin. The weather is stormy, so it takes a while to set off. They are hoping that Percy survived in the storm. When they arrive in Calais,  they head to Chat Gris, a dirty pub. They find that Percy has been there and is expected back for dinner. Marguerite agrees to stay at the pub well hidden while Ffoulkes heads to find Percy to tip him off.

While they are both gone, Chauvelin arrives with some of his henchmen who he sends away on orders. While they are away, Percy comes in, pretending to be his idiot self, eating dinner and chatting with the spy. But at the very end, he gives Chauvelin some snuff that is filled with pepper, rendering him immobilized while Percy slips away. The men return and say that the tall Englishman talked to a nearby farmer and borrowed his cart. They are sent back to retrieve this person and come back with one of the farmer’s friends, this Polish Jew who offers up his cart for payment. Chauvelin agrees.

They head out to Pere Blanchard’s hut, and Marguerite follows. I don’t really understand how she managed to keep up with a horse cart but perhaps they weren’t going very fast. They arrive at the hut with no sign of Percy, but his ship is parked nearby.  Marguerite sees the boat and plans to go alert the people (her brother and Comte) inside the hut, however she is seen and captured. Chauvelin’s plan is to wait outside the hut for Percy to arrive and the soldiers are not to do anything to the fugitives inside until Percy arrives and Chauvelin gives the orders.

Eventually Percy in his “typical” fashion is heard down the beach singing “God Save the Queen”. Marguerite realizes that her brother is about to be killed so she screams and tries to make it to the hut. She is stopped and the soldiers go inside to grab the fugitives, but they are gone. One of the soldiers saw them sneak out but his orders were not to do anything to them until Chauvelin gave orders. The soldiers eventually realize that the fugitives have headed out to Percy’s boat and are getting away.

Chauvelin leaves the Jew to be beaten and leaves Marguerite just because as he and the rest of his men try to cut off Percy from where he is heading (a note was found in the hut). Once the soldiers leave, Marguerite realizes that Percy is the Jew and the Scarlet Pimpernel has once again evaded capture. The boat was given orders to return to get him, and Ffoulkes appears to help Percy and Marguerite get to the boat and return to England. Percy and Marguerite end their estrangement and happy endings all around.

Verdict: 4 stars.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to rank this book. If I were being completely honest, I’d have given it 3.5 stars, but I bumped it up the remaining 0.5 because of its literary influence. I suspect that the Scarlet Pimpernel might have implanted the idea that created such characters as Superman. I felt the first half of the book was a bit slow, but I did enjoy the second half. And in terms of classics, I’d prefer this to a Dickens any day!

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