The Scarlet Pimpernel: ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ (RRHS)

Scarlet Pimpernel

God, save me from adventure novels. I probably don’t mean that, but this is two in a row that just aren’t much beyond the surface of the words themselves. Before you leave, you should know that The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t bad, it’s just simple; nothing more or less than it appears. When I read it my senior year of high school, however, I was enthralled by it. In fact, I’ve recommended this book to countless people since, throughout the entirety of my undergraduate studies.

The book is, however, simply a moderately well spun adventure story concerning Marguerite St. Just, her husband Percy, and the dealings of a small group of Englishmen in smuggling French Aristocrats out of France during the height of the French Revolution. It is loaded to the brim with unique characters that are interesting for the moments they appear on the pages, but suffers from what I would accuse of being “filler.”

The novel opens in France, where a haughty officer prides himself in being able to catch and humiliate any aristocrat who dares to attempt to sneak past him. Word through the ranks tells him of an illusive Englishmen who is known only by his calling card, The Scarlet Pimpernel. This man has been notorious for smuggling French families past any gate at any time, right under the nose of the best French guards in the republic. He is uncatchable, nearly a myth; a superhero, if you will. As the infamous guard is recounting all this, a cart with an old woman at its helm drives up. He searches the cart thoroughly and declares it to be clean. Shortly afterwards, a runner, exasperated, finds the guard and declares that the woman was the Scarlet Pimpernel in disguise! He’s fooled them again!

After this chapter, the reader is forced to sit through around 120 pages of almost nothing happening. Orczy tells us of Marguerite’s complex background, her establishment as the “most clever woman in England,” and her dull husband Percy Blakeney. Really, the novel is written in such a way that it reads like a Jane Austen book, but yet is a spy thriller. I’m puzzled with my high school self who could easily make it through this novel and love it, yet couldn’t make it through twenty-five pages of Things Fall Apart, which is terrific in its entirety. The problems with The Scarlet Pimpernel stem mainly from Orczy not following up on her own claims. Marguerite is not really that clever. As much as Orczy claims that she is a woman of high tastes, well-versed in all types of high minded enterprises, Marguerite is simply a dull character. She claims to have all of these interests, but there’s no representation of that in her thoughts or speech. She is a vehicle for Orczy to admire The Scarlet Pimpernel. She often says things that play into general stereotypes of women, and while this book is from 1905, I can’t help but be annoyed with that. This all builds up to the end in which she is simply a damsel in distress.

Then there is the general pro-aristocracy air that the book has. The book is very much a critique of the French revolution, taking the side of the monarchy. It is by making the narrative disperse through the eyes of a random person caught in the middle of a secret organization that is helping aristocrats escape France that Orczy makes the idea of the French Revolution seem deeply mistrustful. She boils it down to “So and so is being executed” and lets that suffice as being proof of the error of the ways of France. In no way do I support lopping off the heads of those who politically stand in the way of equality of all people, but I also do not think that it’s really that simple. What is more upsetting is Orczy’s reasoning for the Scarlet Pimpernel’s continual treks into France to bring people back to England: For Sport.

I find the philosophy behind the book to be this: “We are rich, we are smart, we know better than the French, we need to save them from themselves.” It stinks of interventionism and general meddling in affairs that don’t affect anyone that the person meddling actually knows. It’s not that it’s bad that the Scarlet Pimpernel is saving people, no doubt it is good, but I don’t think the Pimpernel thinks for a moment that the French can help themselves. Combine this with general stereotyping of cultures and people for humor in the book, and Orczy’s novel is not nearly as good as I remember it being. I wanted to like it so much, but it just falls flat. The Scarlet Pimpernel is too much of a fantasy to be believable. Daniel Day Lewis could not pull off the acting feats that the Pimpernel manages.

However, if you are not the kind of person that reads a novel and thinks about what that novel’s philosophy is espousing, then the story itself is fun and intriguing. I, however, am not that sort of reader anymore. For me, The Scarlet Pimpernel is good until you think about it.

Recommended to: Those who enjoy a story for what it is, a story, and don’t want to think about or don’t care what a story’s philosophy is.

Avoid as if its getting open and you’re Dez Bryant who is on my fantasy team and letting me down every week, COME ON, DEZ: People who want the novels they read to have some real substance to them.

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