The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmuska Orczy

“A surging, seething, murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.”

During the French revolution, c1792, a band of English noblemen make daring raids across the channel to save French aristocrats from Madame la Guillotine. This group is led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, so known from the picture of the small, wayside flower symbol his communications are signed with.

When Marguerite Blakeney, a French actress recently married to Sir Percy Blakeney, is approached by the Revolutionist, Chauvelin, her quiet life of parties and spending money is thrown upside down. For, Chauvelin has proof that her beloved brother, Armand, is in league with the Pimpernel. And so Marguerite is tasked with aiding in the unmasking of France’s great enemy, or her brother will meet Mme la Guillotine instead!

The author’s title, Baroness Orczy, is a good clue that her sympathies lie with the aristocrats and not (see the opening line) the plebian pursuit of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’.

My own interest comes from the 1982 movie, staring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour, which I absolutely loved as a kid. It’s hard not to make comparisons: indeed, from what I can remember the stories are very similar. However, while the movie focuses on the action and daring of the Pimpernel more, the book is told largely from the point of view of Marguerite. Although dragged into the plots, she’s still more of a bystander, and the action levels suffer for that.

Instead, this book is a romance with a bit of adventure thrown in. That’s not awful, but I think I mostly enjoyed picturing the actors and remembering scenes from the movie, more than the actual read. And, I’m very glad that the absolutely awful anti-semitism towards the end was left out of the movie!

As a story, there’s a lot here to like – as well as a lot that requires eye-rolling suspension of disbelief – but I have to suggest that the original text maybe didn’t tell it quite at its best. SerialReader was an excellent way to make it more palatable, though, and I rather enjoyed my daily chapters. I could quite fancy digging out a copy of the film version now… !

SerialReader: 321 pages / 31 chapters
First published: 1905
Series: Scarlet Pimpernel book 1
Read from 10th July – 10th August 2019

My rating: 6/10

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