The Scarlet Pimpernel: adventure novel or psychological drama?

Written by the Hungarian Baroness Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel describes the turmoil in Paris during the French Revolution, when the French nobility were viewed as enemies to the state and executed en masse. When the English resistance tries to save aristocrat families from the guillotine by smuggling them out of the city, they are aided by the mysterious hero in disguise: The Scarlet Pimpernel (ooh! ah!).

Daffy Duck as The Scarlet Pumpernickel
Also lovely: Daffy Duck as The Scarlet Pumpernickel!

Now there’s a lot to be said about this book. You could talk about its historic value, its original form in series and plays (see the link below), the portrayal of French and British politics, and so on. What I found most captivating is the relationship between the Scarlet Pimpernel and his wife. When the identity of the pimpernel is still a mystery to all, Percy and Marguerite Blakeney seem like the perfect couple for a farce. She’s a French coquette, he’s a slow-witted Brit. After a rather serious dispute, the couple can’t remember what brought them together in the first place, and their communication is reduced to public banter. Neither is satisfied with the situation, but as they’re both stunted by their pride, they’re unable to reach out to each other. Only when their initial roles are reversed do they become full, dynamic characters and do they let go of their charades. The slow, meek Percy transforms into the daring Pimpernel, while our coquettish socialite is humbled by self-sacrifice to aid her husband and his cause.

In most adventure novels, romance is characterized by a sentimental formula: woman faints, man saves the day, that sort of stuff. In this book, there is one moment when all that changes. When Percy leaves for a “business trip” (read: masquerading rescue mission) and says goodbye to his wife, they both feel a sudden longing to tear down the barrier between them. Unfortunately their pride stops them, and the conversation stays generic. Afterwards, both of them break down, believing they missed their one chance. This scene captured a feeling I think we all know too well. Here The Scarlet Pimpernel stopped being just another adventure novel, and became something more. I’m not a fan of moralizing literature, but this just might be an exception.

The following review is written by my former supervisor, whose intuitive research approach always inspired me to follow my own instinct in the field: The unexpected reach of The Scarlet Pimpernel.


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