If you’re looking for a classic that’s great fun, swashbuckling and has a mysterious hero at its heart then The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is the book for you. Where else can you find a group of dashing Englishmen led by the Scarlet Pimpernel who rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French revolution and say things like “Zooks!,” “Demmed excitable little puppy” and “Odd’s fish.”
The beauty of this book is that no one knows the identity of the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel, but the French are desperate to find out who has been performing these miraculous rescues that make them look like fools. After each rescue they find his calling card marked with a red flower, the Scarlet Pimpernel… Like the French agents, the reader has to guess the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity.
Lady Marguerite Blakeney is a former French actress and now the wife of Sir Percy Blakeney, one of the richest and most fashionable lords in England and also one of the silliest. She is unhappy in her marriage as she is known to be the cleverest woman in England and her husband is a fool. A chance encounter with a French agent in England puts her in an impossible position–she must help uncover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel or her beloved brother Armand, now in France, will be sent to the guillotine. But she finds this a terrible position as she admires the Scarlet Pimpernel for his daring rescues.
I first read this book a long time ago when I was a teenager. I loved this book so much back then. Fast forward to June 2018 and Penguin Books released a gorgeously designed edition of this book as part of their Penguin English Library collection. Of course I had to get it.
I was so excited to read this again–and I still love it–but my reading tastes have matured since I was a teenager and I have read many, many books since then. This has changed my perspective on this classic and there were a few things that irked me. For example, I was disappointed by the book’s ‘heroine’ Marguerite. The author repeatedly referred to her as the cleverest woman in England but there is little evidence of that later in the book. Instead she is the classic damsel in distress needing to be rescued by the hero. I know this book is a product of its time but I am used to reading about smart, brave women in historical fiction.
Also the author kept referring to Marguerite’s beauty constantly. We get it, she’s gorgeous, no need to keep telling us on every page. And she is referred to as child-like all the time with small hands. Her tiny hands were mentioned so many times that I started to picture them as freaky doll hands like Kristin Wiigs’ Denise character from SNL.
Despite these few opinions, I have a lot of affection for The Scarlet Pimpernel and highly recommend it. It really is a joy to read.
Verdict: Be prepared for a very melodramatic story with swooning and tears, as well as lots of swashbuckling fun.
Have you ever read a book in the past and then read it again and had a different reaction to the story?