The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy

07 Nov

Overall rating: 4 stars

Storyline: The cleverest woman in Europe has a choice between betraying her brother or her husband.

I recently read the Scarlet Pimpernel for school, and I really enjoyed it. We did a little literary analysis on it in class, but I, being the insane person that I am, decided I wanted to do more on my own. This is the result.

It’s a fairly short novel, and despite being most often categorized as a romance, it really reads more like an action and adventure book. I found it to be the perfect balance of romance and adventure. Let me put it this way: Whether you like true love or superheroes, this book is sure to entertain you.

——SPOILERS!—–If you don’t want the Scarlet Pimpernel thoroughly spoiled for you, then don’t read this post. Consider yourself warned!

It takes place during the French Revolution, half of it set in England and half in France. The unknown Scarlet Pimpernel is a brave and much admired Englishman who sneaks into France and smuggles out aristocrats from under the revolution’s very nose. Needless to say, the French don’t like him much and the English look up to him as a hero. None know of his true identity. (Sounds sorta like a superhero, wouldn’t you say?)

The protagonist is Lady Marguerite Blakeney, wife of Sir Percy. The first scene is set in fhe Fisherman’s Rest, an inn by a harbor from which one could sail from England to France. The story begins with a large gathering of characters, and really picks up when Margerite secretly bids goodbye to her beloved brother Armand, who is going to sneak back into France to assist the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Almost immediately, it is revealed that Lady Blakeney is in fact a trend-setter in London and is known as the “cleverest woman in Europe” while her husband Sir Percy is, shall we say, of less than average intelligence. It is also revealed early on that Margrueite was partially responsible for the death of several French aristocrats, as she is a native of France and saw it as helping her country. She keeps the whole affair hush-hush as in England such goings on are not looked upon favorably.

Lady Blakeney then has a conversation with a Frenchman named Chauvelin, who is later revealed as the antagonist, about the Scarlet Pimpernel. Chauvelin entreats her to help him find the Scarlet Pimpernel, and even goes so far as to ask her on behalf of her native country, but Margrueite refuses. It is also revealed that Margrueite does in fact admire the Scarlet Pimpernel and wishes very much that she could have married him instead of her own intellectually-impaired husband. They part ways.

We cut back to the Fisherman’s Rest, where two Englishmen, followers of the Scarlet Pimpernel, are discussing business matters. In come several masked men who command the victims to empty their pockets. One of them is found with a letter from none other than Armand. The masked man, who is actually Chauvelin, sees the signature and knows that he now has the motivation needed to convince Margrueite to help him catch the Scarlet Pimpernel. This event serves as the inciting incident.

When presented with the evidence against her brother, Marguerite is easily persuaded to aid in the capture of the Scarlet Pimpernel, hero though he may be. She, through a clever scheme, finds a note left by the Scarlet Pimpernel disclosing his location at a certain time. All she has to do is give the information to Chauvelin and her brother will be protected from harm, according to the deal she had struck up. But should she betray that brave man? Would Armand want her to, if he knew what was happening?

Margruite does decide to give up the Scarlet Pimpernel. She gives Chauvelin the correct information, and he goes to the correct room, but the only person in the room the entire time is Sir Percy, who went in that room to hide from the night’s ball and sleep. The Scarlet Pimpernel must have been warned ahead of time. This serves as the first disaster, which is also known as the end of the first act.

From there, things only get worse. Chauvelin still has the letter which condemns Armand to death, and the Scarlet Pimpernel remains as elusive as ever. Margruite, in desperation, turns to Sir Percy for comfort, only for the confrontation to result in a stronger wall being built between husband and wife. However, Sir Percy promises that he will save Armand from harm.

Sir Percy leaves that night. That morning, she receives a letter from Chauvelin. It is the letter condemning Armand. Margrueite knows that there is only one reason for Chauvelin to have returned it: he is on the track of the Scarlet Pimpernel. This and a few other clues lead Margruite to her answer… Sir Percy, her brainless husband, is a facade. He is the Scarlet Pimpernel.

When she realizes this, Margruite sees that she must get to her husband in time to warn him about Chauvelin’s trap. She sets off immediately for the coast. This is the second disaster, as it occures at almost exactly halfway through the book and is a major twist on the plot.

Once in France, Margruite is unable to warn Sir Percy in time. Chauvelin’s trap has been laid out, and is already beginning. There is no escape this time, and it appears that all is lost. Margruite herself is captured by Chauvelin and is kept in his wagon as they head to the location of the Scarlet Pinpernel as well as his associates, which include Armand.

Margruite is presented with a choice. If she screams to warn her husband, the men inside of the bunker will be killed by Chauvelin’s orders. If she stays quiet, her brother will live, but Sir Percy will not. This is the decision or action that will resolve the conflict, and her decision is the climax.

She screams.

Sir Percy is saved at the expense of Armand and the others in the room, or so Margruite thinks. Chauvelin’s soldiers, while obliged to obey orders, were told to stay at their posts. Individually, they decided that they couldn’t leave and therefore couldn’t stop the men as they left the bunker. All were saved. In a daring rescue Sir Percy saves Margruite and defeats Chauvelin, and all live happily ever after. Well, except for Chauvelin, who is mysteriously never heard from again.

So, why is this such a great book?

Well, first let’s just talk about the themes it’s got. There’s loyalty, for one. The men under the Scarlet Pimpernel are all extremely loyal followers of him and would lay down their lives for him in an instant. In the beginning of the story, Margrueite displays her loyalty to Armand by betraying the unknown Pimpernel to Chauvelin in an attempt to keep her brother safe. However, once it is revealed that the man she betrayed was in fact her own husband, Margrueite goes to extraordinary lengths to atone for her betrayal.

In contrast, you’ve got Chauvelin’s soldiers. They weren’t loyal to Chauvelin; they did only the absolute minimum of what was required from them, and then only on pain of death. They chose to stay at their posts and idly let the Englishmen and aristocrats escape rather than take initiative on behalf of there leader and do what he no doubt wanted.

Obviously the concept of disguises and untruths plays a big part in this book. For the whole first half of it, Margruite is deceived by her own husband’s disguise and doesn’t recognize him as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Margruite kept her motives a secret from her husband, and in return Sir Percy kept his whole life a secret from her. Had they both been honest from the start, their marriage could have been much happier.

Another theme is pride. While the book focuses solely on the view of the wealthy, it also shows that blatant pride is not a virtue. In the beginning of the book, it says “Lady Blakeney leads both fashion and society in London.” She is known as the cleverest woman in Europe, and does reveal pride in her position. However, in the end, Margrueite is reduced to a small, pitiful figure in the clutches of Chauvelin. Where is her pride then? Margrueite proves that pride comes before a fall.

Then there’s Margrueite as a character. She embodies my idea of a strong female character. No good character is flawless; in fact, a flawless character is a broken character. Margrueite had faults. Her pride and her bad decisions that lead to the necessity of conflict. However, she still retained the ability to make her own decisions and speak her mind. This isn’t a contemporary book, and was written in a time where men and women had very different roles. This doesn’t mean that all women characters from back then are put down because of their gender. Margruiete is a very real, tangible character that is well balanced and holds her own throughout the story.

Of course, no book is flawless. One mistake I think it did make was that Marguerite wasn’t introduced until chapter 5 or so. In my experience, the better practice is introducing the protagonist within the first page, or better yet, the first sentence. However, once Margruite is introduced, the story really does pick up. So if you find yourself bored with the first few chapters, try to stick it out at least for a few more.

Also, again in the beginning, too many characters are introduced at once. It’s a major meet-up of ALL the characters, and even includes a couple that shouldn’t even really get named at all. It was admittedly confusing with that many names to keep straight at once. But just keep reading. For me at least, the fogginess of the first scene quickly cleared as I read along.

This actually brings up a rather interesting point. As a future author, I’m always trying to learn from books. Sometimes I learn things to incorporate in my writing and sometimes I learn things to avoid in it. I did find one major thing to avoid in the Scarlet Pimpernel. The first scene.

It was confusing, it didn’t immediately introduce the protagonist, and it didn’t capture my interest. In fact, I will admit that if I hadn’t had to read it for school I would have dropped it after the first chapter. Lucky for me, I had to continue and found it to be the great book that it really is. But that’s an important lesson for aspiring authors.

The first scene is vital. If you don’t hook your reader within the first page, or better yet, first sentence, you will lose readers. Stick with naming only the most important characters, especially at first, and establish the plot right from the start.

But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” -2 Corinthians 10:17

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Posted by on November 7, 2013 in *Le Literary Analysis


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