The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel 1
The Scarlet Pimpernel – Orczy; Thorndike Press

This is a novel that I suspect used to be read more widely than in the last decade or so. While the story used to be very well-known, almost as a familiar anecdote, it seems that fewer people actually know the story.  I, for one, had never read it before. However, I was aware of several of the brute facts about the story. Proximity to Canada brought my first knowledge of French and British international relations. I knew the story took place during the French reign of terror. I knew that a “pimpernel” is a flower. I also knew that it is an historical adventure novel.  Honestly, when I was younger, I probably avoided it for very simplistic reasons…. the title is about a flower and it is written by a female author.

I have also never read The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, or anything by Kurt Vonnegut.  In fact, I only read Fahrenheit 451 in 2012.  However, as a high schooler I was able to quote disturbing amounts of Aristotle’s works and the Summa Theologiae. Needless to say, finally getting around to reading some of these works is nice and also surprising. I cannot suggest that I will ever read Salinger, but I do look forward to eventually reading Lord of the Flies and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

So it comes to the fact that reading literature out of the order of when “you should have read it” is a unique and interesting adventure of its own.  I am reminded a bit of that disgustingly oft-quoted line attributed to Aristotle about young gentlemen waiting until their fortieth birthdays to begin studying philosophy.  Well, the idea is that finally they are mature enough and the passions of youth are dissipated. (Cp. Thomas More being thankful for being freed from lust, gluttony, and jealousy). These ideas can be argued endlessly, but I do wonder if I’m lucky to be just approaching these works now as opposed to as a youth. Maybe the experience is different because instead of gobbling them up for high school essays, I can prop myself up in a leather club chair with an Irish whisky…. (The copy I read is even large print!)

The reading level for The Scarlet Pimpernel is nothing taxing whatsoever. Clearly, Emmushka Ortczy was not vying with Dostoyevsky and Stendhal. The novel is known for, I think, it’s adventure and its melodrama.  So, in 1905 the author produced a novel of daring and love and revolution that was able to be read by the most basic readers.  At the end of the day, the book is ridiculously readable and exciting – even when chapters are sloshing with melodrama.

There are certain lines that anyone who has read the book is quick to recall. For example, the internet alone is replete with quotations of the first line in the novel. Because, well, it is a striking and extreme first line. I have often mentioned that I think authors need to have powerful first lines in their novels. (Castle Skull was the last book I read that had a great opening line.) But the author is not a wordsmith.  Often, she is repetitive and almost Homeric in her character descriptions. The epitaph for Sir Percy is that he is inane. While this style of writing can be grating on the nerves, by the middle of the book, the reader has a very clear sense of the characters and wants to amend the character’s names with the epitaph anyway. In other words, annoying or not – its effective.

The main character, if you do not already know, is Marguerite.  Let’s call her Margot. Chapter XII begins with the line:  “Marguerite suffered intensely.”  Now, when I read these lines, I am thinking of something like St. Teresa d’Avila and her sufferings. Margot’s sufferings are largely brought on by herself, have their genesis in class struggles, and are rolled up in such melodrama that it is laughable. Well, in defense of the author – the story was originally a stage production. So, maybe a little of the heavy-handedness of the melodrama is forgiven.

There is a definite sense of race and class struggle here. It is fairly clear, too, which side the author falls on. The French are frogeaters, obviously, and the whole climax of the book’s adventure rests on using and abusing a Jew.  The British (and particularly the British aristocracy) are favorably looked upon as cultured, honored, and safe.  The bloodthirsty French are ruining their country because, well, they just go too demmed far!

Even though the British are the heroes, Margot stands out as a bridge between the two cultures – as if, perhaps, the author could not entirely condemn the French.  Now, I am not really the reader to discuss feminism with – what is Margot’s status as a female character in 1905? in 1792? I simply could not speculate. However, whenever she seems overwrought by her emotions there is always a moment or a scene wherein we are told she reasonably and rationally must think her way through things. Her epitaph is that she is the wittiest mind. I will leave this discussion to those better attuned to it.

The novel is dated. It does have heaps of melodrama. It is nothing more than an exciting adventure/romance.  However – at no point does it pretend to be anything more. And dem it all, by the end I was rooting for Percy and Margot, too. I do not think the forcibly critical empiricists of our time, who have made it a posh thing to criticize, will enjoy this novel. But if such persons can no longer access an appreciation for fun and melodrama, I daresay they will not be reading this novel anyway.

4 stars

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