My second time reading, thanks to Christmas gifts, and it was just as enjoyable as the first time—if not more so, since I knew what to expect. (This is not the cover of the edition I read, but it’s such a great cover even if I don’t recommend the Broadway adaptation it’s borrowed from.) I feel as if I’ve read this book far more than twice because I’ve spent so much time in other aspects of Sir Percy’s world: sequels, movie versions, theater adaptations. But the original novel is always the gold standard. A book review cannot adequately describe how enamored I’ve become of this gallant rescuer in the guise of a fashionable idiot. Sink me, I’m quite fond of the chap!
I must be honest—the first time I picked this up, I really did not know what the story was about. I’d heard the name, but I’ve never been good at keeping track of which classic is which. I think I vaguely associated it with The Count of Monte Cristo or The Man in the Iron Mask. I have, however, read Les Misérables, and I like spy thrillers, so when a reviewer called The Scarlet Pimpernel a cross between a spy thriller and Les Mis, I knew I had to give it a try.
And it did not disappoint! Perhaps unexpectedly, the story’s emphasis is more on Marguerite than on the Scarlet Pimpernel, but her story was very well done. She was so human and had to make such difficult choices—not always the right one. I love romances that involve a husband and wife learning to love each other or appreciate each other again, and may I just say that despite the obvious passion the couple felt for each other, this secular adventure novel had far less juicy detail than most Christian fiction nowadays? As for the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, I loved his aptitude with disguise. It was such fun to wonder, “Where is he this time?” and then discover he’d been in the scene all along. It’s easy to see why the Scarlet Pimpernel is considered the forerunner of masked heroes like Zorro and the Lone Ranger. And the more I’ve spent time in his world, the more I’m reminded how deeply we long for a hero when all seems darkest. In some way, every fictional rescuer is a faint shadow of the Great Rescuer himself.
Orczy’s descriptions, with all their melodrama, really set the stage for each scene, whether it’s the seething masses of Paris revolutionaries or the lonely, windblown road leading to the final climax. Although this book is set during the Reign of Terror, it definitely has the flavor of an early twentieth-century adventure novel. Sir Percy and his upper-crust British friends remind me of the young British aristocrats who go about in Agatha Christie novels, good-natured, good-looking, and generally good-hearted. Even Marguerite reminded me of Virginia Revel in Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys.
My greatest objection to this early twentieth-century British feel is the language. First, the general British cussing and mild profanity similar to Christie’s, much of which apparently substitutes for any real vocabulary on the part of Sir Percy and his comrades (granted, expecting real vocabulary from them might be a bit much, given their roles in the story). It bothers me the most at the highest crux of the climax, the pivotal moment when I want to be the most immersed in the story. Really, was there no other way to express strong emotion? So be warned. Also, the first time I read this, the flowery melodrama got a bit distracting—Marguerite’s sweet countenance and dainty hand and fair, childlike expression; the tortuous streets that were, ahem, tortuous; and Chauvelin’s stage-villain nastiness. I wanted to laugh at a few of the most serious points. But I can also say that on the re-read, it contributes to the classic charm of the novel.
As a whole, the story is just fun. And then I went and looked up the 1934 movie version starring Leslie Howard, which was further fun, even though it didn’t stick entirely to the book (regrettably, it stuck pretty close to the profanity). The 1982 movie starring Anthony Andrews has some good scenes but also a lot more content concerns; exercise discretion. For a production that keeps the “feel” of the original novel, try The Logos Theatre’s musical production (be warned that the guillotine scenes are disturbing). This production is from a Christian worldview–based company, so there’s none of the profanity or innuendo found in some movie versions, and it really showcases the honor and love displayed in the novel.
In any case, if you’re in the mood for a classic masked-hero adventure tale with a dramatic touch and are not bothered by the caveat, give this one a read. You may just join me in the Scarlet Pimpernel fan club.