Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) is one of those popular novels that we tend to assume we already know without having read it. This tale of the French Revolution has been adapted many, many times, for the stage, small and large screens, and radio, and it has been frequently parodied over the decades, most famously, perhaps, by the Carry On team with Don’t Lose Your Head (aka Carry on Pimpernel). We have some general sense there is more than a touch of the superhero about Sir Percy Blakeney, who is an idle dandy at home in England, but the daring protector of imperilled aristocrats in Revolutionary France. He does not possess any literal superpowers, but his nerves of steel and his extraordinary ability to disguise himself, allow him time and time again to rescue aristocrats from the thirsty blade of the guillotine. They also get him out of a series of impossible situations; just when we think his mirthless French nemesis, Chauvelin, finally has him in his clutches, our quintessentially English hero always finds some almost magical way out.
But the 1905 novel is not, perhaps, quite what we expect. There is, for one thing, quite a lot less of derring-do and swashbuckling in the central chapters of the novel, and we see much more of our hero’s French wife, Marguerite than of himself. Long seen as a children’s classic, it is in fact, a story for grown-ups, in that it deals with an unhappy marriage as much as with adventure. The novel’s French heroine does not realize that her apparently feckless clothes-horse of a husband, is really the brilliant counter-revolutionary English hero the Scarlet Pimpernel, and she has come to rather look down on him as an agreeable fool. But his love for her has also been shaken by the knowledge that she once volunteered information about a French aristocrat that led to his execution; Marguerite and Chauvelin are in fact old acquaintances. To complicate matters further, her loyalties are divided by her deep affection for her brother, André, himself once on the side of the revolutionaries. How she comes to see her husband as he really is, risking her own life by crossing the Channel to save him, provides the main narrative thread of the novel.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s greater surprise, perhaps, is that on closer inspection it tells us as much about 1905 as about the French Revolution. The novel’s period details, the mingling of real figures among the fictional, the Georgian slang, the quizzing glasses, fichus, and minuets thinly conceal its contemporary resonances. Its origins actually lie in two short stories Orczy had written about turn-of-the-century continental anarchists, “The Red Carnation” and “The Sign of the Shamrock.” Despite the costume drama, The Scarlet Pimpernel turns out to be much closer kin than one might suspect to such pre-WW1 political thrillers as Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men (1905), Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), and William Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser (1909), tales that channeled fears about foreign revolutionaries, terrorism, and enemies within. The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s preoccupation with refugees and its deployment of Jewish stereotypes also link it to British concerns about Ashkenazi immigrants from Czarist persecution. Those concerns ultimately issued in the Aliens Act, designed to block Eastern European immigration, which was passed in the same year that The Scarlet Pimpernel was published. In this light, Sir Percy’s appearance at the end of the novel disguised as a grubby and spineless Jewish trader seems a loaded choice, and the novel’s projection of anti-semitism as a French trait rings somewhat hollow. England itself, we are told in chapter 28, remains the”land of liberty and hope,” but we suspect that might be true only for the right kind of people. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to add that the novel’s preoccupation with national identity, with refugees, terror, and border controls mark it as a novel of 1905, but also link it to our own historical moment.
Feature image: “Run on the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution” by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.