The Scarlet Pimpernel (novel)

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The-Scarlet-Pimpernel 8669.jpg

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.


The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic action-adventure story written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy and turned into a play in 1903-05. This wildly popular tale is set during The French Revolution, an era when screaming, toothless peasant mobs rose up against the poor sympathetic aristocracy and began slaughtering them wholesale. (Madame la Guillotine was a very busy woman at this time.) It seemed there would be no hope for the French Nobs, until a dashing hero arrived on the scene to snatch those destined for death from the hands of the bloodthirsty and fanatical Revolutionary government. This hero was a mysterious masked figure known only as The Scarlet Pimpernel (note: a pimpernel is a small red flower with five petals), and together with his small band of followers, he managed to spirit many a doomed aristocrat safely to England.

But who is this "Scarlet Pimpernel"?

The beautiful expatriate French actress, Marguerite Blakeney, doesn't know, but she's recently discovered that her brother, Armand, is one of his band of followers. Unfortunately, Armand's been revealed to the Revolutionaries, and if Marguerite doesn't help Citizen Chauvelin, the slimy agent of the French Republic, discover the Pimpernel's true identity, Armand will be executed.

To whom can Marguerite turn for help? Certainly not her foppish, empty-headed dandy of a husband, Percy. He barely has the brain cells to choose what outrageous outfit he'll wear to their next social function. He surely couldn't be of any use in finding out who the Pimpernel really is.

Then one day Sir Percy leaves for France, and Marguerite makes a discovery that will turn her world upside down...

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a notable work of Western literature, which would go on to influence popular culture throughout the generations. It's an early precursor to the Spy Drama genre of fiction, and it can also be argued that the Pimpernel himself is a proto-Superhero. It arguably created the modern concept of the Secret Identity. Like Batman, he's a wealthy personage who hides behind a foppish face by day and performs dashing and heroic deeds under the cover of darkness. Like Superman, he hides his intellect and intentions behind a mask of clueless ignorance. He also uses an iconic symbol (the Pimpernel flower) to denote his identity. Truly, modern-day movies and comic books owe a lot to this character. Even Anime seems to have been influenced a bit by him, judging by the number of series (like Trigun and Trinity Blood) which feature seemingly dorky -- yet secretly competent -- heroes... who often wear red.

The Scarlet Pimpernel would go on to spawn a series of sequel books, operettas, musicals, movies, and radio and TV adaptations. The Pink Carnation book series by Lauren Willig features characters who took up where Sir Percy left off (i.e. the Carnation, and prior to that, the Purple Gentian). In 1941 it was even updated and remade as Pimpernel Smith to be about rescuing Jews from Nazi Germany.

Novels and collections by Baroness Emuska Orczy:

Listed by publication order. The chronological order of the series is a bit more complex.

  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
  • I Will Repay (1906)
  • The Elusive Pimpernel (1908)
  • Eldorado (1913)
  • The Laughing Cavalier (1913). Set in the 17th century, it covers the adventures of Percy Blake, the Laughing Cavalier. He is an ancestor to the Pimpernel.
  • Lord Tony's Wife (1917)
  • The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1919)
  • The First Sir Percy (1920). A direct sequel to the Laughing Cavalier.
  • The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1922).
  • Pimpernel and Rosemary (1924). Set in the 1920s, it follows the adventures of Peter Blakeney, a descendant of the Pimpernel.
  • Sir Percy Hits Back (1927)
  • Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1929)
  • A Child of the Revolution (1932)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World (1933). The Pimpernel offers his views on the world of the 1930s.
  • The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1933)
  • Sir Percy Leads the Band (1936)
  • Mam'zelle Guillotine (1940)

This story has also been the subject of many a parody:

The original novel provides examples of:

  • Agent Peacock: Sir Percy, in this and just about every adaptation ever made except the A&E miniseries. Special note is taken of his hands, which are lily white and slender enough to pass as a woman's hands (on multiple occasions), and which the ladies at court fawn over.
  • Almost Kiss: Sir Percy desperately wants to kiss Marguerite after she asks him to save her brother, but he doesn't trust her, so he stops himself.
  • Arch Enemy: Chauvelin
  • Ascended Fangirl: Marguerite is in love with the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel and bored with life in England. Be Careful What You Wish For...
  • The Atoner: Marguerite
  • At the Opera Tonight: Chapter 10
  • Author Catchphrase: Read the unabridged version and count how many times Chauvelin's "fox-like face" is mentioned. Or Marguerite Blakeney's "tiny" feet and hands.
  • Author Tract: Baroness Orczy. There are placemats more historically accurate than Pimpernel.
  • Batman Gambit: The Scarlet Pimpernel is fond of these. No, seriously. The entire final rescue of the first book hinges on the French's hatred of the Jews.
  • Beta Couple: Suzanne and Sir Andrew.
  • Big Bad: Robespierre
  • Big Good: The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Blackmail
  • Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word: When Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into spying on her peers to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel:

"Well!--and you would now force me to do some spying work for you in exchange for my brother Armand's safety?--Is that it?"
"Fie! two very ugly words, fair lady," protested Chauvelin, urbanely. "There can be no question of force, and the service which I would ask of you, in the name of France, could never be called by the shocking name of spying."


Orczy's sequels provide examples of:

Chauvelin: Just now you taunted me with my failure in Calais, and again at Boulogne, with a proud toss of the head, which I own is excessively becoming...