Reading by Ear: The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
read by Michael Page


I’m pretty sure I read The Scarlet Pimpernel once. I think. I’m not sure how much of my mediocre memory is me and how much of it is my ability to repress anything at will (developed by child Clare, who you should always picture as a wombat with awful bangs and a perpetual scowl), but the fact remains: there are great, big, honking holes in my reading record. Given how much effort I’ve been putting into maintaining my reading record since coming of age, I really wish I’d written down more. All I remember about this possible reading of The Scarlet Pimpernel is rolling my eyes at Marguerite for not realizing who the Scarlet Pimpernel was. Oh, adolescence. That’s half the reason I do this feature, you know; to revisit texts I read while clearly out of my mind.

The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place during the French Revolution. While Paris is in the throes of the Reign of Terror, a mysterious Englishman known only as “the Scarlet Pimpernel” is snatching doomed French aristocrats from right under the nose of the Committee for Public Safety. The intelligent Marguerite Blakeney, née St. Just, is a former French actress now married to the shallow English fop Sir Percy Blakeney. (It’s strained.) After Marguerite’s beloved brother travels back to France, the French envoy Citizen Chauvelin approaches her with an ultimatum—discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel in exchange for the safety of her brother. Marguerite reluctantly agrees, but when she discovers the Pimpernel’s true identity, she rushes to his aid.

Baroness Orczy is a fascinating personage. An aristocratic refugee to England marries a poor illustrator for love, turns to writing to make ends meet, and ends up inventing not only the modern concept of a superhero with a secret identity with The Scarlet Pimpernel, but also writes the first detective novel featuring a lady detective: Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. In fact, The Scarlet Pimpernel actually features a female protagonist itself, as it’s told mostly from Marguerite’s point of view. I was bracing myself a little—after all, what seems progressive at the time often looks backwards to future generations. But Marguerite holds up surprisingly well. While her beauty is overwhelmingly praised (and, weirdly, occasionally referred to as “childlike”), her mental facilities are equally celebrated: she’s known as the most intelligent woman in all Europe. And that’s something her husband loves about her. Given Baroness Orczy’s own happy marriage, I like to think this is leaning towards a more egalitarian relationship. It’s still 1905, of course—Marguerite’s not throwing any punches and her greatest ambition is to win her husband’s love back—but the third act also shows us Marguerite putting herself through hell to achieve her goals. Not bad.

But with this side of mild feminism comes a whole course of classism. Baroness Orczy’s family fled Hungary, fearing revolution; the selection of the French Revolution as the setting is hardly a stylistic choice. She clearly believes firmly in the superiority of the aristocracy. Sure, Marguerite was born common, but she married up and only wants the love of her aristocratic husband. While Sir Percy plays the dimwit, he’s also constantly held up as the ideal Englishman—gorgeous, well-dressed, aristocratic, and capable… of rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine. It’s not only the bloodthirstiness that’s presented as shocking here; it’s also the idea of class revolution. There’s no reason given for the activities of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel beyond “sport”, but they’re preserving the class system that the French Revolution is trying its damndest to destroy. These French aristocrats are immediately absorbed into the equivalent English society, as pointedly seen at the wedding that concludes the novel. And I haven’t even touched the bit where the Pimpernel disguises himself as a Jew, because I can’t quite tell whose side that bit comes down on. I don’t think I have enough background and vocabulary to fully unpack this, but it’s definitely rich and problematic soil.

Otherwise, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a delightfully melodramatic adventure novel. It always feels like the narrator (who, given a few asides, is basically Baroness Orczy herself) is describing things in breathless, dreamy tones, from a brawl between two men to the description of what Marguerite and Sir Blakeney are wearing. It helps that the novel is mostly set at balls, sumptuous estates, or lonely cliffs in the dead of night. Plus, the novel deals with an estranged couple reconciling, and even features a scene where they discuss what it would take for them to be comfortable with each other again. I’m so unused to seeing couples actually communicate in fiction that that really struck a chord with me. I’m kind of tempted to read the next novel in the series, I Will Repay, because the style is so much fun. (Also, Marguerite and Percy are pretty cute together.)

Part of that stems from Michael Page’s narration. I have issues with the selection of a male narrator for a novel with a female protagonist, but I don’t have an issue with Page’s performance. His accent and senatorial tones give the novel a delightful melodramatic pomp, and there’s a good diversity to his voices. In the first few hours, we’re introduced to three upperclass Frenchwomen, and they all sound distinct. His Sir Percy is a particular hoot, because he doesn’t downplay his act to make him seem more heroic. I don’t terribly care for the intro and outro music to every disc, as well as a different, American narrator extolling me to insert the next CD, but then, I never do.

Bottom line: The Scarlet Pimpernel is a delightfully melodramatic adventure novel with some very mild feminist leanings and a whole heap of classism. Worth a read for its own charms and its influence. Michael Page’s narration is particularly nice, although the production is a little overwraught. Well worth a listen!

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: The Scarlet Pimpernel

  1. Oh God how I love this book. It’s the first book I can ever remember getting absolutely lost in, such that my sister had to elbow me in the side to let me know that the school bus was stopped in front of our house and I needed to get out. Even with the problematic aspects — like the Jew disguise, and like also why is Marguerite so dumb about the Scarlet Pimpernel when she’s supposed to be so smart? — I just love this book to the end of the world.

  2. I found the classism slightly off-putting the first time I tried to read it, but hey, it’s in the public domain, and Marguerite and Percy always sounded fun, so I may try it again.

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