I grew up knowing about the Scarlet Pimpernel through the Warner Bros "Scarlet Pumpernickel" cartoon starring Daffy Duck. The image of Sylvester the cat stuttering out "puh...puh...pumpernickel" never failed to make me laugh. Later, I caught the televised version with Richard Grant and Elizabeth McGovern and enjoyed it immensely. When my family watched it recently on Netflix, I decided it was finally time to sit down and read the book.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel" is a delightful adventure story by Baroness Orczy, a titled but poor Hungarian noblewoman. In a prose style that frequently veers off into shades of purple, she convincingly re-creates the time of the French Terror in 1792, introducing into it the title character, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Brilliant, fearless, cunning, resourceful, impetuous and uncommonly strong, he penetrates, time and again, the very heart of the revolutionary council, carrying off what few of the remaining French noblemen and women he can to freedom across the channel. Only his closest comrades know that this dashing hero hides behind the foppish facade of Sir Percy Blakeney, the most wealthy and superficial of the subjects of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.
Sorry about that, but honestly, reading "Pimpernel" could bring out the Bulwer-Lytton in just about anyone. Baroness Orczy excels at squeezing every ounce of overwrought emotion possible out of her adjectives as her heroes and heroines jump back and forth across the channel in an almost farcical adventure of secret identities, sundered hearts, and misunderstandings. If it weren't for the ever-present guillotine, "Pimpernel" could almost pass for a comedy.
The plot is simple enough: Sir Percy Blakeney, the best dressed but least intelligent dandy in the British court, marries the beautiful and brilliant French actress, Marguerite, and matches wits with the villainous French envoy, M. Chauvelin, as he risks his life to save as much of the French nobility as he can, transporting them to England on his aptly named schooner the "Day Dream". Marguerite, surprisingly ignorant of her husband's activities, inadvertently betrays him when Chauvelin captures her brother and uses him to extort the information from her. It is only after Chauvelin departs to capture the Pimpernel that Marguerite figures out what has been going on all along and enlists the aid of one of the league of the Pimpernel to save Percy. All along there are hair-raising adventures and hair's-breadth escapes, right up to the happy ending when all is set to right.
Though far from being one of the towering achievements in literature, I can't help but feel it deserves a place as a classic of some sort. First, it's just plain fun to read. Though the Baroness certainly did not intend it to be comedic, the result of her efforts is just this side of silly in the best way. Second, it succeeds as an adventure story. Though not in the same vein as Kipling, Verne, or Stevenson, it is almost a precursor to some of the pulp adventure stories that came along later. Her timing is excellent, and the adventurous episodes are engagingly written. She keeps the suspense going even when there is a break in the action for dialogue. Third, it is unabashedly patriotic. Though born in Hungary, Baroness Orczy emigrated to England and was proud of the history of Britain. She supported the aristocracy, and the British efforts in WWI. Her love of England and the English spills over from the pages of "Pimpernel". As a result, the whole turns out be greater than the sum of the parts.
Again, this is a delightful book that can serve as an enjoyable bit of brain-candy when you need a break from more serious fare.