The Scarlet Pimpernel, by the Baroness Orczy

The Baroness Orczy's 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel is pure, unadulterated wordcandy. It's like the literary equivalent of Scharffen Berger chocolate. This book is gorgeously written, perfectly paced, wildly entertaining, and (be still my heart) there is even a Dover Thrift edition. There is absolutely no excuse not to have read it.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in England and France in 1792. Much to the fury of the bloodthirsty Republican government, a group of daring, mysterious Englishmen (masterminded by a shadowy figure known only by his scarlet pimpernel sigil) are rescuing a steady trickle of French aristocrats from the guillotine and smuggling them into England. When an agent of the French government blackmails Marguerite Blakeney, the beautiful, unhappy French wife of the notoriously stupid English peer Sir Percy Blakeney, into helping him uncover the secret identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, she is horrified to discover that not only has she endangered the life of a figure that she admires, but that her ridiculous, foppish husband may not be the fool that he appears to be....

This was the first time that I had attempted to read The Scarlet Pimpernel critically, and while I already knew that it was insanely entertaining, I had never considered how remarkably well-written it is. It's a short novel, but there isn't a single wasted or forgettable scene. The characterization is perfect, full of subtle details that make the characters instantly memorable, like Sir Percy's loud, inane laugh and fondness for composing bad poetry. The book is jam-packed with gorgeously cinematic settings--whispered plots hatching in cozy taverns, intrigue and flirtation in noisy, glittering ballrooms, a chilling action sequence in the French countryside. They haven't made a good film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel yet, but you can understand why they keep trying--a story this exciting and thoroughly fleshed out seems like it's crying out to be made into a movie.

One more piece of advice: skip the sequels. Yes, I realize that there are a billion of them and I sympathize with your curiosity, but Orczy never came close to recapturing the magic of The Scarlet Pimpernel. If you're desperate for more scorching swashbuckling action, try anything by Alexandre Dumas (although he's going to be a serious letdown on the romance front) and if you're not picky about the time period, Mary Stewart's classic 20th century gothic romance Nine Coaches Waiting comes close to duplicating Orczy's heady blend of action and romantic suspense. But if you haven't already read The Scarlet Pimpernel (NO EXCUSES! Did I not mention the Dover Thrift edition?!?), then hightail it to your nearest bookstore, because you are missing out on some seriously hot Wordcandy action.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


27 Nov, 2004 03:20 PM @ version 0

So, I decided to take your advice and read The Scarlet Pimpernel. (The Wordcandy staff may now take a moment to revel at the scope of their power and influence....ok that's enough.) I started reading at 1am, always a bad idea, and finished the last page around 10am, though I did take a break at 4am to make chicken strips. It has taken me two days to catch up on my sleep, but it was well worth it for The Scarlet Pimpernel was a thoroughly enjoyable read.
\r\nHaving seen the 1935 film numerous times (Canadian television feels the need to show it at least a couple of times a year) I was a bit worried that knowing how it all turns out would take some of the swash out of the buckle, but the details of the film are so different from the book that I have to admit that from 8am on I was extremely worried as to how our daring hero was going to extricated himself from the clutches of the french. Reading it in one sitting had the added advantage of making the author's love for certain adjectives very obvious. If the next person to read this book would count how many times she refers to someones action as "superhuman" especially when fighting not to be overcome by emotion, I would be very grateful. Did they have thesauruses in 1905?
\r\nIt was a charming book that was a delight to read and I thank Wordcandy for pointing me in its direction.

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