Thursday, March 8, 2012

Guest Review: THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1905

Genre: Adventure, historical fiction

Topics: the French Revolution, trust, rule of law

Review by Kay of Kay's Bookshelf:

Summary: A novel about a brave and noble Englishman who, together with his little group of faithful friends, repeatedly risked his life saving French aristocrats from the guillotine. The success of their enterprise is based on the fact that no one knows the identity of the leader. Now, however, a French agent knows just the way to unmask him: he makes one of the ladies at the English court an offer she cannot refuse — either she finds out who the famed hero is, or her brother dies.

General impression: I don’t know what to make of this. I feel like it has this great potential and yet all the interesting parts are missing.

Setting: The year is 1792, a short while after the French revolution. Beheadings happen every day, as the people, drunk on their new-found freedom, are also thirsty for revenge on their former oppressors. On the other side of the channel, the English are horrified at the news of the bloodshed. The King, the Prince of Wales, and the rest of the political leaders are as yet undecided whether they should openly condemn France’s behavior or just keep quiet, not to risk a conflict. However, a bunch of English young people have decided to do more that just decry the situation: they spend their time working up schemes to smuggle the unfortunate “aristos” from their now hostile motherland to the safety of the British soil. Their leader, who calls himself The Scarlet Pimpernel (after a humble little red roadside flower), is a paragon of resourcefulness and a master of disguise — which is how he managed to keep his identity hidden for so long.

It is obvious that the author herself is firmly on the aristocrats’ side, being openly against the ‘regular people’. The former are gracious, well bred, and the ones we root for; the latter are dirty and mean. The reason for that became obvious when I read about the author’s early life: of noble descent herself (her father was a Baron, her mother a Countess), she and her family left her native Hungary in 1868 as they were afraid of a peasants’ revolution.

Characters: As a sidenote, the dialogue was awfully sprinkled with interjections. It felt like there hardly ever was a sentence without a “Lud!” or “Zooks!” or “Bah!” or “Odd’s fish!” or something such. While at times there was indeed the need to show someone’s surprise, or Marguerite’s pretend flippancy, having basically every character exclaim something every few minutes became tiring after a while.

As for the characters, I felt them more cardboard-y than anything else. Marguerite St. Just/Blakeney, for example, is not only a very beautiful woman but is also considered the wittiest in Europe(!). Alas, this last part remains unproven, although we spend about half the book reading her inner thoughts. All she thinks about is the fact that she loves the hero, and oh, how she betrayed him — but she loves him so much! More and more every passing minute! And to think she has betrayed him! Him whom she loves so much! — and so on and so forth. Surely, she does show courage (or is it merely recklessness?) when she follows the love of her life straight to France, where it wasn’t safe for her, but then, other than following the soldiers she does absolutely nothing to actually help. This is one of the missing parts I complained about in the beginning — the fact that we, the readers, are not actually shown the rescue operation — which happens to be the most interesting part of the book, as the Pimpernel has pledged his honor to rescue some French aristocrat, and he does not know that the area is surrounded with soldiers. The pages that should deal with that are dedicated to Marguerite’s thoughts, and as she follows the soldiers she can only see what they see — which is naturally nothing, else the rescue would not have taken place. We only find out about what happened near the very end, in a few sentences, as the brave rescuer explains to Marguerite how he accomplished the feat. But I would have liked to see it myself, to hold my breath and keep my fingers crossed all throughout :(

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a very romantic, dashing hero: a noble, mysterious man who risks his life in order to save others’. He also possesses an insurmountable pride, that sometimes gets the best of him, an intensity of feeling of the kind one sees only in books1, a presence of mind that never betrays him and a rather superhuman physical strength. Oh, and of course he’s good looking too. And a good actor with a gift for accents, which is how he manages to fool the French police for so long. There isn’t anything this guy can’t do, which is why after a point he stops being an actual person, becoming a sort of parody instead. A male Mary Sue, if you wish. And to think that, for all his perfection, we didn’t get to see him being a hero. I imagine the book would have been so much interesting had it been told from his POV. *sigh*

As a bit of trivia, the villain, the French agent that spares no efforts in his hunt for the Scarlet Pimpernel is actually a real-life character, although the author is said to have stretched history around him quite a bit.

Relationships: Ah, yet another one of those parts I found sorely lacking. As the book opens, Marguerite St. Just has been Lady Blakeney for about a year. She despises her husband, which she finds dull and incapable of passion. This despite the fact that his intense passion for her was the very reason she married him in the first place (in short, he was very much in love with her, but she had some secret and he judged her for it, and she was too proud to explain her reasoning to him, so apparently he stopped loving her, just like that). I would have liked to see their courtship, to see them as a couple, as when the book opens they are very much apart.

And then one evening all of a sudden Marguerite talks to her husband (had they never talked before?). And his behavior gives away the fact that he still loves her, and all of a sudden Marguerite realizes that, wait, she loves him too! Despite the fact that up until then she barely looked at him, and that she mocked him on every occasion. Despite the fact that a bit earlier we’re told how she married him because she thought that he loved her so much she could grow to love him in return. And now she realizes she had loved him all this while? This would have been easier to believe if I had seen her ever caring for him before — in a scene before their marriage, perhaps — but as it were it seemed somewhat of a stretch.

Thoughts on the ending: I was particularly amused by one of the last few sentences:

But it is on record that at the brilliant wedding of Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Bart., with Mlle. Suzanne de Tournay de Basserive, a function at which H. R. H. the Prince of Wales and all the ELITE of fashionable society were present, the most beautiful woman there was unquestionably Lady Blakeney, whilst the clothes of [The Scarlet Pimpernel] were the talk of the JEUNESSE DOREE of London for many days.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has many manly qualities, probably all of them. He has a soft spot however, and that is his love for expensive clothes. As such, a truly happy ending for him could not have existed without everyone’s admiring his clothes, right? :)

Other than that everything’s pretty textbook stuff, the good and the brave are rewarded, the evil plans are foiled. I don’t think anyone expected otherwise. :)

Recommend it to? People interested in the classics, I guess. It has a 4.05 rating on Goodreads, so the vast majority of people seems to have liked it.