by Baroness Orczy
Do you know, I never realized until the other day that the Baroness wrote an entire series of novels and shorts about her Scarlet Pimpernel. I don't believe they were in print back when I first read this book, but they are back in print now.
I believe I first read this novel after watching the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour movie version of the story, and my high opinion of the novel was definitely flavored by the superb acting of Anthony Andrews. Interestingly enough, he patterned his Sir Percy after that of Leslie Howard--the similarity is striking!
The above movie features the marvelous Leslie Howard in the role, with Merle Oberon as Marguerite St. Just.
You can no-doubt guess that I am a long-time fan of this classic story line: The swash-buckling hero concealing his true identity behind that of a dull or foppish alter ego. It has popped up in various forms in novels, television, comic books, and movies. I grew up loving Tyrone Power in the movie version of The Mark of Zorro (although I have never read the novel). I am a fan of Batman, Superman, and other super-heroes in the Sir Percy mold. I wrote my own version of this story line more than ten years ago and won two major CBA awards with it!
Now, on to the Book Review:
I hope I don't step on any toes with this review, but I must be entirely honest. As I said at the beginning of this post, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel the first time I read it as a young woman with a taste for adventure and romance. I entirely understand its appeal!
However, time, maturity, and historical study have dimmed its glow in my eyes. The author writes cleverly, particularly when one takes into account that English was not her first language, yet she wrote all of her novels in English! (The author's life alone is a fascinating tale, by the way.) She wrote in a style popular around the turn of the twentieth century, which is to say, melodrama to the max! Her descriptions are colorful, her characters are extremes, and the Paris she depicts is thrilling.
However, her attention to historical detail is sadly lacking. The novel opens in September 1792 with aristocrats being guillotined by the hundreds every day. Years ago, when I researched for a novella set during the Revolution, I was surprised to learn that the Reign of Terror did not begin until a year later. Thousands of people were killed in September of 1792, but few were guillotined. The entire novel is set in the wrong year for the events depicted to have occurred.
Another problem for me involves Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., himself. He is described as unusually tall and massively built, with broad shoulders. (Consider this: Would a man with that build easily pass himself off as a woman? as a shriveled old man? It works well enough in the above movie versions because neither actor fits the author's description of our hero!) He is also unusually good-looking or would have been had he not maintained an affected expression (his disguise). He is a man without flaw--gorgeous, brilliant, athletic, clever, etc. Yet he leaps to the conclusion that his wife, whom he adores, has committed an evil act. Does he seriously question her on the subject? Um.
And Marguerite, who is exquisitely beautiful beyond the lot of mortals (okay, I am exaggerating, but not by much), and is also brilliant and clever--does she penetrate her adored husband's flimsy disguise and confide in him when she gets herself into trouble? I won't give away spoilers, but you can imagine where this leads.
Therein lies the problem with this entire story line--including in my own novel, mind you. The plot rests almost exclusively on stupidity and poor communication. Yes, these mistakes are explained within the novel (in all its various versions), yet the author has to stretch a reader's credulity to make it work. (How dumb WAS Lois Lane?)
All these critiques notwithstanding, I still enjoy The Scarlet Pimpernel and recommend it for escape reading! Just don't base your understanding of history on it. Sir Percy Blakeney is an enduring character of modern popular fiction.
For a truly classic novel based on the French Revolution, check back for my review next week! You can probably guess which book is #3, but I will pretend to be mysterious because melodrama is fun!
The Scarlet Pimpernel movies are good fun too--several versions are available for viewing on YouTube and on Netflix, including the two I mentioned above.