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'The Scarlet Pimpernel' Review

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Random House
Study Guide The Scarlet Pimpernel is very much in the swashbuckling tradition of Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott. The novel follows the adventures of a shadowy Englishman who rescues French aristocrats at the time of the French Revolution.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fantastic adventure story in the Romantic mode, but it also feels like a precursor to the modern comic book superheroes. The protagonist has a secret identity--a mild-mannered alter-ego who masks the true, heroic qualities of the main character. The Scarlet Pimpernel is fantastically plotted, with a full-steam-ahead plot that drags its readers from the center of London society to a dark night on the coast of France. The book barely lets us pause for breath.

Overview: The Scarlet Pimpernel

The story begins with the escape from Paris of a beautiful Comtesse, from right under noses of the revolutionary committee who planned to send her to the guillotine. She is smuggled out by a constant thorn in the French authorities’ side, known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Comtesse is brought to England, where she arrives at the Fisherman's Rest inn. There she meets young men who are part of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel: all have sworn to obey and (if necessary) die for their enigmatic leader.

Among them is a young French man who detests the new government of his country and who is determined to return to France to rescue the Comtesse's husband, who remained behind. Also staying at the inn is Marguerite, who came to England and married one of the foremost fashionable gentlemen of England--the good-natured but rather stupid, Lord Percy Blakeney.
Lady Blakeney is approached by an Ambassador from France, who threatens her brother if she does not help him find the Scarlet Pimpernel. At an evening party, she gains information from one of the League, which helps to identify the man.

That very night, she approaches her husband, and bemoans the fact that they had become estranged. Sir Percy remains distant and tells her that he must set off on business the next day. The final act of the book's drama takes place in France, where the main players desperately race to save Marguerite's brother. It is then that the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is finally revealed.

Illusion vs. Reality?: The Scarlet Pimpernel

This novel depends on illusion but the hero depends far more on brains than brawn. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a master of disguise and misdirection, but he would rather take a beating (in order to escape his enemies) than deal one out. In the same way that the Scarlet Pimpernel tricks the doltish Frenchman, Orczy dupes us (her readers) with narrative tricks--designed to confuse and misdirect.
Orczy is a master storyteller, sustaining the tension until we reaches the climax of the final pages. Then, it seems impossible that the Scarlet Pimpernel could escape. The scenes are drawn with large brush strokes, and many of the characters are drawn considerably larger than life.

Orczy takes a large, complex historical background and reshapes it into a suitable background for a straightforward adventure story. The writing sometimes descends into melodrama, but the point of the novel is hardly its literary power. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, Orczy tells a fantastic story in a fascinating way, and we are drawn to the edge of our seats.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic adventure story and one of the first to employ the device of a central character with a secret identity, but this novel is also a fantastic read. The book is exciting. Always interesting. The Scarlet Pimpernel holds an appeal that is still enormously strong today.

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