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Old 11-14-2018, 08:36 AM   #1
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December 2018 Discussion • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is the December selection for the New Leaf Book Club.



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A timeless novel of adventure, intrigue, and romance is sparked by one man's defiance in the face of authority...

The year is 1792. The French Revolution, driven to excess by its own triumph, has turned into a reign of terror. Daily, tumbrels bearing new victims to the guillotine roll over the cobbled streets of Paris.… Thus the stage is set for one of the most enthralling novels of historical adventure ever written.

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Old 12-15-2018, 07:28 AM   #2
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"We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That demmed elusive Pimernel.
Ah! One of my absolute favorite books of all time. I still have the cherished hardbound illustrated copy I read as a girl. What did we all think of this?
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Old 12-15-2018, 10:58 AM   #3
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My first post is question: Was this story new to any of you? (Had not read it before, nor watched any of the films?)

I want to know that because I'm curious to know whether the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel, when it eventually becomes clear to Marguerite in the book, is a surprise to a reader new to the story. Indeed, I'm curious to know whether it is meant to be.

I feel like I've always known - I don't recall how I first became familiar with the story - so the identity does not seem mysterious to me. I tried watching for it as I was reading this time but it's really hard to tell what's obvious or not when you already know.
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Old 12-15-2018, 11:14 AM   #4
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I remember the first time I read this as a wee sprog and I was totally taken in. Some books you just have to read at the "right" age for them; that I did with The Scarlet Pimpernel no doubt is a factor in my enduring love for it. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone could both come cold to this now and not realize what was going on. So with this book Orczy helped create the trope of the secret identity with which we're so familiar now that works to spoil her big reveal.

This time around, I paid particular attention to see if Orczy played fair with us in regard to Sir Percy's double identity. She mostly did, with a glaring exception early on when we were privy to Armand's thoughts at a time when he would have known who the Scarlet Pimpernel was; it was when Marguerite and Armand had their conversation about Marguerite's marriage on the clifftop in Dover.
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Old 12-15-2018, 11:20 AM   #5
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One of the first comments I wrote down was: each chapter seemed like a stage setting. As I later discovered, there's a really good reason for that, the story started life as a stage play. (If I knew that in the past I had since forgotten.)

It's been a very long time since I last read this, and this time around I found it an odd mix. Generally good fun, but with more obvious flaws than I remember from before - but it's short, it moves quickly, and it's amusing, so I'm happy to forgive a fair amount.

The many descriptions lack much in the way of subtlety but their over-the-top exuberance lends a lightness to the text that goes well with the story. Some of the information dumps are not only too apparently information dumps, they over-explain, which gets a bit monotonous in some places.

And I must say that reading the story this time it seemed more romance than adventure, whereas my memory of it had been of adventure, the derring-do of the Scarlet Pimpernel ... but maybe I'm getting mixed up with the books that come later.

Probably my biggest disappointment in this story is that, despite her reputation for intelligence, Marguerite remains essentially just a witness to the events. Not that this is surprising for a book of this age and type, but it is something that stands out more to me now, and I found myself wishing she had been able to play a more active role in the dénouement.
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Old 12-15-2018, 11:47 AM   #6
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[...] This time around, I paid particular attention to see if Orczy played fair with us in regard to Sir Percy's double identity. She mostly did, with a glaring exception early on when we were privy to Armand's thoughts at a time when he would have known who the Scarlet Pimpernel was; it was when Marguerite and Armand had their conversation about Marguerite's marriage on the clifftop in Dover.
Orczy at times plays a little bit loose with whose thoughts we get to read.

And yes, the interlocking relationships between Armand, Marguerite and Percy seemed problematic to me. But then so is the idea that a secret like this can be held by 19 noblemen (and I seriously doubt they could have kept the secret from their valets) and some unknown number of crewmen on the DAY DREAM. But I guess that's just getting picky, it's not like it was meant to be taken too seriously.
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Old 12-15-2018, 12:05 PM   #7
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Orczy at times plays a little bit loose with whose thoughts we get to read.

And yes, the interlocking relationships between Armand, Marguerite and Percy seemed problematic to me. But then so is the idea that a secret like this can be held by 19 noblemen (and I seriously doubt they could have kept the secret from their valets) and some unknown number of crewmen on the DAY DREAM. But I guess that's just getting picky, it's not like it was meant to be taken too seriously.
I think the members of the band were pretty much an open secret; it was spoken of openly at the Fisherman's Rest and even by Percy. It was solely the Scarlet Pimpernel's identity that was a closely guarded secret. Orczy made a comment about the crew of the Day Dream being sworn to secrecy, as they'd of necessity have to know and certainly Percy would have made it worth their while. Still, I give you the point that a sailor in his cups might reveal all sorts of things.

I do think, though, that with the situation as given, the issue of keeping the secret is straining at a gnat, as you've said. It's way down on the list of unbelievables. So long as the reveal was handled fairly, I can't care about the givens.
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Old 12-15-2018, 02:45 PM   #8
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As I believe I mentioned in the voting thread, I didn’t bother to read the book, having seen several film versions. So this was a first read—though I was familiar with the basic plot.

Anyhow, I loved it despite the number of assumptions one must make. After all, a super hero is supposed to have a secret identity. 😉 And the convention is that it is supposed to work reasonably well however unlikely it may seem. Consider the very improbable use of disguise in Shakespeare’s comedies. The audience is simply expected to assume they work. In fact, the secret identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is far more effective than the latter and has the additional advantage of tying into the romantic subplot.

I found that Marguerite was a particularly interesting heroine. She certainly seemed rather ambiguous at her first appearance —particularly when she met the Comtesse. The blackmailing effort of Chauvelin forces her into a further highly questionable position. The conflicting feelings she has about her marriage add additional tension to her decisions. I think she is certainly an effective and credible witness to events and while I agree that she plays a subsidiary part in the action, her presence adds a great deal of excitement to the story.

In the end that blazing plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel sweeps the reader along and I found it quite irresistible.
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Old 12-15-2018, 04:30 PM   #9
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My first post is question: Was this story new to any of you? (Had not read it before, nor watched any of the films?)

I want to know that because I'm curious to know whether the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel, when it eventually becomes clear to Marguerite in the book, is a surprise to a reader new to the story. Indeed, I'm curious to know whether it is meant to be.
I first read this in my early teens, and at the time I remember thinking that it was supposed to be a surprise. If it was not, the whole "what have I done?" scenario when she chose her brother over the SP would have had less impact on me as a debutant reader, I think.

My thoughts on reading it nearly 40 years later are less clear. Overall, though I was still able to enjoy it as simple romantic adventure. I was planning to read all the rest, but I think I will restrict myself to those in which Marguerite plays a significant role, to see if her agency does increase from this first novel.

It was also interesting to read in the notes accompanying the delphi classics edition that the book was rejected at firrst, produced as a play that more or less flopped, then the play's finale was reworked by someone else and took off. So the novel we read is the result of a collaboration of sorts - it makes me wonder what her original version was like, especially the ending.
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Old 12-15-2018, 05:43 PM   #10
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Like issybird, I first read this when I was about 10 or 11, and so was very surprised back then when Marguerite realised who the Scarlet Pimpernel was. And I loved the book at that time.

Moving on several decades, I can't say I loved it this time around. It certainly bounced along at a good pace and I kept reading, but I found Orczy's style was pretty clunky, and the various descriptions of Marguerite's dazzling beauty, her wit, her dainty little hands, etc grew hard to bear.

One interesting point for me was that we really get to see very little of the real Sir Percy. We see him through Marguerite's eyes as the silly fop, we see him in his disguise at the end of the book, but we see very little of him as himself. Probably the only time is when he is in the French inn with Chauvelin.
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Old 12-15-2018, 05:45 PM   #11
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My first post is question: Was this story new to any of you? (Had not read it before, nor watched any of the films?)

I want to know that because I'm curious to know whether the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel, when it eventually becomes clear to Marguerite in the book, is a surprise to a reader new to the story. Indeed, I'm curious to know whether it is meant to be.
Like stuartjmz I first read this in my mid/late teens 40 years ago. I have no recollection as to what I thought when and how his identity is revealed. Subsequently, I've read this book a number of times over the years and it just seems to be obvious.
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Old 12-15-2018, 08:26 PM   #12
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[...]It was also interesting to read in the notes accompanying the delphi classics edition that the book was rejected at firrst, produced as a play that more or less flopped, then the play's finale was reworked by someone else and took off. So the novel we read is the result of a collaboration of sorts - it makes me wonder what her original version was like, especially the ending.
That is very interesting to hear. I'd love to know if Marguerite got some more active role in the ending in the original. It seemed to me that so much of what went before (making doubly, triply and quadruply sure we knew how smart she was), and then the desperate chase to warn Percy, was leading us to expect something from Marguerite. So much so that the ending fell a little flat for me - the unfulfilled expectation.

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[...] One interesting point for me was that we really get to see very little of the real Sir Percy. We see him through Marguerite's eyes as the silly fop, we see him in his disguise at the end of the book, but we see very little of him as himself. Probably the only time is when he is in the French inn with Chauvelin.
It also struck me that we see very little of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Aside from anecdotes told by others, there is his part as the Jew. But there were opportunities where we could have seen the Pimpernel in action near the end when most of the soldiers had run off: a threat to Marguerite could have had him revealed in heroic glory. But the story is almost oddly, given the times being portrayed, short of extreme violence. I guess that's what made it suitable(?) reading material for children.

I think there are a few small insights into the real Sir Percy. The quiet night carriage rides with Marguerite seemed real and more natural than almost anything else. And then there was that scene in Richmond at the end of chapter 16: "he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last." And I'd probably also count his rather Spartan study. So we don't see much, but I think the little bits do start to add up.
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Old 12-15-2018, 09:52 PM   #13
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I think there are a few small insights into the real Sir Percy. The quiet night carriage rides with Marguerite seemed real and more natural than almost anything else. And then there was that scene in Richmond at the end of chapter 16: "he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last." And I'd probably also count his rather Spartan study. So we don't see much, but I think the little bits do start to add up.
They weren't quiet rides at all, judging by the return home to Richmond:

Quote:
The bays were rushing along at breakneck speed, held but slightly back by Sir Percy's strong, unerring hands.

These nightly drives after balls and suppers in London were a source of perpetual delight to Marguerite, and she appreciated her husband's eccentricity keenly, which caused him to adopt this mode of taking her home every night, to their beautiful home by the river, instead of living in a stuffy London house. He loved driving his spirited horses along the lonely, moonlit roads, and she loved to sit on the box-seat, with the soft air of an English late summer's night fanning her face after the hot atmosphere of a ball or supper-party. The drive was not a long one—less than an hour, sometimes, when the bays were very fresh, and Sir Percy gave them full rein.

Tonight he seemed to have a very devil in his fingers, and the coach seemed to fly along the road, beside the river. As usual, he did not speak to her, but stared straight in front of him, the ribbons seeming to lie quite loosely in his slender white hands.
It does illustrate his thrill-seeking personality.

And then there's the quote you put in above (which personally I find rather nauseating). If he loved Marguerite so passionately, why was he prepared to believe the worst of her, as it was reported to him, rather than seek to know the full story?
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Old 12-15-2018, 09:59 PM   #14
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If he loved Marguerite so passionately, why was he prepared to believe the worst of her, as it was reported to him, rather than seek to know the full story?
A universal theme, it seems - if characters from Shakespeare to K Dramas and everything in between actually "used their words", so many stories would be two pages long.
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Old 12-15-2018, 10:06 PM   #15
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True enough! They were both in their twenties, so I suppose there was a certain lack of maturity on both sides.

ETA: In going back over that chapter, I see that he did apparently ask her about it, and she told him the bare bones but not the whole story. She expected him to trust her, and he expected her to explain every last detail. A pity that there weren’t any marriage counsellors around at the time!

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