The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

“The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle,” he said at last, “is the name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do.”

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in 1792 during the French Revolution, when every day more and more of the French nobility are being sent to their deaths. A secret society of Englishmen led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel are rescuing the aristocrats from the guillotine and smuggling them to safety in England. Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel? The French agent Chauvelin is determined to find out, but with his variety of clever disguises and daring schemes the Pimpernel continues to elude him at every turn. Will Chauvelin ever discover his true identity?

Since I started blogging I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve started a review by wondering why I’ve waited so long to read a book and regretting the fact that I never thought about reading it years ago. This is yet another one! I finally read it last week when I was choosing what to read next for the Classics Club – and for anyone else who has this on their Classics Club list or tbr pile, I recommend reading it sooner rather than later. Compared to many classics it’s a quick read and lots of fun too: a combination of swashbuckling adventure story, historical fiction and romance. It’s one of those novels where you sit down planning to just read one or two chapters and before you know it you’re halfway through the book!

Whenever I write about a book I always try to be very careful not to say too much and spoil the story for any future readers, so I won’t tell you any more about the plot and I won’t reveal who the Scarlet Pimpernel really is. You’ll probably be able to guess after a few chapters but if you don’t then part of the fun will be in finding out. This book was published in 1905 and it’s obvious that it’s been the inspiration for so many other books that have been written since then and that the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel has been a model for countless heroes with hidden identities. I also remember reading somewhere that Baroness Orczy was one of Dorothy Dunnett’s influences and I can definitely see how The Game of Kings in particular might have been inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was reminded of Georgette Heyer’s novels too, especially with the slang the characters used.

I found Baroness Orczy’s writing style very easy to read and the historical background was not too detailed or difficult to follow. The author’s sympathies are obviously with the aristocracy, whereas most novels I’ve read about the French Revolution are told from the opposite perspective so it was interesting to see the other side of the story. This is not really a book you would choose to read for the historical accuracy though, and it does require you to suspend your disbelief at times! I know I would have loved this book when I was a teenager but I’m still glad I got round to reading it at last and am definitely interested in reading more of the Scarlet Pimpernel series now.

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19 thoughts on “The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

  1. Leander says:

    Oh I love this book – I’m so pleased you did as well! Yes, you do have to suspend disbelief and just bury your cynicism for a little while but it’s certainly worth it. Full of swashbuckling, derring-do and English chaps with cut-glass accents outwitting the dastardly Robespierre – and all short enough to read in a lazy afternoon. 🙂

    I think I must have read it for the first time when I was about fourteen, shortly after the BBC TV series with Richard E. Grant aired. Happy days…

    • Helen says:

      I was wishing I had started reading it at the weekend instead of on a day when I had to go to work as I found it so hard to put down! I’m glad to hear you loved it too!

  2. Charlie says:

    I admit that my only knowledge of the story is from Black Adder, and I’ll neglect to mention that I thought it was semi-factual… (though of course the French Rev was). This sounds a better fictional illustration to the Revolution than others I’ve read, and adventures by sea are so fun to read about, especially given that we can read about them from a distance to the reality of the era’s pirates.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure how historically accurate it was (probably not very) but I loved it anyway. I don’t know a lot about the French Revolution so the balance between the historical detail and the fun plot was about right for me!

  3. Sarah says:

    I agree. Sometimes you just need some fun adventure regardless of having to suspend disbelief. I’ve always loved this book! And you’re right, it is interesting to see the French Revolution from an aristocratic sympathizer rather than the opposite, and more common, perspective.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t seen any of the film or TV versions so had somehow gone through my life not knowing the story at all! I hope you’ll decide to try the book – I definitely think it’s worth it.

    • Helen says:

      I love re-reading books but often worry that I won’t enjoy them as much as I did the first time. I hope this one doesn’t disappoint you if you decide to read it again!

  4. Tien says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I LOVED this book – it’s the one that got me reading past picture books 😉

    I was only little the first time I read it and I read a translated work so lot of the nuances probably didn’t come across but I’ve read it a few times since and falls in love with it over & over again 😉

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