Published in 1905, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is a historical romance written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It is set during the French Revolution and follows the exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He is the original hero with a secret identity. He is the precursor to such characters as Zorro and Batman.
The story opens with some aristocrats being smuggled across the French Barricades and then taken to safety in England. When we first meet the Scarlet Pimpernel, we are surprised to find he is the old hag driving a broken down cart. His real name is Sir Percy Blakeney. He is a foppish Englishman whose alter ego is a chivalrous handsome hero.
No one knows his true identity except a select few he trusts. This list does not include his wife. The former actress is beautiful and intelligent but doesn’t find out her husband’s secret life until they have been married for two years.
While the evil agent from Paris, Citizen Chauvelin is blackmailing his wife to help capture the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel she is also trying to hold her marriage together and save her brother. When she discovers her foppish husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel she tries to save him, too. In the end, he is saved by his cunning, and he saves her brother, too, along with their marriage.
Written as a play, the New Theatre in London’s West End were the first to put the Scarlet Pimpernel on stage. Since then it has had over two thousand performances and has been made into movies and television shows.
Paris: September 1792
A crowd has gathered at the West Barricade in Paris. They had spent the day watching aristocrats lose their heads on the guillotine, and they spend their evenings watching other aristocrats trying to escape. The nobles try to evade Sargent Bibot, but they are rarely successful. Sometimes he would let them think they were escaping only to stop them right at the gates. He would toy with them as a “cat looks on a mouse.” Those that do manage to flee to England leave behind a star – shaped flower that is called the scarlet pimpernel. It is a sign they have been rescued.
While sitting on a cask near the gate, Bibot sees an old cart coming along. In it sits an old woman he had seen among the hags knitting as heads fell from the guillotine. When he stops her she cackles and shows him the curly locks hanging from the handle of her whip. He was a little disgusted when she told him she had made friends with “Madame Guillotine’s lover.” Then motions to the figure in the back of the cart and tell him her grandson has small pox. He jumps back, disgusted and she laughs again. He tells her to leave and take her “plague – stricken brood.”
After she leaves, a captain of the guard rides up to question Bibot. He wants to know if a hag went by in a cart and Bibot says yes. Then he learns the old woman was the “accursed Englishman himself – the Scarlet Pimpernel.” He had a Countess and her two children with her in the cart.
Dover: The Fisherman’s Rest
Later when the Scarlet Pimpernel arrives with his passengers at the Fisherman’s Rest. It is a small coffee room in Dover. Their are Englishmen and women waiting for several French aristocrats. Lord Antony Dewhurst and Sir Andrew Ffoulkes are close allies of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Countess worries about her husband who was left behind and asks if she can meet the Scarlet Pimpernel who has saved her and her children. But, she is told his identity is kept secret. She doesn’t know he was the old woman.
She begins to tell them of the atrocities being committed in France. The women who have become so blood thirsty. She tells them about Marguerite St. Just who has given an entire family to the tribunal. This makes everyone feel awkward because of Marguerite St. Just is now Lady Blakeney, married to an Englishman and arriving outside.
When Lady Blakeney arrives, the Countess refuses to see her and makes her daughter turn her back on the Lady. After the Countess leaves, Lady Blakeney laughs at her reactions, but the reader sees an almost wistful expression on her face. She isn’t as imperious as she seems nor is she as unfeeling. Her husband, Percy Blakeney is the first in fashion.
As one of the richest men in England, he can afford to be fashionable. So when he chose a wife, he landed one of the most beautiful of the fleeing French aristocrats. She is not only beautiful but also fascinating and clever. Her marriage to Percy is a wonder to their friends. He is not very handsome or clever. “Tall, above the average, even for an Englishman, broad – shouldered and massively built, he would have been called unusually good – looking, but for a certain lazy expression in his deep – set blue eyes, and that perpetual inane laugh which seemed to disfigure his strong, clearly – cut mouth.” He is intimidated by the Lady and speaks with a childish accent.
After Percy arrives, the Comtesse’s little boy plans to challenge him to a duel so that Percy can avenge his wife’s honor after she was shunned by his mother. Sir Percy says he never participates in duels. “Demmed uncomfortable things, duels.” While he seems to too lazy to care, his wife laughs the whole thing away. Although he seems to be a dolt and uninterested, the reader is told that he watches her with an “intense longing, of deep and hopeless passion.”
The Secret Orchard
Outside the coffee room, Lady Blakeney took a deep breath and let a few tears fall. Soon she sees two men walking toward her. One of them is her brother, Armand and the other is the captain of the ship he will be leaving on. Armand is a soldier and must return to France to duty. He asks her whether her husband knows the truth about why she denunciated the family of the Marquis de Cyr to the Tribunal. He reminds her that the truth would exonerate her. She tells him she has not told her husband and thus their relationship has been destroyed.
After standing on a cliff to watch her brother leave the ship, Lady Blakeney goes back into the coffee room. There she is stopped by a Frenchman, Chauvelin. He wants her to help him discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He has been trying to find him throughout England. She refuses to help him and says the Scarlet Pimpernel is a brave and noble man.
After everyone but Lord Tony and Sir Andrew along with the barkeep has turned in for the night at the Fisherman’s Rest, the two noblemen are talking about the danger the Comte de Tournay is in. Even though they have saved his wife and children, he is due to meet the guillotine. They wish that Scarlet Pimpernel would go back to rescue him before he is executed. Suddenly Chauvelin and his men storm in. They are looking for clues to find the Scarlet Pimpernel. Finally, Chauvelin finds a letter signed by Lady Blakeney’s brother and knows he can use it to blackmail her to give him the Scarlet Pimpernel.
In the Opera Box
The first gala night at the Covent Garden Theatre for the season in 1792 brings the Comtesse de Tournay. The opera makes her think of the continuing dangers in France. She worries about the safety of her husband. When she sees Chauvelin, she remarks to him that if he wants an accomplice he should look to Lady Blakeney.
Lady Blakeney is at the opera also. When Chauvelin confronts her, he shows her the letter signed by her brother he found. He forces her to help him identify the Scarlet Pimpernel at Lord Grenville’s Ball where he is supposed to be meeting with some of his men. If she helps him he will give her the letter after the Ball so she can destroy it.
Lord Grenville’s Ball
Lord Grenville is the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. His Ball is to be the “most brilliant function of the year.” Lady Blakeney can’t enjoy it. She is terrified and can’t ask her husband for help. She still thinks he is a fool and useless.
The Lady manages to follow two Englishmen that she thinks work with the Scarlet Pimpernel. She intercepts a note before it is destroyed that says the Scarlet Pimpernel will be in the supper-room at one o’clock. In her fear, she tells Chauvelin about the note. He goes into the supper room with hopes of finding the Scarlet Pimpernel, only to discover Sir Percy napping on a sofa in the corner. He sits down to wait for the man to show but he never does. Afterward he confronts Lady Blakeney again. He warns her that she better hope the Scarlet Pimpernel is caught soon because he is keeping the letter and her brother is not saved yet.
After the Ball, Percy takes his wife on a long drive to their spacious house in the country. He does this after every Ball and dinner because he doesn’t like to stay in the city. The ride is lovely in the moonlight, but also quiet. After the arrive home Lady Blakeney takes a walk around the grounds while he puts the carriage away. When he heads back into the house, he is stopped by his wife.
She tries to talk to him. She wants to know if he still loves her and what happened to their romance. He reminds her about the death of the St. Cyr family that occurred twenty-four hours after their marriage. She tries to explain to him that she turned St. Cyr in because he was selling secrets to Austria and he had had her brother whipped for falling in love with a noble woman. She did not realize the whole family would meet the guillotine. He reminds her that he asked her about it when it happened, and she told him that if she loved him, he would not think such things of her.
Lady Blakeney then begins to think he must still love her and tries to tell him about the problems she’s having with her brother and Chauvelin. But he stops her and tells her to ask her brother for help. Then he tells her that he will ensure her brother’s safety, but he is still cold and formal with her. He continuously reminds her of his slow brain. After she leaves the reader sees him break down. He does still love her but will not show it to her.
The next day she sees that Percy is leaving for the North. She realizes he is helping her brother and she has underestimated him. After he leaves, she goes into his office where she finds it well organized and neat. She begins to wonder why he puts on a front of an absent-minded buffoon. Suddenly she sees a small gold ring on the carpet. There is a scarlet pimpernel engraved on it. She realizes her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Unfortunately, she also realizes that she gave information to Chauvelin that the Scarlet Pimpernel was going to be in Calais. When a messenger arrives bringing her the letter from her brother that was her payment for betraying the Scarlet Pimpernel, she realizes how close he is to catching him.
Less than half and hour later she found herself in a coach and headed to find Sir Andrew. When she reaches him, she tells him that she knows Percy is the Scarlet Pimpernel and she has unwittingly betrayed him. She asks him to help her. He says to leave it in his hands, but she insists on going with him to Calais. The pair makes plans to sail out the next day from Dover, but a violent storm blows up so they must postpone their departure. Andrew suggests they just kill Chauvelin. But she tells him that the penalty for murder is too high. They spend the night in the pub waiting for the storm to pass. Luckily the storm has also slowed Chauvelin down. She thinks that she can intercept Percy before Chauvelin can reach him, but she also realizes that if the Frenchman sees her with Percy, he will think she warned the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The next day Lady Blakeney and Andrew sail to Calais. They are ahead of Chauvelin. When they go to the pub where Percy is to be, they find out he has left but will be back that evening. She is thrilled he is still safe but quickly realizes they are on French soil and if he is captured he will go to the guillotine. She and Andrew decide that she will wait at the pub in case he shows up and Andrew will try to intercept them on the road to warn him. He warns her not to be seen.
Soon Chauvelin arrives. She overhears him say to his man to fetch six soldiers. He plans to ambush Percy when he walks into the pub. He wants Percy alive if possible. Lady Blakeney trembles in her hiding place. Soon she hears Percy singing a song as he meanders down the street. Percy saunters in and sits down to order dinner. Chauvelin wants to arrest him, but can’t until his men arrive. Lady Blakeney is watching in terror. Percy continues to leisurely converse with Chauvelin and offers him some of his snuff. It is pepper. While Chauvelin is struggling Percy calmly leaves.
After he is gone the soldiers arrive. They tell Chauvelin that Percy spoke to a Jewish man about borrowing his horse and cart later to go down St. Martin Road. He tells them to find this Jewish man, but instead, they come back with his friend. He tells Chauvelin that they can borrow his cart and horse. They can intercept Percy at Pere Blanchard’s home. That is where he is supposed to go. He assures the Frenchman that his horse is much faster than the other Jewish man. He will either catch up to Percy or get to the house before him.
He decides to take the Jewish man’s horse but tells him that if he catches Percy, he will be rewarded. But if he misses him he will ensure the man is beaten almost to death. Lady Blakeney has heard all this and has become more agitated. Soon she heads out to Blanchard’s house in hopes of saving her husband. She sees his ship anchored and fears he is about to walk into a trap. She takes off running to the house to warn the people inside but is captured by Chauvelin.
Lady Blakeney is bound and gagged. Chauvelin does not want her to alert the Scarlet Pimpernel who he hopes to catch with the escapees. He tells her that if she makes a sound, he will kill her brother. He wants to take them all in alive. Then he removes her gag and unties her. When his men tell him there are four men waiting inside the house, he tells them to stand guard outside while they wait for the Scarlet Pimpernel.
When she hears her husband singing off in the distance, Lady Blakeney screams and runs into the house to warn them to run. The soldiers and Chauvelin run to the house, too only to discover it is empty. The occupants fled while they were all looking for the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel. When Chauvelin tries to chastise them, they remind him they were only following orders.
Soon they hear the ship leaving, and they find a note written by the Scarlet Pimpernel telling them to go on without him. Chauvelin hopes to catch Percy near the creak. But, before he and his soldiers leave he realizes he forgot to beat the Jewish man. He orders his soldiers to beat him while he watches because he failed to catch the Scarlet Pimpernel. Lady Blakeney lays unconscious nearby.
When she regains consciousness, Lady Blakeney hears the Jewish man cursing and realizes it is Percy. She frees him, and they embrace. The plan worked. Soon Sir Andrew arrives and takes them to a boat, the Day Dream. They sail safely back to England. Their marriage is saved along with her brother, and the de Tournays.
The book ends with a happy ending including a wedding between Sir Andrew and the daughter of de Tournay with the Prince of Whales in attendance. Also, Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney are in attendance and quite well dressed.
Percy Blakeney or The Scarlet Pimpernel – Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be a dandy. He is the leader in fashion and seems to have nothing else on his mind. He has married a beautiful French woman who seems to lead him around by the nose. Percy is a large man but seems to have a slow mind. But, in actuality, he is the Scarlet Pimpernel. A master of disguises and the man who had managed to sneak many aristocrats away before they were killed by the guillotine. Although all of France is trying to capture him, he brilliantly eludes them. He wears the guise of an old hag once and another time is dressed as a Jewish man.
Marguerite St. Just nee Lady Blakeney – an outstandingly beautiful French woman. Before her marriage, she was an actress in Paris and well known for her charm and wit. When other noblemen see her and her husband together, they question why such an amazing woman would marry a such a dolt. She is hated by the aristocrats in Paris because it is known that she gave the name of a peer, St. Cyr to the Tribunal.
She had discovered that he was giving traitorous information to Austria. But, she mostly wanted revenge because he had had her brother whipped for falling in love with an aristocrat. Her husband found out about this about twenty-four hours after their marriage and was cold to her after that. In trying to help her brother elude capture in France, she tells the authorities where to find the Scarlet Pimpernel. Only to discover he is her husband, Percy. She tries to save him but is captured herself. Finally, she is released and finds Percy posing as a Jewish man and also left by the French Citoyen after they left to pursue the Scarlet Pimpernel. She and her husband makeup and live happily ever after.
Chauvelin – he is a French Citoyen or agent. He is brutish and determined to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel after he sneaks some aristocrats out right under his nose. Since he has diplomatic rights, Chauvelin can go to England in search of his fugitive. He blackmails Lady Blakeney into helping him capture the Scarlet Pimpernel after he discovers a letter signed by her brother. Although he is cruel and vengeful, Chauvelin is always made to look like a fool by the Scarlet Pimpernel. Even when he begins to believe Sir Percy might be the Scarlet Pimpernel he can’t prove it or catch him.
Armand St. Just – he is the brother of Lady Blakeney and one of the many men working with the Scarlet Pimpernel trying to save some of the French aristocrats from the guillotine. He and his sister are very close. She tries to protect him. After he is beaten by an aristocrat, she turns the man’s name over to the Tribunal, and he is sent to the guillotine. Then when Chauvelin finds a note signed by Armand, the agent can blackmail her into helping him. She also begs her husband to save her brother and tries to help him do so.
Baroness Orczy Biography
The Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozalia Maria Jozefa Borbala Emmuska Orczy de Orci or Emmuska as she was called, was born in September of 1865 in Hungary. Three years after her birth her parent’s composer Baron Felix Orczy de Orci and Countess Emma Wass de Szentegyed et Cage left there estate in Budapest because they feared a revolution by the peasants. They relocated to Brussels and then Paris. In Paris, Emmuska studied music but was not very successful. Then when she was fourteen, the family relocated again. This time to London.
There she attended the West London School of Art and the Heatherley’s School of Fine Art. Although some of her paintings are on display at the Royal Academy in London Emmuska was not destined to become a painter. While at art school she met her future husband, Montague Maclean Barstow. He was the son of an English clergyman, and them two were very happily married for almost fifty years. They had one son, John Montague Orczy – Barstow who is believed to have written The Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel a biography of the fictional Scarlet Pimpernel created by his mother.
To earn a little money when her child was a baby, Orczy began writing small detective stories for the Royal Magazine. Her stories of the Scarlet Pimpernel were a great success and led to play being produced in London’s West End and a series of novels.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a character who used subterfuge to save aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. In these stories, Orczy develops the “hero with the secret identity.” This trope has often been reused since then. Characters such as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Superman/Clark Kent. The thoughtless playboy or the bumbling clod hiding their superhero identity.
Some use a particular weapon, such as a sword or bow and arrow, and also leave a calling card to mark their appearances, such as a Z for Zorro or a scarlet pimpernel. The hero can out wit and out think their foes and save the innocent.
Orczy also wrote stories that spotlighted her “Old Man in the Corner.” His character is that of a detective that uses logic to solve crimes. She also wrote “The Nest of the Sparrowhawk.” Published in 1909 it tells the story of a man who maneuvers to get his wealthy ward to marry him. With her literary success, she was able to buy a home in Monte Carlo. They lived there throughout the Nazi occupation. After her husband died in 1942, Orczy moved back to London, where she stayed the rest of her life.
Throughout her life, Orczy held strongly conservative views. She organized a group of Women of England’s Active Service League. The main duty of the League was for women to convince every man of their acquaintance to join the military. In it’s heyday, the group consisted of over twenty thousand women. Orczy believed strongly in an imperialist government and the aristocracy. She also had a strong opposition to the Soviet Union.
In November 1947 Baroness Emmuska Orczy died in Oxfordshire. She was 82 years old and still writing.