Before I launch into my SummaReview (hybrid book review and summary) of The Scarlet Pimpernel, I would like to say something that may be useful to you. Last year, I committed to reading many of the literary classics and I failed to do so. Yes, I read a few of them, however, I didn’t honour my commitment to myself, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I started several books and put them down after a short time because they didn’t captivate me. Additionally, many of the literary classics are quite long because they were first written in serial form and published in magazines, and the more the author wrote, the more he got paid. Have you seen the length of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (Penguin Classics) and Nicholas Nickleby (Arcturus Paperback Classics), which are on my books to read this year?
I am doing a lot better this year because I have started doing something I used to do in the past, which I had forgotten to do. Reading the classics is an important goal for me, so I allocate one to two hours at one sitting to read, so that I can get through enough of the book that I will get to a point where I will want to know what happens next. Another reason why we often stop reading books, it’s not because they are boring, but because we do not read fast enough and get bored because of how little progress we made in the time we spent reading. To overcome that, I went back to using speed reading techniques and have been reading four words at a time instead of one and that has made a difference.
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Last year, I also selected How to Read Literature Like a Professor as my book of the year, and this book is truly helping me to get through the classics. I am asking a lot of questions as I am reading, and questioning the significance of every scene and that has helped me to foreshadow accurately what’s going to happen next. How to Read Literature Like a Professor was very useful while reading The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Scarlet Pimpernel wasn’t a page turner like The Count of Monte Cristo, but it was still a very good book.
The setting for The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy is in France and England in 1792 during the French Revolution. France was radically transformed during the Revolution, the monarchy fell, the aristocrats lost their privileges, and the peasants rebelled in masses. On top of that, the left-wing political groups assaulted the aristocrats. All this form the backdrop for the story.
Prior to the French Revolution and the fall of the monarchy, the clergies and aristocrats had privilege and power, which they sometimes abused. In the The Scarlet Pimpernel, you see the aristocrats using their position to oppress others, but it is impossible to continue to oppress the masses without pushback from them.
In one instance, Armand St Justs, a mere plebeian, had the “audacity” to try and court Marquis de St Cyr’s daughter, and the aristocrat responded by having him flogged so severely that he could have died. The only person St Justs had left in the world was his sister Marguerite, who was devastated by the beating. She wanted to pay back de St Cyr for what he had done to her brother, and others knowing her feelings, used what she said as evidence which was used to sentence de St Cyr to death by the guillotine. The aristocrat and his family were killed. That wasn’t what Marguerite had expected or wanted, and she realized how she was manipulated. She tried to intervene before the sentence was carried out without success.
The aristocrats in France are being hunted like animals and slaughtered every day by guillotine, and the masses rejoice, because to them they deserve the punishment. But before many of the aristocrats are guillotined, they are rescued, often in a very daring way by a master of disguise, the Scarlet Pimpernel. There are many checkpoints to prevent the aristocrats from escaping, yet the Scarlet Pimpernel passes through and make the guards look foolish, and some have paid with their lives for not uncovering the disguise. As you might have guessed, the signature the Scarlet Pimpernel uses is a rendering of the scarlet pimpernel, which is a red flower, found in England.
Twenty young English aristocrats, the Scarlet Pimpernel taking the role as leader, have made it their mission to save as many French aristocrats as possible from death by guillotine, rescuing and taking them to England. The focus in the story is on a few characters, with Lord Percy Blakeney and Lady Marguerite Blakeney (formerly St Justs) taking center stage. Lord Blakeney is portrayed as a handsome, sharp dresser, but a not too smart person who always has a lazy look on his face. Lady Blakeney is portrayed as a very smart, young, witty woman, and while she was living in France, many wondered why she would marry someone who has looks but not much intelligence.
Shortly after the pair had gotten married, Lord Blakeney heard rumours that his new wife had a hand in the death of the French aristocrat Marquis de St Cyr and his family. He is quite devastated, and thinks that she has made a fool of him. Marguerite tells him about the incident, but doesn’t fully explain that she was manipulated, because her arrogance gets in the way, and she thinks that if he loved her deep enough every thing would be okay. But everything isn’t okay. Blakeney changes toward her, and no longer trusts her, though they remain married and he showers her with gifts. She can get anything from him except his love.
The French regime is desperate to find out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is so they send government agent, M. Chavelin to England to gather intelligence. The regime already has some of the names of young English aristocrats who free the French aristocrats from certain death, but they are stumped by who the leader is. While gathering intelligence, Chavelin discovers that Marguerite’s brother Armand is not working for the French government, but is in collusion with the Scarlet Pimpernel and his gang.
What does Chavelin do? He approaches Marguerite and blackmails her – her brother’s life or the name of the Scarlet Pimpernel. At the time, Marguerite doesn’t know that her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel. If the reader reads the story carefully, they figure it out very early, the clues are there. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a master of disguise and eludes those who take it on themselves to mete out justice. Of all the characters in the story, who is the person they would least likely suspect? And that’s the question.
What does Marguerite do? Initially, her arrogance gets in the way, and instead of approaching her husband who has great wealth, to assist her, she unwillingly caves in to M. Chavelin. What she has done weighs heavily on her mind, and that’s when she approaches Lord Blakeney to rescue her brother. Marguerite sets aside her arrogance and speaks to her husband, explaining everything, but is that enough? Lord Blakeney assures her that he will take care of everything. She still hasn’t figured out that her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel even though there is mounting evidence – a metaphorical veil is over her eyes.
Lord Blakeney leaves early the following morning before his wife wakes up, leaving a note outside her door telling her he had to go away for a short period. For the first time, Marguerite enters her husband’s office and starts to search, and that’s when she discovers that her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel, she gave up her husband unknowingly to save her brother. Everything now makes sense to her and she can see everything quite clearly. The evidence was there all along but she was living in a bubble and looking but not really seeing.
Marguerite has to save her husband, and she gets assistance from Sir Andrew Ffoulkes one of the 20 swashbuckling rescuers. Marguerite returns to her homeland to save her husband, and she does, redeeming herself in the process. The pace of The Scarlet Pimpernel is slow like most classic literature, and I am beginning to realize that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are living in a very fast-paced world, and there has to be quiet moments in our lives.
I enjoyed and appreciated this book, and kept on asking myself what the significance of each scene was, which helped me to unfold the mystery. Key lessons in The Scarlet Pimpernel include:
- If you oppress people they will eventually push back.
- Two wrongs never make a right and revenge is never a good thing.
- Relationships can only flourish when there is trust, respect, and open and honest communication.
- In life we are constantly making tough choices and you always have to weigh the options.
- Have a support network to talk things through with because you make better choices if you have people who hold you accountable.
I recommend The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Book links are affiliate links.
- Adventures in Learning: Books to Read in 2012 (theinvisiblementor.com)
- Baroness Emmuska Orczy
- The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy