Home » Eras » 20th Century » The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Emmuska Orczy


(A master of disguise rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and drops them safely into London society—until a sly French inspector tracks him down.)

Ian McKellen as the French inspector Chauvelin in the 1982 London Films production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which also starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour.  This and other stills can be found at the website devoted to all things Scarlet Pimpernel, called A Humble English Wayside Flower.

Don’t let the title’s reference to a dainty flower and the femininity of the author fool you.  This is no Austen or Brontë novel.  It is a hearty adventure, more along the lines of the father of adventure stories Sir Walter Scott, or Dumas, or Stevenson.  What a treat to have a woman join these illustrious ranks!  Rugged oaths and swordfights may be lacking, but stories stocked with those can easily be found elsewhere.  Instead Orczy proficiently places a “caped avenger”-style suspense drama (a genre some say she invented) against a backdrop of fashionable London society.  The high manners, the social competition, the gossip, the dress, the flamboyant events… Orczy was a baroness herself, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason why she was able to present these ingredients with such freshness and authenticity.  But all this is ancillary to the mystery and excitement that lend this tale its permanent appeal.

The interaction between the backdrop and the plot in this novel is particularly intriguing for two reasons.  The first is that all of the characters interact in society as polite façades.  We as readers naturally suspect that we have met the Scarlet Pimpernel and just don’t know who he is.  But concealment of one’s true identity, in a sense, is widespread in high society, so this places our hero in an effectively camouflaged position.  The second intriguing feature is the contrast between the courtesy of London and the beastly events occurring just across the Channel.  The first chapter paints a macabre, even horrific picture of life in Paris in 1792, three years after the Revolution; and subsequent chapters place us in comparative safety and civilization in English pubs and balls.  This contrast between what one could call the proximate and distant backgrounds for the plot (at least until the end of the book when the plot takes us back to France) creates an indelible effect on the reader’s imagination.  It leads us to consider the Scarlet Pimpernel a hero, the French Inspector Chauvelin the villain, England good, France bad, and so on—all of these oppositions being necessary to our riding along on this adventure with maximal enjoyment and suspense.

As for the plot, the year, again, is 1792.  The new French Committee of Public Safety is trying its best to prevent all Parisian aristocrats from leaving the city, much less the country.  But they are being foiled: an unknown English master of disguise and subterfuge, backed by a small group of lieutenants, has been smuggling French nobles across the English Channel to safety.  He has become the hero of England, and the single most effective weapon against the gruesome guillotine that the French populists were using with such enthusiasm in the name of brotherly love.  Each time a rescue is made, the embarrassed and irate French police receive a note signed only with a small, red, star-shaped flower, the scarlet pimpernel.  As the novel opens, the latest rescue was of the Comtesse de Tournay and part of her family.  Her husband the Comte was left in France alone, and his rescue would be the Scarlet Pimpernel’s next task.  The Comtesse is welcomed to England at The Fisherman’s Rest, a tavern run by the steady Mr. Jellyband, where she dines with two of her rescuers, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Lord Antony Dewhurst.  A social difficulty arises when Sir Percy Blakeney arrives with his wife Marguerite.  Percy is a rather dull but fashionable man whom everyone was surprised to see catch the beautiful and elegant French actress Marguerite.  Marguerite is thought to be in league with the revolutionaries, and so her introduction to the Comtesse does not go well.

While at the inn, a French agent Chauvelin corners Marguerite and asks her to find out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is, for the sake of her beloved France.  She is actually true to the Scarlet Pimpernel’s cause, however, and refuses flatly until Chauvelin finds a way to blackmail her—her brother Armand will be sent to the guillotine unless she provides information.  She agrees to help, but of course she knows nothing.  She manages, however, to steal a look at a note that bears the telltale sign, at a ball.  She catches the words “start myself tomorrow”, and therefore tells Chauvelin that the Scarlet Pimpernel is on his way to France and so will likely be personally involved in the rescue of the Comte de Tournay.  Chauvelin also knows that his quarry will be in the dining room at one in the morning and tries to trap him, but the man never appears at the particular room—possibly because Sir Percy has characteristically fallen asleep after the feast and remained there snoring.  Chauvelin departs and follows the Scarlet Pimpernel to France the next day.

Download this SPOILER if you want the ending revealed.

If there ever was a novel with two heroes, this is it.  The balance is achieved with skill: Marguerite we get to know so intimately in the foreground, as the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel does his derring-do in the background.  Some might have wished for more action on the French front, but that would have made this a different kind of novel.  The author maintains the air of mystery around the Scarlet Pimpernel partly by having most of the action occur offstage.  Primarily we have Marguerite onstage, and we don’t mind this, for she has a complexity that is lacking in most characterizations in adventure stories.  She is a woman who does not primarily exist to be the love interest to the hero, but has multiple roles that are integral to the plot and are in tension with each other.  She must save her beloved brother Armand, but in order to do so she must be a spy for France.  She is an intelligent, beautiful, central figure in London society, but is curiously married to a dull-witted dandy.  She is misunderstood to be in league with the wielders of the guillotine, while in fact she is devoted to “that enigmatic wayside flower” that rescues even those aristocrats who cannot stand to be in her presence.

Speaking of the French Revolution, the author tends to pull punches in the very beginning, but eventually blurts what she really thinks of it in chapter 7:

“…that seething, bloody revolution which was overthrowing a monarchy, attacking a religion, destroying a society in order to try and rebuild upon the ashes of tradition a new Utopia, of which a few men dreamed, but which none had the power to establish.”

I tended to nod my head to this, despite my disgust at the “let them eat cake” attitudes of the French aristocracy of the period (they deserved to be toppled), and my unequivocal support for another famous revolution of the same century.  The atrocities that were perpetrated during the Reign of Terror on many people whose only crime was to be born wealthy and into a privileged family, I place in the same moral category as genocide.  These horrific acts were not accidental or occasional byproducts of the Revolution but were central to it, so it was very easy for me as a reader to find myself rooting for the conceited “aristos” in their attempts to escape.  Luckily Orczy didn’t raise the possibility for ambivalence by introducing us too intimately to the personalities and earlier actions of many French aristocrats, besides our heroine Marguerite Blakeney.  The real thing was a morally ambivalent affair, to be sure, but Orczy’s Revolution is much simpler, and has to be for the sake of the adventure.

Well, enough bloviating about the story.  Adventure yarns can speak for themselves—let’s just say I found myself lying in bed trying to work out who the guy is, then how he can manage the next rescue, then how he might escape Chauvelin, then how Marguerite will manage to accomplish her own chosen mission, and so on… even after I had already stayed up much too late reading it.

Emma Orczy was Hungarian, but her family moved around Europe while she was a teenager and eventually settled in London.  She wrote in English, and her prose is fluid.  One could quibble about small things such as a couple of claims that horses “literally burned the ground” beneath their feet (ch.21, emphasis added), but such mistakes can be found even in native writers.  I found very few indications that the author was not a native speaker… and only the strangest of readers will care about such things anyway when they are running alongside the action.  What a tale-spinner our Orczy is!  I look forward to the sequels, although alas the general report is that they do not live up to the original, and her other novels are also inferior.  Even if that is the case, we still have The Scarlet Pimpernel!


Tidbits of Significance 

“Odd’s fish!”

-exclamation of Sir Percy Blakeney and others (throughout)  [a polite modification of “God’s flesh”]


…in every century and ever since England has been what it is, an Englishman has always felt somewhat ashamed of his own emotion and of his own sympathy.



“Odd’s life, m’dear!  Be reasonable!  Do you think I am going to allow my body to be made a pincushion of by every little frog-eater who don’t like the shape of your nose?”

-Sir Percy Blakeney to his wife, after having refused a duel with a Frenchman over a verbal insult to her, ch.6.


“Ah, Monseigneur,” said Chauvelin significantly, “rumor has it in France that Your Highness could—an you would—give the truest account of that enigmatical wayside flower.”  He looked quickly and keenly at Marguerite as he spoke; but she betrayed no emotion, and her eyes met his quite fearlessly.

“Nay, man,” replied the Prince, “my lips are sealed!  And the members of the league jealously guard the secret of their chief… so his fair adorers have to be content with worshiping a shadow.  Here in England, Monsieur,” he added with wonderful charm and dignity, “we but name the Scarlet Pimpernel and every fair cheek is suffused with a blush of enthusiasm.  None have seen him save his faithful lieutenants.  We know not if he be tall or short, fair or dark, handsome or ill-formed but we know that he is the bravest gentleman in all the world, and we all feel a little proud, Monsieur, when we remember that he is an Englishman.”

“Ah, Monsieur Chauvelin,” added Marguerite, looking almost with defiance across at the placid, sphinxlike face of the Frenchman, “His Royal Highness should add that we ladies think of him as of a hero of old… we worship him… we wear his badge… we tremble for him when he is in danger and exult with him in the hour of his victory.”

-Prince of Wales and Marguerite Blakeney, to the French inspector Chauvelin, ch.12.


“A woman’s heart is such a complex problem—the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.”




…you feel a need to root and cheer for daring feats of nobility and courage;


…you’d like your adventure story not only with suspense but also society, not only with a brave hero but a courageous heroine.



(for the pursuer of daring and heroic deeds:)

  • Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe  (1820)
  • James Fenimore Cooper, Last of the Mohicans  (1826)
  • Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers  (1844)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow  (1888)

 (for the fictional bystander at the French Revolution or its aftermath:)

  • Honoré de Balzac, “The Recruit” and “An Episode under the Terror” (1831)
  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities  (1859)
  • Victor Hugo, Les Miserables  (1862)
  • Anatole France, The Gods Are Athirst  (1912) 

Find It!

Hardcover: Here are four novels in one, the first volume of the Scarlet Pimpernel Omnibus. The Everyman’s Children’s Classic is a good one for larger format reading, for instance reading aloud! It also has a few helpful phrases for those less familiar with the period.

Paperback: The Signet Classic.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *