The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Fiction, superhero, action

Medium: Kindle ebook

Content warnings: Anti-semitism

Synopsis: It’s 1792, in the midst of the French Revolution.  Marguerite Blakeney is a French socialite living in England with her husband, Sir Percy Blakeney.  She has the best dresses, the cutest smile, and the wittiest remarks (which are usually reserved for her spouse).  Sir Percy is a foolish man who used to be madly in love with Marguerite, until she told him about how she condemned a man and his family to Madame La Guillotine.  Since then, he has fulfilled the duties of a husband out of necessity, not endearment.

Marguerite wants to win Percy’s heart back–but Chauvelin gets in the way.  Chauvelin is searching for the dastardly Scarlet Pimpernel, who has been smuggling those condemned to the guillotine to England.  He ensnares Marguerite in a plan to discover who the Scarlet Pimpernel is in return for her brother’s safety.  What’s a socialite to do?  Condemn her brother, or condemn the one person with whom Percy so agrees?

Review: Holy cow!!!  I gotta say right off the bat: I LOVED IT.  When I first heard of this AMAZING book, I discovered two things–first, this book was the beginning of the superhero genre; and second, this book was written by a woman.  So, already, it sounded great.  The only thing I was wary about was the language, since it was written over 100 years ago.  Not to worry though, it’s a little stuffy, but very easy to understand!

Orczy takes her time settling into the plot: we begin at the Chat Gris, where our main characters (and some minor ones) take the scene.  We learn that The Scarlet Pimpernel has once again saved members of the French aristocracy, and that the French people want him to be stopped at whatever cost.  Being respectful Englishmen, of course, they don’t understand why the revolution is happening–it’s totally barbaric, and the poor should just respect the upper class, of course, that’s the order of things.  Marguerite, the main character and token French person in this novel agrees, but she’s also upper-class, and is therefore biased.  This lays the bare bones of her characterization: she’s upper-class, she likes being adored, and she’d rather not get dirty if she doesn’t have to.

We’re immediately thrust afterwards into Marguerite’s world full of dinners, parties, and balls.  And, of course, the cold demeanor of her foolish husband.  It’s fascinating, it’s interesting, and it sounds fun.  The way Orczy writes these scenes is absolutely perfect.  In my opinion, she writes neither too quickly nor too slowly, and gives us just enough time to process the twists and turns she throws at us.  Because we’re following Marguerite, who is just doing her best to rectify her actions, we’re faced with the same amount of heightened love and fear.

There is some anti-semitism though, and that would have to be my only complaint.  However, I’m not Jewish myself, so my criticism can only go so far.  While I’m sure most of it is due to the time period in which this novel was written (read: the anti-semitism was overt, and not some culturally ingrained stereotype that hasn’t been deconstructed yet), it was still quite shocking to read.  There was a lot of mentions of how French folks hated Jewish folks, but I personally don’t know enough of the history to really go into it and state how historically accurate I thought it was.  So, just a word of warning–it begins in a chapter titled ‘The Jew,’ so you can’t really miss it.

Despite this, I would still have to recommend this book.  There were some things that I did expect, and many things that I didn’t, which makes this a very well-balanced book, and the perfect novel to begin this genre.  I think the things that I expected are cliches and tropes which originated from this novel or novels of the like, so it was truly fascinating to see how Marguerite would do certain things (and in a skirt, nonetheless), and how she takes charge of her brother’s fate, The Scarlet Pimpernel’s fate, and her own fate all at once.  I probably read this in 3 days or so, so it’s well worth it to just curl up with it whenever you have free time.  All in all, I found this to be one of the most entertaining books that I’ve read in a very long time.

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