Two people in love and something terrible trying to keep them apart, indeed forcing them apart - it's an old, old story. Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere... But Baroness Orczy makes the old story new again, for her suffering lovers are already married - to each other! - and the problem tearing them is nothing less than the onrush of history itself.
He is an English baronet, raised to uphold monarchy, order and civilization. She is a French citoyenne, the Revolution is in the midst of the bloody madness that came to be called the Reign of Terror.
The French Revolution had been full of bright promise at first. Liberty, equality, and the brotherhood of humankind - those were its lofty ideals. In 1789 the common people had succeeded in forcing King Louis XVI to give up aristocratic privilege in forcing himself and his nobles, accepting the restrictions of a constitutional monarchy. This state of affairs did not last; bitterness ran too deep. The king sensed the hatred of the lower classes that the ruling class had taxed to the point of starvation. He tried to flee the country, was arrested, was then sentenced to death and executed. But the blood of this one proud and foolish man did not satisfy the roused people. The queen, beautiful Austrian-born Marie Antionette, soon went to the guillotine, a massive machine invented to give the French people the formerly aristocratic privilege of execution by beheading. After the pretty young queen's more high born head fed "Louisette," the guillotine. And more, and more, until nearly every day the tumbrils, the humiliating common carts, carried their victims to Madame la Guillotine. Exciting times had turned to horrifying times. The Terror had begun.
Into this blood-drenched, insane time Baroness Orczy thrusts her heroine and her hero.
Lady Marguerite Blakeney - how is she to know that her husband, who seems like such a fool, is in fact the man who goes by the code name Scarlet Pimpernel? That he is the secret leader of a band of young English nobles taking desperate risks to rescue aristocrats and bring them out of France? And Sir Percy Blakeney - his wife is a Frenchwoman faced by a terrible conflict of interest. He loves her hopelessly, but he cannot let her know it, for how is he ever to trust her?
And that villain Chauvelin! Baroness Orczy creates for us a foe as cruel and grim as Madame La Guillotine, and as intent on a victim: the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Taking her own sweet time, like that sly fox Chauvelin toying with his prey - with supreme suspense, Baroness Orczy reveals to us the details of a horrifying situation. Yet - and this is the wonder of Baroness Orczy as a writer - she presents blackmail, betrayal, and deadly peril with such laughing charm and light-footed grace, such life and wit, that we feel as if we are caught up, not in horror but in an enchanting dance, a minuet. Her sense of humor, in particular, will not be repressed, but bursts out amid the most appalling situations. The only thing for an aristocrat to do, it sometimes seems, is to laugh in the face of fear. Humor, sometimes, becomes the ultimate courage of the drawling, foppish English baronet and his witty French wife.
"La, good reader," the author seems to say, as her heroine might have said, "it is all so simple. When you want to kill a chicken.... you take hold of it... then you wring its neck... it's only the chicken who does not find it quite so simple, no?" In fact it is anything but simple, this adventure, as with each page it catches hold of us readers yet tighter, gripping us with tension fit to kill - as that villain Chauvelin would love to kill... entrap... take the head... of that thrillingly bold and mysterious hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Years after she wrote her most famous book Baroness Orczy recorded how she had "met" her hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel:
"I first saw him standing before me.... on the platform of an underground station, the Temple. I had been to see someone on the Daily Express... and was waiting for my Inner Circle train for Kensington. Now, of all the dull, prosy places in the world, can you beat the underground Railway Station? It was foggy, too, and smelly and cold... I saw him in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands holding up his spy-glass; I heard his lazy drawling speech, his quaint laugh. I can't tell you in detail everything I saw and heard - it was a mental vision, of course, and lasted but a few seconds - but it was the whole life-story of the Scarlet Pimpernel that was there and then revealed to me. The rest of the day has remained a blur in my mine, but my thoughts were clear enough for me to tell my beloved husband about the wonder that had occurred; the birth of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Nothing less than inspired, she finished her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel five weeks later. It went the usual rounds of the publishing houses - few editors were willing to take a chance on this unknown author - but once published it because an immediate success. After that, Baroness Orczy could write what she like, and for those who adored the Scarlet Pimpernel as she did, she wrote other novels about him: The Elusive Pimpernel, The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel, many more. Love stories, all of them.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy must have had a vast capacity for love. We know she was singlemindedly devoted to her husband all her life. Yet her account of that strange "meeting" on the railway platform fairly glows, alight with her love of the Scarlet Pimpernel - love at first sight.
This love, to me, explains much about the part her heroine, Marguerite Blakeney, played in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Baroness Orczy surely admired her heroine; she made her "The most clever woman in Europe." She sent Marguerite off to France to warn the Scarlet Pimpernel of danger - and what Marguerite had to do was a most courageous and unusual thing for a woman to do in that era, when even a woman's traveling alone was unusual. But in the end, Marguerite's journey accomplishes little. Her husband requires no warning - because Baroness Orczy could not bring herself to put the Scarlet Pimpernel into such difficulties that he would genuinely need Marguerite's help. Though her prankish sense of humor allowed him to be disguised as a filthy knave, tied and gagged and even beaten, she adored him too much to let him actually be discovered or captured. He remained perfect, neatly superhuman, in full, victorious control of an impossible situation to the end.
Therefore, in the end, it is not Marguerite's cleverness that wins her husband back to her, but her devotion. She had proved her love. And Percy Blakeney remains in command of all aspects of his destiny except his love for his wife. That is beyond his command; that he cannot help, avoid, or control.
Love, Baroness Orczy seems to be saying, is the oldest force, the most deathless, the strongest. Love lives, even though a brutal revolution seems to wish to kill all that is loving and beautiful forever.
No doubt Baroness Orczy's view of that revolution is biased in favor of her marvelous aristocrats. Charles Dickens, writing of the same Reign of Terror in his deathless novel, A Tale of Two Cities, had a more middle-class outlook and a different story to tell. A member of the lower classes, a peasant or a servant, might have seen the same events in yet another, entirely opposite way. Surely few aristocrats could have been as kind, as winsome, as handsome and talented as Sir Percy Blakeney and his lady... yet no such considerations seem to come in the way of our pleasure as we read The Scarlet Pimpernel. Even we who are descendants of peasants, it seems, can dream...
Dream of white hands and velvet gowns and lace ruffles at elegant throats, and of intrigue and adventure and love.