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The Scarlet Pimpernel

From Academic Kids

"We seek him here, we seek him there, / Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. / Is he in heaven?--Is he in hell? / That demmed, elusive Pimpernel."
—Sir Percy Blakeney (ch.12)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic adventure novel by Baroness Orczy. It was first published in 1905, and is seen as a precursor to the spy fiction and the superhero genres. It gave rise to numerous sequels, and has been adapted several times for television and film.

, the Scarlet Pimpernel
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Anagallis arvensis, the Scarlet Pimpernel

The action takes place during the French Revolution, when a secret society of English aristocrats, called the "League of the Scarlet Pimpernel", is engaged in rescuing their French counterparts from the guillotine. Their leader, the Scarlet Pimpernel, takes his nickname from the small red flower (illustration, left) with which he signs his messages. No one except his small band of followers knows his true identity.

Orczy wrote numerous sequels. Other of her works are related to the series, including The Laughing Cavalier (1914) and The First Sir Percy (1921), about an ancestor of the Pimpernel's; Pimpernel and Rosemary, about a descendant; and The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World (1933), a depiction of the 1930s world from the point of view of Sir Percy. Some of her non-related Revolutionary-period novels reference the Scarlet Pimpernel or the League, most notably The Bronze Eagle (1915).

The Scarlet Pimpernel is often cited as an early (perhaps the earliest) precursor of the superhero of American comic books: he is an independently wealthy person with a secret identity which he maintains in action by disguises, while in public life he appears as a politically irrelevant dandy to draw attention away from himself. In his hero guise, he accomplishes good, in a field in which the state is not competent to act, with his superior reasoning and fighting abilities. However, he never in the entire canon takes a life or indeed seriously wounds a foe. He even has a symbol in his name, which he does use as an emblem, though not on a costume. Bob Kane's Batman later followed the same pattern.

Contents

Film and other media

Hollywood took to the Pimpernel early and often; most such movies have been based on a melange of the original book and Eldorado (1913). Film treatments were done as early as 1917 and again in 1928 and 1937. The 1934 film directed by Harold Young, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, is widely regarded as the best screen adaptation, although Orczy herself believed Oberon miscast. It was also remade by Leslie Howard in 1941 as Pimpernel Smith, set in Nazi Germany instead of Paris. A popular TV adaptation was filmed in 1982, starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. A British TV series based on the novel aired for a season in 1954. The novel has even been parodied as a Warner Bros cartoon short featuring Daffy Duck (the Scarlet Pumpernickel), in 1954.

By contrast, a 1950 version (The Elusive Pimpernel) starring David Niven has been widely panned by serious fans of the canon. The BBC filmed the story as two 3-part mini-series in 1999-2000 with Richard E. Grant in the title role and Martin Shaw as Chauvelin. The series was shown on the A&E network in the U.S..

Returning to the work's stage roots, a 1997 Broadway musical based on the story was composed by Frank Wildhorn and written by Nan Knighton.

In print, one of Simon Hawke's Time Wars novels, The Pimpernel Plot (1985), involves the Scarlet Pimpernel. Steve Jackson Games published GURPS Scarlet Pimpernel, by Robert Traynor and Lisa Evans, in 1991, a supplement for playing the milieu using the GURPS roleplaying game system.

Plot

Marguerite Blakeney, wife of the foolish, foppish and wealthy Sir Percy Blakeney, is of French origin, and is blackmailed by the wily French ambassador to England, Citizen Chauvelin, into betraying the Pimpernel — without realising that he is one and the same as her seemingly silly husband. The couple had become estranged as a result of Marguerite's denunciation of a French aristocratic family. However, all misunderstandings are eventually resolved and Percy and Marguerite return to England relatively unscathed.

The subsequent books in the series deal with other characters with whom Blakeney comes into contact, and with the activities of his followers, Lord Tony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Hastings and Armand St Just.

Historical accuracy

Orczy was more invested in telling a good tale than in strict historical accuracy. Her sympathies are plainly (and understandably) with the aristocracy, and there are several distortions of historical record and characterization. In particular, the career of Chauvelin, the recurring villain of the series, is much altered; in fact, Bernard-Francois, marquis de Chauvelin, survived the Revolutionary period to become an official under Napoleon and a noted liberal Deputy under the second Bourbon Restoration.

Scarlet Pimpernel Books

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