The Scarlet Pimpernel
|Genre||Historical fiction, adventure|
|Preceded by||The First Sir Percy|
|Followed by||Sir Percy Leads the Band|
The Scarlet Pimpernel is the first novel in a series of historical fiction by Emma Orczy set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution, first published in 1905. The novel was written after Orczy's stage play of the same title enjoyed a long run in London and popular success earlier in 1905, after a first run in Nottingham in 1903.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of a chivalrous Englishman, Sir Percy Blakeney, in the time of the Terrors in France, who, with his band of gentlemen, rescues aristocrats before they can be killed by the violent government in revolutionary France. A wealthy English fop, he is known by his symbol, a simple flower, the scarlet pimpernel. He succeeds by transforming himself into a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist, in addition to the strict secrecy of the group's movements. His identity is secret to all but his men. Marguerite Blakeney, French wife of a wealthy English dandy, is approached by the new French envoy to England with a threat to her brother's life if she does not aid in his search for the Pimpernel. She aids him, and then discovers that the Pimpernel is also very dear to her. She sails to France to stop the envoy.
Opening at the New Theatre in London's West End on 5 January 1905, the play became a favourite of British audiences, eventually playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in Britain. The title character established the notion of a "hero with a secret identity" into popular culture. He was a precursor to subsequent literary creations such as Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro) and Bruce Wayne (Batman).
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters
- 3 Literary significance
- 4 Historical allusions
- 5 Scarlet Pimpernel publications
- 6 Members of the League
- 7 Chronology of novels in the series
- 8 Adaptations
- 9 Parodies and media references
- 10 Later usage of Pimpernel
- 11 References
- 12 External links
The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in 1792, during the early stages of the French Revolution. Marguerite St. Just, a beautiful French actress, is the wife of wealthy English fop Sir Percy Blakeney, a baronet. Before their marriage, Marguerite took revenge upon the Marquis de St. Cyr, who had ordered her brother to be beaten for his romantic interest in the Marquis' daughter, with the unintended consequence of the Marquis and his sons being sent to the guillotine. When Percy found out, he became estranged from his wife. Marguerite, for her part, became disillusioned with Percy's shallow, dandyish lifestyle.
Meanwhile, the "League of the Scarlet Pimpernel", a secret society of twenty English aristocrats, "one to command, and nineteen to obey", is engaged in rescuing their French counterparts from the daily executions of the Reign of Terror. Their leader, the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, takes his nickname from the small red flower he draws on his messages. Despite being the talk of London society, only his followers and possibly the Prince of Wales know the Pimpernel's true identity. Like many others, Marguerite is entranced by the Pimpernel's daring exploits.
At a ball attended by the Blakeneys, a verse by Percy about the "elusive Pimpernel" makes the rounds and amuses the other guests. Meanwhile, Marguerite is blackmailed by Citizen Chauvelin, the wily new French envoy to England. Chauvelin's agents have stolen a letter proving her beloved brother Armand is in league with the Pimpernel. Chauvelin offers to trade Armand's life for her help against the Pimpernel. Contemptuous of her seemingly witless and unloving husband, Marguerite does not go to him for help or advice. Instead, she passes along information which enables Chauvelin to learn the Pimpernel's true identity.
Later that night, Marguerite finally tells her husband of the terrible danger threatening her brother and pleads for his assistance. Percy promises to save him. After Percy unexpectedly leaves for France, Marguerite discovers to her horror (and simultaneous delight) that he is the Pimpernel. He had hidden behind the persona of a dull, slow-witted fop to deceive the world. He had not told Marguerite because of his worry that she might betray him, as she had the Marquis de St. Cyr. Desperate to save her husband, she decides to pursue Percy to France to warn him that Chauvelin knows his identity and his purpose. She persuades Sir Andrew Ffoulkes to accompany her, but because of the tide and the weather, neither they nor Chauvelin can leave immediately.
At Calais, Percy openly approaches Chauvelin in the Chat gris, a decrepit inn whose owner is in Percy's pay. Despite Chauvelin's best efforts, the Englishman manages to escape by offering Chauvelin a pinch of snuff, which turns out to be pure pepper. Through a bold plan executed right under Chauvelin's nose, Percy rescues Marguerite's brother Armand and the Comte de Tournay, the father of a schoolfriend of Marguerite's. Marguerite pursues Percy right to the very end, resolute that she must either warn him or share his fate. Percy, heavily disguised, is captured by Chauvelin, who does not recognise him, so he is able to escape.
With Marguerite's love and courage amply proven, Percy's ardour is rekindled. Safely back on board their schooner, the Day Dream, the happily reconciled couple returns to England. Sir Andrew marries the count's daughter, Suzanne.
- Sir Percy Blakeney: He is a wealthy English baronet who rescues individuals sentenced to death by the guillotine. He soon reveals himself to be a master of disguise, an imaginative planner, a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist. With each rescue he taunts his enemies by leaving behind a card showing a small flower—a scarlet pimpernel. The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel thus becomes a topic of widespread popular interest and the hero himself becomes the subject of an international manhunt by the French revolutionary authorities. To hide his true identity, Sir Percy presents himself in everyday life as a dim-witted, foppish playboy. His secret is kept by a band of friends known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The league operates as an undercover team in enacting Sir Percy's rescue plans.
- Marguerite Blakeney, née St Just: She is the wife of Sir Percy. She leads London society with her beauty, style and intelligence. She was an actress in Paris, where she held salons to discuss the issues of the day. She was not an aristocrat in French society. She is 25 years old.
- Armand St Just: Older brother of Marguerite, who raised her after their parents died. He is a gentleman and a republican in France, but his views of the slaughter of the aristocracy do not match the times.
- Citizen Chauvelin: Newly appointed envoy to England from Revolutionary France. He seeks the Scarlet Pimpernel, who is allowing aristocrats to escape their fate under the new regime.
- Sir Andrew Ffoulkes: Friend of Sir Percy who aids Marguerite when she realizes her mistake. He falls in love with an émigrée, a girl who had been at school with Marguerite.
The title character, Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy English fop who transforms into a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist, represents the original "hero with a secret identity" that was a precursor to subsequent literary creations such as Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro), Kent Allard/Lamont Cranston (The Shadow) and Bruce Wayne (Batman).
Establishing the notion of a hero with a secret identity into popular culture, the Scarlet Pimpernel exhibits characteristics that would become standard superhero conventions, including the penchant for disguise, use of a signature weapon (sword), ability to out-think and outwit his adversaries, and a calling card (he leaves behind a scarlet pimpernel at each of his interventions). By drawing attention to his alter ego Blakeney he hides behind his public face as a slow thinking foppish playboy (like Bruce Wayne), and he also establishes a network of supporters, The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that aid his endeavours.
The popular success of the novel is considered to be based on the myth of the aristocratic hero with a double life, along with the love story and conflict of loyalties. Dugan says that "Behind the wigs and Mechlin lace cuffs lies an enduring human story of love, misunderstandings, conflict of loyalties, audacious bravery – and a dramatic double life." and this is a major part of the story's enduring popularity. Another aspect is the "Englishness" of the hero, in the era when the British Empire began to shrink.
As a writer, Orczy often alluded to historical events and figures but adapted these freely in creating her tales.
Citizen Chauvelin, the recurring villain of the Scarlet Pimpernel series, is based to some extent on the real-life Bernard-François, marquis de Chauvelin, who survived the Revolutionary period to serve as an official under Napoleon I of France. He was a noted liberal Deputy under the Bourbon Restoration.
Other historical figures who appear in Orczy's Pimpernel series include:
Scarlet Pimpernel publications
Orczy's original play, The Scarlet Pimpernel, was produced and adapted by Julia Neilson and Fred Terry. It opened on 15 October 1903 at Nottingham's Theatre Royal and was not a success. Terry, however, had confidence in the play and, with a rewritten last act, took it to London's West End where it opened at the New Theatre on 5 January 1905. The premier of the London production was enthusiastically received by the audience, but critics considered the play 'old-fashioned.' In spite of negative reviews, the play became a popular success, running 122 performances and enjoying numerous revivals. The Scarlet Pimpernel became a favourite of London audiences, playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in the United Kingdom.
The novel The Scarlet Pimpernel was published two years after the play opened and was an immediate success. Orczy gained a following of readers in Britain and throughout the world. The popularity of the novel encouraged her to write a number of sequels for her "reckless daredevil" over the next 35 years. The play was performed to great acclaim in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, while the novel was popular across the former British empire and translated into 16 languages. Subsequently, the story has been adapted for television, film, a musical and other media.
The international success of The Scarlet Pimpernel allowed Orczy and her husband to live out their lives in luxury. Over the years, they lived on an estate in Kent, a bustling London home and an opulent villa in Monte Carlo. Orczy wrote in her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life:
I have so often been asked the question: "But how did you come to think of The Scarlet Pimpernel?" And my answer has always been: "It was God's will that I should." And to you moderns, who perhaps do not believe as I do, I will say, "In the chain of my life, there were so many links, all of which tended towards bringing me to the fulfillment of my destiny."
Orczy wrote numerous sequels, none of which became as famous as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Many of the sequels revolve around French characters whom Sir Percy has met and is attempting to rescue. His followers, such as Lord Tony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Hastings, and Armand St. Just (Marguerite's brother), also take their turn in major roles.
In addition to the direct sequels about Sir Percy and his league, Orczy's related books include The Laughing Cavalier (1914) and The First Sir Percy (1921), about an ancestor of the Pimpernel's; Pimpernel and Rosemary (1924), 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 (play 1903, novel 1905)
- I Will Repay (1906)
- The Elusive Pimpernel (1908)
- Eldorado (1913)
- Lord Tony's Wife (1917)
- The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1922)
- Sir Percy Hits Back (1927)
- A Child of the Revolution (1932)
- The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1933)
- Sir Percy Leads the Band (1936)
- Mam'zelle Guillotine (1940)
Collections of short stories
- The Scarlet Pimpernel etc. (1930) collection of four novels
- The Gallant Pimpernel (1939) collection of four novels
- The Scarlet Pimpernel Omnibus (1952) collection of four novels
- The Laughing Cavalier (1913) (about an ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel)
- The First Sir Percy (1920) (about an ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel)
- Pimpernel and Rosemary (1924) (about a descendent of the Scarlet Pimpernel)
Members of the League
The Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a fictional biography of Percy Blakeney published in 1938, named the nineteen members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
- The original nine League or founder members who formed the party on 2 August 1792: Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (second in command), Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Lord Edward Hastings, Lord John Bathurst, Lord Stowmarries, Sir Edward Mackenzie, Sir Philip Glynde, Lord Saint Denys, and Sir Richard Galveston.
- Ten members enrolled in January 1793: Sir Jeremiah Wallescourt, Lord Kulmstead, Lord George Fanshawe, Anthony Holte, John Hastings (Lord Edward's cousin), Lord Everingham, Sir George Vigor, Bart, The Honorable St John Devinne, Michael Barstow of York, and Armand St Just (Marguerite's brother).
- Marguerite, Lady Blakeney, is also named as a member of the League in the book Mam'zelle Guillotine, but it is not known when she was formally enrolled.
Chronology of novels in the series
Orczy did not publish her Pimpernel stories as a strict chronological series, and in fact, the settings of the books in their publication sequence may vary forward or backward in time by months or centuries. While some readers enjoy following the author's development of the Pimpernel character as it was realised, others prefer to read the stories in historical sequence. Taking into account occasional discrepancies in the dates of events (real and fictional) referred to in the stories, the following is an approximate chronological listing of Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel novels and short stories:
|The Laughing Cavalier||January 1623|
|The First Sir Percy||March 1624|
|The Scarlet Pimpernel||September–October 1792|
|Sir Percy Leads the Band||January 1793|
|The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel||July 1793|
|I Will Repay||August–September 1793|
|The Elusive Pimpernel||September–October 1793|
|Lord Tony's Wife||November–December 1793|
|The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel||late 1793||concurrent with preceding 2 or 3 novels|
|Eldorado||January 1794||unclear whether before, after, or concurrent with Mam'zelle Guillotine|
|Mam'zelle Guillotine||January 1794||unclear whether before, after, or concurrent with Eldorado|
|Sir Percy Hits Back||May–June 1794|
|Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel||1794?||exact dates unclear|
|The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel||April 1794||seems to have happened later than dates indicate|
|A Child of the Revolution||July 1794|
|Pimpernel and Rosemary||1917–1924|
Hollywood took to the Pimpernel early and often, although most of the Pimpernel movies have been based on a melange of the original book and another Orczy novel, Eldorado. The most well-known of the Pimpernel movies is the 1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard, which is considered the definitive adaptation by some.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1917; silent)
- The Laughing Cavalier (1917; silent)
- The Elusive Pimpernel (1919; silent)
- The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1928)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
- Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937)
- "Pimpernel" Smith (1941), aka Mister V in the US
- Pimpernel Svensson (1950)
- The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), aka The Fighting Pimpernel in the US, starring David Niven as Sir Percy
- Don't Lose Your Head (1966) aka Carry On Pimpernel—US
- The Elusive Pimpernel (1969)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997), a 1997 Broadway musical composed by Frank Wildhorn and written by Nan Knighton, the production starred Douglas Sills as Sir Percy Blakeney, Christine Andreas as Marguerite Blakeney, and Terrence Mann as Citizen Chauvelin
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (2008), a Broadway-style Japanese adaptation, performed by the popular all-women's Takarazuka Revue in Osaka, Japan
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1955–1956 British television series)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1960) (TV)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) (TV), starring Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy, Jane Seymour as Marguerite, and Ian McKellen (then known primarily as a stage actor) as Chauvelin
- The Scarlet Pimpernel, two TV series of three episodes each (1999, 2000): 1) "The Scarlet Pimpernel", "Valentin Gautier" [UK title] and "The Scarlet Pimpernel Meets Madame Guillotine" [US title], "The King's Ransom" [UK title], "The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Kidnapped King" [US title]; 2) "Ennui", "Friends and Enemies", "A Good Name". This BBC production, with Richard E. Grant in the title role, Elizabeth McGovern as Marguerite, and Martin Shaw as Chauvelin, took many liberties with the characters and plot, and was not well received by fans of the books.
- The Forecourt Pimpernel (2001) (TV)
- The Black Pimpernel (2006)
- An adaptation of the 1934 film, featuring Leslie Howard in his original role and Olivia de Havilland as Marguerite, was produced in 1938 as part of the Lux Radio Theatre series.
- A radio adaptation of the original novel was produced and syndicated sometime in the 1950s under direction of Harry Allen Towers through his Towers of London production company.
Parodies and media references
The novel has been parodied or used as source material in a variety of media, such as films, TV, stage works, literature, and games:
- It was parodied as a 1950 Warner Bros. cartoon short featuring Daffy Duck, "The Scarlet Pumpernickel". An action figure of the Scarlet Pumpernickel was released by DC Direct in 2006, making it one of the few—if not the only—toys produced based on the Pimpernel.
- In 1953, following Jack Kyle's performance for the Ireland national rugby union team against France in that year's Five Nations Championship, sportswriter Paul MacWeeney adapted lines from the work to salute Kyle.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel was parodied extensively in the Carry On film Don't Lose Your Head which featured Sid James as the Black Fingernail, who helps French aristocrats escape the guillotine while hiding behind the foppish exterior of British aristocrat Sir Rodney Ffing. It also features Jim Dale as his assistant, Lord Darcy. They must rescue preposterously effete aristocrat Charles Hawtrey from the clutches of Kenneth Williams' fiendish Citizen Camembert and his sidekick Citizen Bidet (Peter Butterworth).
- The Kinks 1966 single "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" contain two lines from the book; "they seek him here, they seek him there"; these lyrics also appear in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father when Gerry Conlon (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) returns home to Belfast in hippy style clothing that he got from London's Carnaby Street.
- In the third series of Blackadder, Blackadder the Third, the episode "Nob and Nobility" revolves around Blackadder's disgust with the English nobility's fascination for the Pimpernel. Tim McInnerny reprises a version of his "Sir Percy" character from the previous two series, who is the alter-ego of the Pimpernel.
- In The Desert Song, the heroic "Red Shadow" has a milquetoast alter ego modelled after The Scarlet Pimpernel.
- The character was parodied in a lengthy comedy sketch on Benny Hill's programme. Portrayed by Hill himself, the "Scarlet Pimple" spent just as much of his time unsuccessfully pursuing women as he did rescuing people. When one woman repeatedly shuns his advances, he leaves in a huff and actually refuses to rescue the next woman being sent to the guillotine.
- The Canadian comedy team of Wayne and Shuster created a comedy sketch in 1957 based on the Scarlet Pimpernel called "The Brown Pumpernickel" in which, instead of a red flower as his calling card, the hero would leave behind a loaf of pumpernickel.
- Sir Percy and Marguerite are mentioned as members of an 18th-century incarnation of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the graphic novels of that title by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill and make a more significant appearance in The Black Dossier, in the accounts of both Orlando and Fanny Hill, with whom Percy and Marguerite are revealed to have been romantically involved.
- A series of novels by Lauren Willig, beginning with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (2005), chronicle the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel's associates, including the Purple Gentian (alias of Lord Richard Selwick), spies in the Napoleonic era.
- 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.
- Writer Geoffrey Trease wrote his adventure novel, Thunder of Valmy (1960; US title Victory at Valmy) partly as a response to Orczy's Pimpernel novels, which he argued were giving children a misleading image of the French Revolution. Thunder of Valmy revolves around the adventures of a peasant boy, Pierre Mercier, during the start of the Revolution, and his persection by a tyrannical Marquis.
- Famed British barrister Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, QC is often referred to by Fleet Street papers as "the Scarlet Pimpernel", because of his uncanny penchant for getting off clients facing the death penalty outside the UK.
- American band Tenacious D referenced it in their song, "Beelzeboss", sung by the devil.
- Writer Diana Peterfreund took inspiration from the Scarlet Pimpernel for her book "Across the Star Swept Sea". The main character, Persis Blake, pretends to be a shallow aristocrat while actually being the notorious spy 'The Wild Poppy'.
Later usage of Pimpernel
The Tartan Pimpernel
Inspired by the title, Scarlet Pimpernel, the Tartan Pimpernel was a nickname given to the Reverend Donald Caskie (1902–1983), formerly minister of the Paris congregation of the Church of Scotland, for aiding over 2,000 Allied service personnel to escape from occupied France during World War II.
The American Pimpernel
Varian Fry was a 32-year-old Harvard-educated classicist and editor from New York City who helped save thousands of endangered refugees who were caught in Vichy France, helping them to escape from Nazi terror during World War II. His story is told in American Pimpernel: The Man Who Saved the Artists on Hitler's Death List.
The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican
Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was an Irish priest who saved thousands of people, British and American servicemen and Jews, during World War II while in the Vatican in Rome. His story is told in two books and a film:
- J. P. Gallagher (1968), Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, New York: Coward-McCann
- Brian Fleming (2008), The Vatican Pimpernel: The Wartime Exploits of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, Collins Press
- The Scarlet and the Black, a 1983 made-for-TV movie starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer
The Black Pimpernel
Harald Edelstam (1913–1989) was a Swedish diplomat. During World War II, he earned the nickname Svarta nejlikan ("the Black Pimpernel") for helping Norwegian resistance fighters in Hjemmefronten escape from the Germans. Stationed in Chile in the 1970s, he arranged for the escape of numerous refugees from the military junta of Augusto Pinochet; this brought him into conflict with the regime, and he eventually was forced to leave the country.
This name was also given to Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest and long incarceration for his anti-apartheid activities in South Africa due to his effective use of disguises when evading capture by the police.
Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was directly inspired by the film Pimpernel Smith to begin rescuing Hungarian Jews during World War II. Wallenberg issued false passports identifying the Jews as Swedish nationals, and is credited with rescuing at least 15,000 Jews. He disappeared in Eastern Europe after the war, and is believed to have died in a Soviet prison camp.
"Behind the scenes, Mandela worked very closely with Walter Sisulu, who was now being pursued by the police. Z.K. Matthews told the Cape ANC in June that Sisulu was operating behind the 'iron curtain' of the Transkei as a Scarlet Pimpernel (before Mandela inherited the title): "They sought him here, they sought him there, they sought him everywhere."" Quote cites: Karis & Carter, Vol.3, op. cit., p.128
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who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest during World War II ... and put some 15,000 Jews into 32 safe houses.
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