Baroness Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
For some reason, I missed out on reading The Scarlet Pimpernel as a child. As a result the Baroness Orczy’s novel existed for me only by hearsay and as legend, a byword for the mythical elusiveness suggested by the rhyme ‘they seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere’. Having studied the politics and culture of the revolutionary period however, I was curious to finally read a novel that I assumed – given its narrative premise and the Baroness’s own, aristocratic title – to be an iconic counter-revolutionary narrative.
By 1905, when The Scarlet Pimpernel made its first appearance in print, the Reign of Terror that followed the French revolution was a distant memory, its features imprinted in the public imagination by influential representations like Dickens’s historical novel A Tale of Two Cities. In Dickens’s sentimental and very English reading of the revolution, its political and social failure lies in the overwhelming of a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice and return to a repetitive cycle of vengeance. While Dickens depicts aristocratic callousness and greed as the original faults that lead to revolution, it is the depraved actions of the revolutionary mob for which he reserves both his most vivid description and his greatest horror and condemnation.
Like Dickens’s novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel also operates according to the logic of a sentimental economy. Yet its politics are more interesting and less straightforward than the reader might expect, especially given the Baroness’s own history (she was the daughter of Hungarian aristocrats who fled to England to escape a threatened peasant uprising).
The novel’s romantic heroine is Marguerite. French, plebeian, Republican in sympathy, a former actor in the Comédie-Française, she is married to the English aristocrat (and secret Pimpernel), Sir Percy Blakeney.
Even judged as a figure intended to reconcile irreconcilable political and social oppositions in fantastic form, Sir Percy strains the limits of credibility. The contradictions of his character begin at the level of physical description. Here, the masculinity suggested by his impressive size and aristocratic status is contrasted with characteristics that suggest effeminacy, including foppishness and a family history of insanity – on the maternal side! Even his nom de guerre of Pimpernel seems to carry inglorious associations (pimping, pimples…).
Orczy is not particularly sympathetic to her aristocratic émigrés, whom she portrays as snobbish and inflexible. This is most pronounced in the older generation; the younger are presented more sympathetically due to their susceptibility to the charms of romantic love – a vulnerability to the appeal and claims of the other that the novel suggests as a sure remedy for absolutism. Inflexibility – in this instance, of a more Stalinist persuasion – is also a characteristic of the revolutionary official who pursues the Pimpernel and attempts to manipulate Marguerite into betraying her husband. In contrast, the author’s sympathy goes to those who are ideologically flexible or even fallible, such as Marguerite or her brother Armand. This rejection of absolute positions is consistent with the novel’s emphasis on the saving value of disguise and masquerade.
The chief tool the Pimpernel uses to effect his daring rescues is disguise (this may reflect Orczy’s background in the theatre – The Scarlet Pimpernel began life as a stage play until its success prompted Orczy to publish it as a novel). In the two rescue/escapes portrayed in detail, the Pimpernel’s success requires him to disguise himself as the most abject figures conceivable: in the first instance, as a plague-ridden hag who collects souvenirs from the corpses of guillotined prisoners, and in the second as a physically repulsive Jew. (Orczy is careful to attribute the latter’s abject behaviour and appearance to the anti-Semitism then prevalent in France.)
In each case the effectiveness of the strategy relies on the repulsiveness of the disguise; a repellent quality that deters the chief of police from approaching closely enough to penetrate it.
By these means the Baroness suggests that it is the revolution’s lack of pity (the fellow-feeling and sympathy that supplies the sacred currency of a sentimental economy) that is its fatal weakness, a gap in the armour of the police state through which the Pimpernel is able to smuggle out his benighted aristos. Whose own rite of passage to freedom requires them to masquerade as similarly abject figures – an introduction, perhaps, to the fellow-feeling, or ability to place themselves in the situations of others, that they’ll require as citizens of a British political culture the novel portrays as more sympathetic and less ideologically and socially divided than that of revolutionary France.
As in sentimental fiction more generally, the negative side of this economy is the requirement that in order to be loved and cherished, one must suffer. Marguerite, estranged from her husband’s affections by her inadvertent betrayal of an aristocrat to the heartless revolution, must literally crawl on her knees before she is fully restored to his confidence and his devotion. In this respect, the novel may leave the reader with a sneaking respect for the revolution’s attempt to build a society based on abstract notions of rights rather than the moist promptings of benevolence.
One of the historical effects of the failure of the 1789 revolution to achieve a social utopia – a failure that has been taken as marking a shift from the culture of Enlightenment to that of Romanticism – was to force such longings into increasingly confined and private spaces. The sentimental language of the body, with its vocabulary of sighs, tears and inarticulate cries was ruled out of political discourse.
One of the things that intrigued me about this novel was its suggestion of a world of private emotion that is ferociously guarded by disguise and masquerade. A masquerade that both heightens longing and frustrates gratification, turning the pure world of undisguised emotion into a sanctuary that one hurries towards but can never quite reach. Impelled by their fantasy of perfect understanding, Marguerite and the Pimpernel seem like characters in a dream who are forever running down an endless corridor, trying to find something that is hidden behind closed doors, a truth that language conveys the desire for, but which it can never reach.