Saturday, January 2, 2016

Book Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy

I have returned!
I recently completed an exhilarating trip to Europe...experienced an adventure in the countries of France and England...traveled back in time to the tumultuous days of the French Revolution!
In other words, I just finished reading The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy.
Ooh, look! This must be what a scarlet pimpernel really looks like. "A small English wayside flower," I think they called it.
It's the star-shaped image of this flower which the Pimpernel uses to sign his anonymous letters.

What was it about?
Adventure! Romance! Mystery! Suspense!
(Well, okay. It would've been suspenseful if I hadn't known the story already. You see, my mom read the abridged version aloud to me and my younger siblings a few years ago and - never mind.)
This marvelous work centers around the heroic plots and daring ingenuity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a mysterious Englishmen who regularly risks life and limb snatching the hunted aristocrats from the claws of the frenzied revolutionists. (The guillotine! The barricades! The Committee of Public Safety! Old hags knitting as they watch the executions! Oh, it's all so exciting.) Who is this Scarlet Pimpernel? None can say. And there is no way I'm going to tell you, because half the fun of reading the book is guessing his identity - mwahaha!

What were the characters like?
Well, the heroine is the dazzlingly beautiful Marguerite Blakeney, "the cleverest woman in Europe," who is married to an "inane fop" named Sir Percy Blakeney. Marguerite's quite interesting: on the outside, she's a sparkling, admired figure who should be the happiest being on earth. But on the inside, she's miserable. And this misery only increases as the plot speeds up - mwahaha again.
I don't know if there was a character in this book I didn't like. The several members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel who showed up were all prodigiously amiable fellows, and as for their leader, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself - well! He's simply wonderful, one of the most heroic, likable, and admirable characters in literature as far as I'm concerned. I also was quite taken with Marguerite's brother, Armand St. Just. Something about those older brother characters...and the way she and he were so devoted to each other, it was simply sweet. Maybe not "simply." Heart-wrenchingly might be a better word, considering where Marguerite's concern for her brother led her...
Even the villain was not only remarkably villainous, but surprisingly...sympathetic. Several years ago when we read the abridgement, I considered Chauvelin the creepiest snake who ever crawled on the face of the earth. On revisiting the story, however, I've found there's something pathetic and admirable about him. He's made me believe that an essential part of a really detestable villain is to give them a virtue of some sort. Chauvelin's virtue is his selflessness, his absolute devotion to his cause. Granted, that cause is a simply rotten one. Which is where his villainy comes in.

Was there anything not-so-great about it?
Content-wise, there was a bit of mild, British-y language in it. Also, there were a few slight, subtle references to adulterous habits or tendencies among the aristocracy - but I am happy to say all the main characters are very good, moral, upstanding people, and overall there was a very strong message of the indissolubility of the marriage bond. The moral strengths of the book quite outweighed its weaknesses, I believe.
Style-wise, you could tell Baroness Orczy was not a modern American writer. At times her use of punctuation and wording got on my nerves. But if I heard somebody else criticizing her just for being old-fashioned, I would probably give them a mental punch in the nose, so I shall be quiet on that front from this point forward. :)

What gems of wisdom were hidden within its pages?
There were so many great themes in this book.
One thing I really loved about it was the way it portrayed marriage. Maybe it wasn't the most realistic portrayal - I mean, it was a pretty happily-ever-after sunshine-and-roses ending - but I honestly don't have any problem with that; we need to have some stories, I think, that do have that happily-ever-after sunshine-and-roses ending. So much of the book was about the relationship between Marguerite and her husband Percy, and how she goes from thinking he's just an irritating, brainless, spineless fop to respecting and loving him with all her heart. There was something so very - pretty - about watching Marguerite's love for Percy bud and blossom and turn into sheer adoration. And although the final romantic scene between them was delightfully romantic, it was, at the same time, down-to-earth, as Percy's character wouldn't allow for mere sweet-talking. I do wish I could be more explicit, but to do so would be to give spoilers.
Also, (and I will blabber on about this a few paragraphs below), I saw a good deal of allegory in the story. Whether or no Baroness Orczy meant to put it there, I have no idea; but the Scarlet Pimpernel is a Christ-figure if I ever saw one. The way he risks everything for the French aristos who mean nothing to him, the way he hides his own identity and robs himself of the glory the English would love to heap upon him - oh, he was just so awesome, despite the flaws which made his personality more endearing.
And my favorite quote? I underlined this bit of dialogue, a conversation between a recently rescued aristo and the gallant Sir Andrew who assisted her to England. He has been describing to her the workings of her rescuer, the anonymous Scarlet Pimpernel.

"Ah! Monsieur," sighed the Comtesse, "it all sounds like a romance, and I cannot understand it all."

"Why should you try, Madame?"
 
I will leave you to conjecture why that struck me as so profound. :)

And now, here are my scatterbrained conjectures on the allegories in this treasure of a book. WARNING: THIS WILL OF NECESSITY CONTAIN SPOILERS. And The Scarlet Pimpernel is not half so fun to read with spoilers. One of the greatest things about it is its unpredictability. It is perhaps above all a mystery novel, a suspense story, a guessing game, an enigmatic puzzle which will surprise and delight you. Therefore, if you have not yet read it, I hereby entreat and command thee to read no further. :)

Alright. So. Here I go...

The Scarlet Pimpernel is the Christ-Figure; Marguerite represents fallen mankind, as do Armand and the endangered aristos; and Chauvelin, I believe, represents the devil. (Sir Andrew and Marguerite agree with me on that one.)

Percy Blakeney's disguise as an "inane fop" is a lowering of himself for the sake of his mission, distantly reflecting Christ's becoming truly Man in order to redeem mankind. To save those ensnared by the French Revolution (which is the result of the aristos' own sinfulness as well as the rowdiness of the revolutionists, whom I see as avenging devils), Percy Blakeney, who really has no reason to care for these French people, risks everything. Not only does he regularly endanger life and limb on daring escapades in France, but he completely humbles himself in England by pretending to be a brainless fop. His anonymity isn't just clever and necessary; it's also very humble. Everyone adores the Scarlet Pimpernel, but no one respects Sir Percy. (In a similar way, everyone awaited the Messiah, but very few believed Christ was He.)

Marguerite's sin reflects the sin of mankind. Marguerite, like the sinful, lost, helpless people of the real world who have fallen into sin, has no idea who Percy really is. She can't see past his outward appearance; for, much as Isaiah said of Christ, there is nothing about Sir Percy to make her look twice. Then, like Adam and Eve - though she is less blameless than they - she is tricked into sin.  The result is terrible: by trying to get along by herself and not turning to her husband for advice (like a sinner trying to get along without grace), she condemns the Scarlet Pimpernel to death. Chauvelin, a devilish figure if ever there was one, insists that either Percy (the Christ-figure) or Armand (a sinful soul) must die. Too late, Marguerite realizes her guilt, realizes the Scarlet Pimpernel is her husband, realizes how much she loves him. She does all in her power to save him - but again, she is helpless. All she can do is strive to save him and thus show her love for him, her repentance. (In the same way, we can't save ourselves, but we still must strive to in order to show our love for Christ Who gave everything for us.)

Percy pays for Marguerite's crime as Christ paid for our sins. Percy, meanwhile, is quite willing to pay for Marguerite's blunder. Disguised once more, in perhaps his most humble disguise yet, considering the hatred Chauvelin holds for Jewish folk (and isn't it pleasing that at this most sacrificial moment Percy takes on Christ's own religion?), he takes the consequences of Marguerite's sin without complaining (and isn't it satisfying that he is beaten, as Christ was scourged?). In the end, Percy triumphs over Chauvelin despite unspeakable odds - rising, as it were, from a metaphorical grave. We realize, now, that Percy was in control all the time - Chauvelin was hopeless from the beginning and Marguerite, for all her pain and anguish, has done nothing to help Percy except to offer him love and comfort.

There! Those are my thoughts on The Scarlet Pimpernel. Anyone else out there who thinks this is a great book? Did you see any allegories or gems of wisdom that I missed?


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