The Scarlet Pimpernel is considered through some sort of common consensus to be a literary classic and a swashbuckling adventure story to rival those of Alexandre Dumas. Yet it’s difficult to understand why. I found it quite disappointing as a work of literary fiction: the plot is thoroughly non-exciting and includes no actual intrigue or mystery, the writing style seems nonexistent (has Orczy heard of “show, not tell”?), and besides, doesn’t swashbuckling mean you need to have at least one sword-fight? The book’s most grievous flaw, however, is its simple-minded, elitist ideology.
This novel is, of course, about Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel – a heroic Englishmen who rescues aristocrats during the French Revolution. The novel’s author, Baroness Orczy, clearly related to the plight of these aristocrats: her family was forced to leave their native Hungary due to the threat of revolution. They moved to England, where she earned her living as a writer and painter and probably rather missed her luxurious chateau. However, even without such personal ties, Orczy’s attitude is understandable and even human. The French Revolution instituted a sort of inequality that was no better than the pre-revolutionary society it destroyed. French society was sharply divided into classes (aristocrats and commoners) both before and during the Revolution; before, the French nobility naturally had more rights (and food to eat) than the lower classes, while during the Terror, an aristocratic birth in itself was a condemnation to death. Numerous documents and memoirs from the period detail this bloody time, when whole families, including children, were guillotined.
However, what Orczy misunderstands is that, as awful as the society instituted by the revolutionaries was, returning to the Old Regime is not a solution. The Scarlet Pimpernel, seemingly in the spirit of humanity, saves aristocrats from being murdered. But he saves only the aristocrats, and he does so in the name of preserving the status quo from which he, also an aristocrat, emerged. However, the Terror was a dangerous, bloody time when not only those of aristocratic birth, but anyone suspected of resisting the revolutionary government could be guillotined. The streets ran with blood, and it was not just the blood of the nobility. Additionally, Ocrzy does not deal with the fact that these aristocrats do not believe in fundamental human equality. None of them are actually presented as likable, humane characters, and thus Percy’s heroism in saving them is lost on the reader. In fact, once they have been saved by him and immigrated, they continue their aristocrat existences in whatever nation they have fled to and complain about how those French commoners dared to leave their place and rise up. Historically, I do not doubt that French emigrés held such an attitude of superiority, but Orczy’s novel is a work of fiction. She is writing an adventure story romanticizing a particular historical period; the interest of such a creation lies in the author’s ability to romanticize the period in a way that appeals to the readers and makes the characters’ actions seem heroic in that context. This does not happen.
One episode of the novel in particular highlights this problem. Before the beginning of the book, Marguerite (Percy’s wife) had accidentally dropped a few words about the family of the aristocrat Saint Cyr’s correspondence with foreign ministers against the revolutionary government; as a result, he was guillotined. She did this as revenge for her brother Armand, who fell in love with Saint Cyr’s daughter and was cruelly beaten by his lackeys for daring to love an aristocrat’s daughter. In Orczy’s (and Percy’s) view, this is a terrible thing, and indeed, the death of an entire family is a terrible punishment for the act in question. However. Saint Cyr was corresponding with foreign governments to restore the questionable old regime. In addition, this man and his family believed that human beings are fundamentally unequal; that a commoner has no right to love an aristocrat because, by birth, an aristocrat is ‘better’ than a commoner. Percy disdains Marguerite for bringing this family to the guillotine; there is not a word of disdain for Saint Cyr for his unfair and inhumane conduct towards Armand. This issue is quite literally not dealt with in a single line of the novel.
Of course, it’s important to read this book, as any other, in context. Many great classic novels are, in a way, “elitist,” as they concentrate on their aristocratic protagonists as the only characters capable of feeling, or whose feelings are of interest to the reader. In the middle ages, tales of courtly love depicted the emotional troubles of their noble-born protagonists. Since the development of the novel, sentimental novels have deal with the difficulties of its noble-born protagonists in finding love and happiness because their birth allows them the leisure to worry about such things. However, in Ocrzy’s novel, this attitude is taken to an extreme. Her “good” characters are good because they work towards the conservation of the status quo, whereas the antagonists are “bad” because they wish to reverse it. The noble-born Scarlet Pimpernel, according to the narrator, has no flaws, whereas Chauvelin, his French enemy, is unequivocally evil simply because he is a revolutionary. He has only one side: he is only there to be the enemy. The story is told in clear-cut black and white.
Yet the French Revolution, historically and literarily, is so intriguing precisely because of the blur of that line between black and white, of the aspiration towards equality and humanity that went so terribly wrong. Orczy takes this fascinating historical topic and makes it into an utterly simplistic story. In the end, the only similarity between this novel and anything Dumas has written is the topic of the French Revolution. Dumas, too, wrote a novel that takes place during the Terror. This book, titled The Knight of Maison-Rouge, tells of the love of a revolutionary and an aristocrat. It is a poignant story whose author, unless Baroness Orczy, understands the effect of the Revolution and the Terror not only on the aristocrats, but also on those who most deeply believed in its ideas of liberty and equality and had to face the conflict between their ideals and the manifestation of those ideals.