. . . We seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere . . .’
My blog friend, Moira at the excellent Clothes in Books, also now my friend in real life, has sent me a copy of a splendid book, Bestseller by Claud Cockburn, subtitled ‘The Books Everyone Read 1900-1939,’ which discusses novels like Beau Geste and The Sheik, once all the rage and now rarely read. One book which wasn’t included, but easily could have been, was The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, published 1905. I vividly remember reading it as a child in the sixties. It was my mother’s copy, which dated from the 1930s, I guess.
I was curious to see what I would make of it all now. I have just read it and enjoyed it all over again – though in a rather different way. It is certainly a rattling good yarn and yet it is really as much about the Scarlet Pimpernel’s French wife, Marguerite, as about the man himself. The plot hinges on the rift between them and her gradual realisation that Sir Percy Blakeney, the foppish husband that she regards with affectionate contempt, is in fact the elusive and dashing hero who is saving aristocrats from the guillotine.
There was one scene that had stuck in my memory from my reading all those years ago. Meeting in the garden at night, the couple seem about to come to a better understanding, but pride comes between them and they part without reconciling. Marguerite turns back to the house and so fails to see Sir Percy ‘overwhelmed by his own passion and his own despair . . . He was but a man, madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.’ Blimey! Of course to my twelve or thirteen year old self, this seemed the very pinnacle of romance.
In spite of all this guff about tiny hands, Marguerite is a doughty heroine, full of energy and spirit. When she realises that she has inadvertently put her husband in terrible danger, she dashes off to France to warn him and she plays an active role in the denouement.
And perhaps, after all, The Scarlet Pimpernel is not in the same category as Beau Geste or The Sheik, because, though the book may not be much read, the Scarlet Pimpernel has gone on in many reincarnations in film, TV, and even in the 1990s a successful musical. He is one of those characters, like Frankenstein and Dracula, who have become far more famous than their creator.