If you’re looking for a read that’s 50% dime store adventure novel and 50% great literature, you should probably read The Scarlet Pimpernel. Baroness Orczy’s most famous novel is the child of Hugo’s simultaneously tragic and comedic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Dumas’ nail-biting, seat-of-your-pants revenge tale, The Count of Monte Cristo. In short, it’s a good one.
The synopsis: The story opens in Paris, France, post-revolution era. The Reign of Terror has taken over, and Robespierre is reigning with an iron fist and a guillotine. And who should be the swashbuckling hero come to save to the falsely accused nobility? Why, the Scarlet Pimpernel, of course — an elusive, clever rogue who would definitely be played by Tom Hiddleston in a movie adaption of the story.
Unfortunately for the Pimpernel, Marguerite, an ex-patriot Parisian blackmailed into assisting the villain Chauvelin in return for her brother’s safety, is hot on his tail.
My thoughts: The plot is really the thing in this book. Orczy writes her characters with an almost amateur hand at times; the prose is a little flowery. But all of that falls on it’s face when we look at the plot. What a plot! This is the kind of adventure story you can sink your teeth into. The daring-do is one thing, but the true pleasure of this book is seeing the brilliant schemes of the Pimpernel come to fruition.
Another high point is the dialogue. This is a rare sort of dialogue for its period, snappy and full of character. Especially in the scenes where Marguerite (the so-titled “cleverest woman in Europe”) and the villain Chauvelin (who may well be called the “cleverest man” in the same) face off, we see some true sass and conniving wit. Chauvelin is the melodrama villain of fairy tales. Marguerite, a true lady full of determination.
Read it if you liked: Gaston Lereaux’s Phantom of the Opera. The two run in the same vein. Otherwise, this is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone who likes Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or just a good old adventure story.
Overall rating: 8/10. Pretty darn good.