Thursday, June 3, 2010

Vintage Novels {The Scarlet Pimpernel}

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? -Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

This 1905 blockbuster novel is one of the most thrilling books I've ever read! Apart from being the first superhero story, The Scarlet Pimpernel is full of adventure, passion, suspense, romance, disguises, humour, chases, sword fighting and scrumptious costume descriptions. In other words -something for everyone.
It tells the story of Sir Percy Blakeney, the most well-dressed fop in all of London, who is also secretly the Scarlet Pimpernel, that daring adventurer who saves aristocrats from the welcoming arms of Madame Guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The novel is told from the perspective of Sir Percy's bride Marguerite St. Just, the most beautiful woman in all of Europe with a room full of fabulous dresses. What has made this novel so compelling is that it is almost entirely told by Marguerite, who cannot understand why her husband is cold to her (the reason is miscommunication but neither have been willing to overlook their pride and talk about the incident) and why her brave boyfriend turned into a complete idiot who finds tying his cravat to be the hardest part of his day as soon as they moved to London. Rather than being an airhead or a melodramatic wife prone to fainting spells, Marguerite is a fully developed character with a definite personality and adept at hiding her emotions in public. She is also just as brave as her husband and risks life and limb when she finds out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is.
If you're in need of some adventure on a rainy afternoon, then pick this book up. But be warned, once you pick it up, you can't put it down. This is very much an action-packed story and the event and dialogue just run together and you are compelled to turn the page. Since the novel was an adaptation of the Baroness Orczy's 1903 play, the novel is set up like a movie or a play and everything is evenly paced with no filler. But it is also a passionate romance between the secretive, but devout Sir Percy and the confused but achingly loyal Marguerite and you can't help but scream at the couple for letting their pride get in the way of their relationship. But then again, without this impasse between them, then there would be no mystery for Marguerite to solve, no trap for Sir Percy to walk into and no happy reunion. It is the Baroness' language which really moves the story along and turns this novel from that of potential melodrama to a tale of romance and high adventure. The prose creates many moments that you will remember long after reading it, particularly one at the end of chapter 16 that will make you swoon.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is available to read online here.

There have been countless adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel, in addition to numerous parodies; my favourites are the Nob and Nobility episode of Blackadder III and Wayne and Shuster's The Brown Pumpernickel. None of the adaptations are true to the book entirely (the original ending could never be filmed for obvious reasons) but the best adaptation in terms of maintaining the plot and the character of Sir Percy (which could so easily be overdone or not understood entirely) is the 1934 film with the beautiful Merle Oberon and my favourite actor, Leslie Howard. Sink me, it's even in public domain.

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