Monday, April 30, 2012

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Once upon a time, in high school, I took some English classes. In those English classes, we were assigned novels to read. Fairly standard, right? Well, I don't know why, but that just seemed to be a killjoy for me. It sucked the fun out of reading an otherwise fabulous novel. I struggled with keeping a deadline and was frustrated with being asked to find certain things within a novel. I didn't like being told to read something. But that's kinda the point of an English class, isn't it?

Now, I know that if my husband is reading this, he's probably cringing horribly. He happens to be an English teacher. For that, I apologize. I am not saying that I did not like English. In fact it was one of my favorite subjects in school. And most of what I read, if I jumped right in, I enjoyed. Many of the assigned books, I bought, and have read again later. There are books that I am glad to have been exposed to. It opened the door to more literature and created deeper thinking. In fact I really enjoyed the discussion of the books, and was glad to hear the perspective of other readers. (So, what was my problem? I don't know. I was a dumb teenager.)

I've missed being able to have that discussion. Last year, I read so much (about 4 books per month), but didn't have anyone to discuss it with, because no one was reading what I was. So, I decided to create my own book club. I'd still get to pick what I wanted to read, and have an outlet for the discussion. Great idea, right? The problem is, I've gone and done what seemed to make it difficult for me to keep up my reading while in school. There was this weight hanging over my head that said that I needed to finish because of my blog. And that was somehow unappealing. So, instead, I didn't read.

Then, after a short update on my lack of reading, I got a message from Carrie, who said she'd started The Scarlet Pimpernel and was really enjoying it. And it reminded me of why I wanted to read it in the first place. Because it's so fun! That day, I promptly picked up my copy again, and flipped back a few pages (to refresh my memory) and moved forward. I have since finished the book and am ready for some kind of report here. If you didn't read it, but intend to, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by the Baroness Orczy, is a tale of the master of disguises. In France, the aristocrats no longer garner the respect that they once had, merely because of their family history. The common people will not be ruled over and oppressed any longer. In fact, the people are so loathe toward the upper classes that any who are caught in any sort of scandal are immediately, and without trial, sent to the guillotine. Simply being a descendant is often enough of a crime.

In England, however, this is deemed cruel and uncalled for. The French "aristos" had made attempts at escaping the borders on their own, but for many this proved fatal. Once over the border, they were free live in England. But the borders were heavily guarded, allowing for no one who was of the upper classes to pass through. Here is where we hear of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He is a man with a band of followers (known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel) determined to set free the French and deliver them safely to England. No one knows who this man is, because no one has seen his true character. He is always heavily disguised, and after he is allowed to pass, there is often a note found, bearing the stamp of a red 5-pointed flower--the scarlet pimpernel. He and his band allude everyone and there are many angry French who are determined to stop him.

Sir Percy is such a complex character. He has to live a lie to protect himself and the people is is saving. Why go to all the trouble? In my book, one of the questions in the bonus section compares the Scarlet Pimpernel to Superman. I kind of like this comparison. Clark Kent is a fake. His true identity is one that must be protected so that he can continue to do the right thing when the need arises. Now, obviously Sir Percy has no super powers. His would be that of his intellect, which he hides behind slowness and eccentricity. Why go to all the trouble? His life is essentially a lie, too. He doesn't even confide in his wife, who may truly love him if they can only communicate.

Is there a reason to hide behind the goodness that you do? I suppose it could mean his death if he is discovered. But then, why go to the trouble of helping these people if it could mean your own life? How much helping is too much? And when do you discover that your 'calling' in life is one of such danger? Wouldn't it be easier to just stay home and be your clever self for all to see? I suppose, for Percy, the lives of others should not be sacrificed in such a cruel manner. He finds his own worth at least that of those he can save, and so chooses to do all he can at rescuing as many as possible.

Sir Percy's "Lex Luther" is Monsieur Chauvelin. He is a French man who is determined to hunt down the Scarlet Pimpernel and bring him to an end. Chauvelin discovers two men from the League and takes all the papers they are carrying. Among them happens to be a letter detailing a rescue and including the name of Lady Blakeney's brother, Armand St. Just. He is now going to use this information as blackmail to get Lady Blakeney to help him discover the Scarlet Pimpernel. If she doesn't help, her brother will be killed.

Now, having been familiar with the story before reading it, I knew her husband was the man she was trying to trap. But my heart ached with hers as Lady Blakeney realized who Sir Percy really was, and that her husband was truly a man to be loved, and that she did love him. She was suddenly under this realization that he was suddenly sent to his death on her doing. All unintentional, but still her fault. What is remarkable is that upon finding out who he is, she is thrilled and her love is realized. I can't help but wonder, if Percy had not been in danger when she discovered his secret, would she have been angry rather than filled with a love for him? She put the Scarlet Pimpernel on some sort of pedestal, idolized him, while loathing her husband and his every move. Upon finding them one and the same, why isn't there a hurt or anger because she wasn't confided in? I suppose it is the realization of his cause and her past that allows for understanding in why he couldn't tell. She did denounce the Marquis de St Cyr, which meant, of course, the guillotine. If she was capable of this in a mere snide comment, the entrusting her with his identity could prove fatal. Perhaps Lady Blakeney understood this.

I love the fantastic diguises used in the book. The last chapters, where Lady Blakeney has followed Chauvelin up a hill in order to try and save Percy were quite suspenseful. This scene was different from the musical (and it's been almost 2 years since I saw it) and so I didn't know how it would turn out. As different unfamiliar characters were introduced, I tried to figure out where Percy could be. I wondered if somehow he could be among the guards. And I wondered if Sir Andrew was playing a part, too. What of this old Jew? I was pleasantly surprised to find out where Percy had been hiding, in plain sight all along. The best scene, however, was when Percy enters the run down inn and meets Chauvelin there. He simply acts as if he always arrives there to have dinner and a man who may be an enemy is never a surprise. There is a dedication to creating a character and never breaking from him. Percy never even shows surprise or alarm when encountering Chauvelin. It's a simple, "How do you do, yep, I've just stopped out in France for dinner in a disgusting tavern."

There are nine sequels written by Baroness Orczy (plus several "spin-offs" and 2 collections of short stories featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel), although I think I will just stick with the one. The popularity of the story is spread through film and stage and has managed to last 107 years in print, in at least 16 languages. Certainly a classic that I am glad to have on my shelf.

"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?"


Anonymous said...

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Carrie said...

that is too funny about "assigning" yourself reading. I've come to appreciate the practice of an old friend of mine who gets several books from the library at once so that she can read what speaks to her at any time. She often returns some without having read them, only to check them out another time.
Along with the Scarlet Pimpernel, I had in my stack recently The Book Thief, The Death & Life of Charlie St. Cloud, and the Cheshire Cheese Cat. I did read them all (except Cat, still working on that once cuz it got "packed" into a suitcase so I had it lost for a good month)
I really loved the reading of Scarlet Pimpernel. Glad that it was different from the stage play in the end. That way there was still story unknown to me. However, I knew right away where Percy was (okay, so at one point I wasn't QUITE sure, but for the most part).
Percy's character is so wonderful, that alone makes the book, but I think another thing that really makes this great, is the beautiful love story of he and Marguerite. You just want to scream at them to TALK to each other because you know that all will be well if they will just communicate. And so there are relationship lessons to be learned. Plus I love that in great literature, real love and passion is portrayed through virtuous behavior.
The disguises are so great . . . and so fun that Chauvelin, despite all his machinations, is still just as fooled as the next guy who guards the gates of Paris.
Good choice and glad you finished reading it :) I'm headed to the library soon, what are you reading next?