In the grand tradition of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation introduces two heroines: Eloise, an American in London, is completing her dissertation on British spies during the French Revolution, and Amy Balcourt, a French girl in England who dreams of joining the League of the Purple Gentian and saving more aristocratic lives. Although they are two hundred years apart, Amy actively pursues adventure and Eloise lives vicariously through the pages of Amy’s letters.
Willig’s homage to The Scarlet Pimpernel is cleverly woven through Amy’s story. Percy Blakeney has been unmasked as the Scarlet Pimpernel and passed to torch onto the new spy in town, the Purple Gentian. When Amy’s practical friend Jane asks how they are supposed to go about finding the Purple Gentian, Amy calmly answers, “The Fisherman’s Rest.” This was the Dover inn across the Channel from Calais where the Scarlet Pimpernel traveled through. These little details are gems when they appear throughout the novel.
Amy Balcourt is our traditional female lead: spunky, daring, brave, a little loony at times, determined, and hopelessly, helplessly romantic. She wants more than a life of dances and suitors and embroidery. She needs an adventure! Her pursuit and demasking of the Purple Gentian is continually waylaid by Richard Selwick. Richard is handsome and intriguing and frustrated by the new development of his attraction for Amy.
A match made in heaven.
I have read every book in the series and as amusing as the contemporary American scholar’s storyline is, I have always preferred the historical stories. Since Eloise lives vicariously through her heroines, the ups and downs in her life are more typical – a crush who seems to dislike her, confusion over the crush’s current relationship status, confusion over the crush’s change of heart.
Eloise’s much more staid life, at least in comparison to Amy’s, seems to highlight the reason we read historical romances. The adventure and romance, the strong men and passionate kisses, the bustles and corsets and top hats – time long since past always shines brighter than it was and seems brighter than the now. Curling up with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation makes me yearn for some adventure with a man who will catch me when I fall.
I suppose I would settle for that even if the adventure was tamer than smuggling aristocrats out of revolutionary Paris. Who doesn’t want a Richard Selwick? Give the book a go and I’m sure you’ll agree.