Welcome back to the virtual book club at Book Allowance! My partner in crime, Rebeca Barroso, is back and we’re going old-school. This time we’ll be discussing “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by Baroness Orzcy. Just remember there will be spoilers.
The Baroness Was Ahead of Her Time
By Jillian Taylor
I need to get a title so I can publish under that. Princesse de Taylor. Duchess Taylor. Maybe just plain, old Queen Taylor. Although the Baroness’s first name was pretty awesome on its own – Emmuska. Good stuff.
I don’t know what version you read but I have the Dover Thrift Edition. I am one who reads Notes and Acknowledgements in the order they appear in a book. The biographical Note is charming. Orzcy loved British theatre so ‘decided to try her hand at writing.’ Apparently she was inspired to write crime stories because a real-life crime happened outside her home. One of Jack the Ripper’s female victims was found there just before she moved in with her husband. Then, after the success of her detective stories. Orczy wanted ‘to do something more than that. Something big.’ So she wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel.
I love that her ‘something big’ is the type of novel easily dismissed these days as fluff, romance, nothing to be taken seriously. I recently reread The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig who was inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel, even using some Pimpernel details to pepper her story. Willig’s novels are considered historical romances which can be seen as a lower tier than so-called literary novels. Orzcy went big and wrote a romance that has nobility and honor as central elements. These days honor and nobility are considered throw-backs to a different time.
But enough of my chatter.
It takes a couple of chapters before our leads enter the stage. Sir Percy and Lady Marguerite Blakeney, an elegant and charming couple, the toast of the London ton. She is called the cleverest woman in Europe. Percy is dull and stupid. They arrive at The Fisherman’s Rest, a small inn on the coast, and encounter an aristocratic family recently smuggled out of revolutionary France. That doesn’t go so well. Lady Blakeney and the Comtesse have a lovely fight. Marguerite rolls her eyes at her ridiculous husband. Percy takes it.
At this point, I knew the general arc of this romance. Despite already being married, clearly there was a gap to be crossed. Do you think the modern rom-com formula came from Orzcy? Meet cute. Then the audience learns about both of their secrets. A major misunderstanding based on these secrets. Someone has to be the one to make the effort, cross the divide. Kiss, happy ending. Curtains down. I could name a hundred romantic comedies off the top of my head that follow this model. I wonder if Orzcy was really the first. Probably not. Jane Austen might have beat her to the punch. (We’ll figure that out in a couple of weeks.)
Despite all the hundred year-old slang (Zounds! La! Nay!), the book read as very modern and contemporary to me. I can’t tell how much of that is because I have read many books that are derivatives of this particular novel or just the timelessness of Orzcy’s narrative. I know I keep going back to the history of this novel, the history of twentieth-century romance novels. It’s difficult for me not to do that.
So instead I will end this missive on a more upbeat note. Can I tell you what a crush I have on Sir Percy? “Tall, broad-shouldered, massively built.” Um, yes, please.
Oh, and one other quick question. This is Marguerite’s story so it’s easy to feel sympathy as her opinion of her husband changes. How did Percy fare in your eyes since he stays mum on his secret ‘til the very end? (Clearly I like him fine.)