Rare Books: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Baroness Orczy wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1903 within a span of just five weeks. The shy silent personality of the hero, contrasted by his adventurous thrill-seeking alter, attracted many at the time of the book’s release. Years later, The Scarlet Pimpernel influenced the origin story of modern superhero characters like Superman and Zorro.

The Double Life of a Silent Man

The year is 1792. Sir Percy Blakeney is a shy and reserved man who seldom speaks. While England feels the ripples of the French Revolution as refugees pour in from across the sea, Blakeney remains mute. Consequently, his wife, the dashing Marguerite has gradually become distant from him. As a center of attraction in parties who doesn’t mince words, she is the exact opposite of Blakeney. Furthermore, his lazy relaxed attitude not only irritates Marguerite but also renders him to be a subject of ridicule before society. But is Sir Percy Blakeney more than what he seems?

By presenting a hero who is a brazen adventurer, Baroness Orczy gave this escapist genre its own voice of strength. The Scarlet Pimpernel exists solely for the thrill of it. The social context is more of an excuse for his escapades. Moreover, Orczy injected into this genre a woman of immense power. Marguerite may not be the hero leading a double life. But she definitely is a daring quick-witted woman whose courage is palpable as she rushes to save her husband from the guillotine. The Scarlet Pimpernel might have the book’s title. But Marguerite is its true hero.

A Violent Childhood

Nicholas Daly wrote the introduction for the Oxford World’s Classics publication of the book. In it, he mentions that Baroness Orczy’s father had decided to introduce modern machinery for farming. Consequently, the peasants were offended because their jobs were endangered. They burnt the crops which resulted in the utter destruction of almost the entire estate. Even though the Baroness was just three at that time, the horrific experience scarred her mind. Its reflections fall in The Scarlet Pimpernel, where those of rank attain all the sympathy.

But the disaster produced a series of impacts for the family. They struggled economically and went from one place to another. While initially, Baroness Orczy took visual arts as her source of income, it did not yield fecund results. Consequently, she started writing and in 1901 attained her first success. But she could make considerable money only after the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Inspired and Influencing

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes inspired Baroness Orczy and this can be observed in her first few efforts which were detective stories. But The Scarlet Pimpernel has some of the shades of Sherlock Holmes as well. Like Holmes, Pimpernel too has a knack for disguises. Though the two utilize this skill entirely differently. Holmes disguised to capture criminals, while Pimpernel, deemed criminal himself, becomes unrecognizable and escapes from under his enemies’ noses.

But the book itself influenced various characters that evolved to become pillars of modern pop art. The Scarlet Pimpernel featured in numerous plays, radio broadcast programs, TV shows, and films. The technology changed, but society’s attraction towards the character remained constant. With time, it became the basis of the origin story of modern superhero characters. Zorro, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, and many other twentieth-century superheroes have alters who are nobodies. They either appear weak, showcase acute shyness, and get ridiculed. Or else, they are filthy rich who are unconcerned about the austerity of life. Either way, they showcase those very shades of Sir Percy Blakeney that enabled him to remain a distant easily disposable character.

Though Baroness Orczy’s popularity has long waned, the behavioral pillars of the Scarlet Pimpernel still are highly functional. But what time has also taken away with it is the voice of Marguerite. Hopefully, the new generation of pop art will rectify this crucial mistake.


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