Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

5 out of 5 stars | Goodreads
Odd’s fish! This was a fantastically fun read.

Admittedly, if you are looking to read some historical fiction set during the French Revolution in order to learn more about that period of time, this really isn’t the book. It is much more a story about the people, than the events. But what you do get, however, is a fun-filled adventure story with a very unusual hero, at least at first glance.

Sir Percy Blakeney is a lazy, dim-witted Baronet, married to Marguerite St. Just, one of the cleverest women in Europe. No-one understands the pairing, and least of all would they expect him to be the Scarlet Pimpernel – which is exactly who he is. The slow, stupid Percy is purely a mask; a mask so opaque that even his wife does not suspect. Yet as both a complete fop, and as the brave Pimpernel, Percy is such a loveable character. He is charming, in both manner and speech, and very much the classic hero. Add to this his quirky speech ‘ “odd’s fish!” – and you get a character that it is impossible not to fall for.

In contrast, Marguerite, whilst described as clever, comes across as a rather selfish woman, who marries Percy only because  he worships her. However, the story gives her a chance to prove herself a worthy character, and she rises to the challenge. As well as the classically handsome hero and beautiful, intelligent female protagonist, Chauvelin, the French envoy to England, plays the role of the typical villain. Often described as thin, with pointed features, and walking with a slight stoop, he brings to mind a rat or other vermin. So whilst all the characters are actually very typical stereotypes of their roles, it works very well – and it must be remembered that this was the book that inspired many future ‘masked avenger’ titles.

Overall, despite the subject material, the book is just very funny – from Percy’s various disguises (including an old hag), to Chauvelin’s soldiers obeying his orders to literally every last word, thereby actually disobeying them – and one of the easier classics to read. If you tend to struggle with classic books, you should still try this one; the slightly later publication date than many others means the language is a little easier, and it really is a story not to be missed.

Also, another note: if you enjoyed the book, watch the film version from 1982, featuring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. Or just watch the film, regardless of whether you have read, or plan to read the book – Anthony Andrews gives a fantastic performance and really embodies the character of Percy.