At any given moment in time, there's something I can't find—my keys, my reading glasses, my cup of coffee, the portable phone. I'm constantly missing appointments. And if we've been introduced, there's a good chance I won't remember your name. If you've told me something about yourself, however, I will remember it. I never forget a story. Which is why I rarely, if ever, reread a book.
One of the few exceptions to this rule is The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness Emmuska Orczy. Perhaps it’s because of the intricate plot, the fast pacing, the strong, intelligent characters, or the scene, midway through the book, that I believe is one of the most heart-wrenchingly romantic ever written. Or perhaps it’s because every time I read this book, I discover something new. Not too surprising, considering that this is a story about multi-layered secrets; the hero is a master of disguises, the heroine is an actress, and in the course of the narrative, they must discard the numerous masks they wear in order to transform their idealized notions of love into one that is oh, so very real.
The backstory . . .
Marguerite St. Juste, a witty and beautiful French actress, marries Sir Percy Blakeney, who is handsome, wealthy, and passionately in love with her. Shortly after their marriage, Percy hears a rumor that Marguerite is responsible for the arrest and execution of a family of French aristocrats. When he confronts his wife, she admits the story is true, but foolishly decides to test his love by refusing to explain why. (And yes, there is a plausible excuse involving her beloved brother and only relative, Armand.)
While Percy’s trust in Marguerite is destroyed, try as he might, he cannot seem to rid himself of his love for his wife—so he creates a foolish, foppish persona to keep her at bay. As Marguerite says to her brother, “And now I have the satisfaction, Armand, of knowing that the biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife.”
I don’t know why, but this setup gets me every time. Maybe it’s because so many romances feature heroes and heroines who don’t seem to realize that they are falling in love and the verbal sparring on both sides is designed to break through emotional walls. But in The Scarlet Pimpernel, while Marguerite spars to break through the emotional wall Percy has built, he spars to strengthen it.
“Is it possible that love can die?” Marguerite asks in a moment of desperation. “Methought that the passion which you once felt for me would outlast the span of human life. Is there nothing left of that love, Percy . . . which might help you . . . to bridge over that sad estrangement?”
To which he responds, “Do you wish to see me once more a love-sick suppliant at your feet, so that you might again have the pleasure of kicking me aside, like a troublesome lap-dog?”
Percy’s and Marguerite’s inability to trust has devastating consequences, and prevents Marguerite from turning to her husband when she needs him most.
A mysterious figure, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is leading a band of brave followers into France at the height of the Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” and rescuing French aristocrats from the jaws of the guillotine. A French spy, who suspects the Pimpernel is an English nobleman, arrives in London determined to discover his identity. When he finds out that Marguerite's brother is in league with the Pimpernel, he presents her with a terrible choice: either she helps him capture the Pimpernel, or he will have Armand, who is in Paris, arrested and sent to the guillotine.
Marguerite recognizes that this is a Faustian bargain. Leave her brother to his fate, or “willfully betray a brave man, whose life was devoted to his fellow-men, who was noble, generous, and above all, unsuspecting. But then, there was Armand! Armand, too, was noble and brave, Armand, too, was unsuspecting.”
Little does Marguerite know that the brave stranger she so admires and who she is being blackmailed into betraying to save her brother is her husband.
And then there's the sheer romance of it. A critical scene halfway through the book sees Marguerite decide to turn to her distant husband for help. But Percy and Marguerite don't trust each other enough to fully reveal their secrets or their love. In a heartbreaking war of emotions, pride wins out.
And while Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy may have finally overcome his pride to confess to Elizabeth that he loves her “body and soul,” he surely never did this . . .
Had she but turned back then, and looked out once more on to the rose-lit garden, she would have seen that which would have made her own sufferings seem but light and easy to bear—a strong man, overwhelmed with his own passion and his own despair. Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone: the will was powerless. He was but a man madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.