Mar 12 2011 10:00am

Madly, Blindly, Passionately in Love: Rereading The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska OrczyAt 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.

Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon in The Scarlet PimpernelThe 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.

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Virginia Campbell
1. VirginiaCampbell
Sir Percy Blakeney, aka "The Scarlet Pimpernel", was the most outlandish fop of his time. He was also the bravest, most cunning and passionate man of his day.

"We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel."

Sink me!

Leslie Howard, who portayed Sir Percy to perfection in the 1934 film version, was also a man of unseen bravery. While Leslie was immortalized by his portrayal of Ashley Wilkes in the film version of "Gone With the Wind", he was more than just an actor:

"Gone With the Wind" actor Leslie Howard will be honored as a war hero with a monument in Spain near where his plane was shot down by Nazi fighter pilots during World War II, a historical association said Saturday. The propeller-shaped sculpture will be unveiled in July near Cedeira bearing the names of those who died aboard the commercial flight from Portugal to Britain in 1943, said the Royal Green Jackets association and author Jose Rey Ximena. Association President Manuel Santiago Arenas Roca said the London-born Howard joined the Allies and campaigned hard against the Axis powers. Ximena said Germany's government at the time apparently was worried about the negative impact the high-profile actor-director's anti-Nazi publicity was having on its cause. Many books have been written about KLM flight 777 which was downed by a squadron of Junkers 88 fighter planes, said Ximena, who believes the star of the 1939 Academy-Award-winning "Gone with the Wind" and the 1934 movie "The Scarlet Pimpernel" had been on "a secret mission" to stop Spain joining Germany and Italy in combat. Spain, under the power of fascist dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, had formed an alliance with Adolf Hitler's Nazi government, which based German Luftwaffe warplanes on its soil. The author said Howard's contribution to winning the war is in danger of being forgotten. Most of the books relating to his untimely death were published in the 1950s, and the association wants to pay tribute to a man who put his fame and communication skills to work combatting Nazi propaganda. The monument will be simple: a partially damaged Douglas DC-3 propeller similar to those that were on the plane on which Howard died. It will contain the names of all the crash victims. Ximena said there was considerable evidence that Howard was targeted specifically, thus becoming a war hero.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Marie Choi
2. MarieC
Great article! I read this book in HS and then rented the movie, loving both afterwards. I'll admit that I now have a soft spot for romance books with this type of storyline!
Joanna Novins
3. JoannaNovins
Ah, the lovely Leslie Howard (Thanks Virginia). There are several movie versions of Pimpernel (and yes, I've seen them all), but none can touch Leslie Howard's version. (Bit of trivia, he also did a World War II version called "Pimpernel Smith.") Such an amazingly subtle actor, he's able to make this character believable as both a foolish fop and a heroic man of action. (His version of Shaw's Pygmalion with Wendy Hillier puts Rex Harrison to shame.) Yet another reason I'm not a Gone with the Wind fan--for many people Ashley is their only exposure to Howard--a travesty! He was lost to the world far too soon.
Barb in Maryland
4. Barb in Maryland
Oh thank you for featuring one of my all time favorite books! I have so totally lost track of the number of times I have read it. And it never gets old, I never lose my enjoyment of it. I will also not mention how many different copies I currently own. Ahem.
And, another vote for the Leslie Howard version of the Pimpernel--he managed to make both facets of Percy believable. And, like others, I have seen them all, and the other actors (David Niven, Anthony Andrews, Richard Grant, etc) were good with one half of Percy's persona but flopped at the other half.
I haven't seen the musical yet, but I have heard the Broadway Cast album--some good songs, but boy did they have fun with the plot in order to give Marguerite a bigger role.
Megan Frampton
5. MFrampton
@VirginiaC, @Barb (and Joanna, of course!): I NEED to see the Leslie Howard version. I think he is an underrated actor--loved him in Petrified Forest.
Barb in Maryland
6. DarleneMarshall
I love the book, and I love the Leslie Howard movie. The scene where Raymond Massey has this positively orgasmic expression on his face when he believes the Pimpernel has been executed...well, they don't make films like they used to, that's all I can say!
Louise Partain
7. Louise321
@BarbinMaryland If you get a chance go see it! The numbers with the mens chorus(The Creation of Man and Into the Fire) are reason enough beyond the wonderful love songs.

Leslie Howard was my fav too! Helped that he had Merle Oberon to play opposite.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has been a favorite since childhood. You gotta love the chutspa of the author, Baroness Orczy, saying that she could do better at creating a romance than the books then populating the landscape and actually coming up with such a dashing hero that we drool over him even today.
Olivia Waite
8. O.Waite
I found this book in my high school library and picked it up because I thought the title was "The Scarlet Pumpernickel."

I read it, fell in love hard with Percy Blakeney, and never looked back. I saw the musical on Broadway, when Terrence Mann was still playing Chauvelin -- brilliant stuff!
romance reader
9. bookstorecat
I, too, am a fan of the book and the musical's album--never seen the show because of living in the middle of nowhere. Wish they still made movie musicals worth a damn, 'cause otherwise I'm pretty much out of luck. I guess I can listen to the music while re-reading the book...not the same. Sigh:(
Barb in Maryland
10. Helen Bang
Have you read Eldorado, one of the later books? It has the most romantic sequence in it. Make sure it's the full version, not the abridged one.
Joanna Novins
11. JoannaNovins

I read all the books in the series when I first discovered the book and when I wrote this blog, I downloaded them all onto my iPad as a treat to myself. Not sure which book, but vividly remember a scene where Percy is caught by Chauvelin, imprisoned, and tortured by not being allowed to sleep....
Barb in Maryland
12. Helen Bang
Yes, that's from Eldorado.
Olivia Waite
13. O.Waite
Wait -- they've got the rest of the series for iPad? I was never able to track those down before! Are they in the iBooks store or somewhere else?
Barb in Maryland
14. Helen Bang
Don't know about iPad but the books are available here:
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