The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

June 27, 2012 at 17:12 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )

9/10

The worst thing that can be said about this book is that it is ridiculously sentimental. It is at least as much of a romance as it is an adventure of incredible proportions, but it is the sort of romance in which every single chapter has the swooning heroine declaring to herself that her bosom yearns for the sweet embrace of death, if only she can catch but one glimpse of her beloved; even a cruel word would be sweet, and even a bitter meeting would be as paradise.

“‘And you have let them escape,’ shouts the captain furiously. ‘You’ll go to the guillotine for this, citoyen sergeant! That cart held concealed the ci-devant Duc de Chalis and all his family!’

‘What!’ thunders Grospierre, aghast.

‘Aye! and the driver was none other than that cursed Englishman, the Scarlet Pimpernel.'”

-The Scarlet Pimpernel

It is difficult to have patience with this level of melodrama, and so it is all the more impressive that Baroness Orczy manages to match her incredibly wet romantic plot, not only with a level of adventure to exceed it (for this would not be a masterful achievement), but with some genuine moments of pathos, and a believable relationship between the star-crossed lovers that is deeper than swooning and soliloquising.

It ought to be made clear: this is not a work to be judged on complex multifaceted characters, or even on serious development or growth. The plot that grows up in the midst of the romance is one of desperate and dastardly deeds by cruel flinty-eyed despots; of dashing and debonair heroes festooned with capes and cutlasses; a thing of death-or-glory last chances and low cunning. The personalities are all rather simple, and are some rather perfect examples of what it is to be a stock character.

But the reader will be along for the ride, and forgive every trope and each predictable scenario that comes trotting by. The surprises are scarcely surprising, but then who ever thought that Long John Silver would slay Hawkins and inherit the treasure? Who ever imagined that Edmond Dantès would rot in his chateau, or that Phileas Fogg would be not be vindicated? The success of The Scarlet Pimpernel is not its novelty or its subtlety, but its heart and its bombast, and the constantly excellent recasting of the age old battle between good and evil, where the foul mask of evil is as immutable as the solid foundation of good.

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