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During France’s Reign of Terror, a disguised Englishman whisks innocent nobles away from the thirsty maw of the guillotine. French authorities will stop at nothing to capture the daring hero, who leaves a calling card with the mark of a scarlet pimpernel at the scene of all his escapades.
First of all, this is a pimpernel:
One of my go-to guilty pleasures for years was The Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig. I’m really not a romance reader, and they are most definitely romances, but the witty dialog, fantastic characters, Napoleonic setting, and light action/suspense kept me going back for all twelve books. I knew they were influenced by The Scarlet Pimpernel but I never made the time to seek out that book. When I was choosing a list of titles to read for the Classics Club, I knew I had to correct that oversight.
I can see the influence here but I much prefer The Pink Carnation books.
Where Willig’s characters are witty and smart, Orczy’s characters are overwrought, secretive, and sometimes entirely too slow on the draw. What really drove me crazy though is that every bit of dialog started with an exclamation, most frequently “La!” “Lud!” or “Zounds!” I felt like I was reading an episode of Batman from the ’60s!
The main character, in my opinion, isn’t so much The Scarlet Pimpernel himself, but rather Marguerite Blakeney. She’s a Frenchwoman who married an Englishman, Sir Percy Blakeney. She’s widely regarded as “the smartest woman in Europe” but I don’t know why. Identities seemed pretty clear to me from the start but she just bumbles around in ignorance, causing all kinds of chaos. She committed a pretty unforgiveable act while in France and her feelings are hurt because the family she ruined won’t have anything to do with her. However, blackmail puts her in an impossible position now that she’s in England. Her choice triggers the bulk of the action. To give credit where it’s due, she does everything in her power to correct her most recent mistake.
Still, the exploits and derring-do of The Scarlet Pimpernel are a lot of fun. I had to admire his clever tricks and his boldness. I saw through the disguises but at this point, masked avengers are a well-established trope. As I understand it, Baroness Orczy broke new ground when she wrote this novel. I can see how readers in the past would have loved the twists, turns, and impossible escapes but it felt a bit predictable and melodramatic to me. I may or may not read other books in the series in the future but I am glad I read this one.
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