Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I was a child, desperate for something to read when staying with my grandparents, I browsed among the books in the very small cupboard in the hall that my grandfather had built under the mirror when he built the house. I sat on the hall rug (blocking the way, to everyone’s patient annoyance), and read from the cupboard until teatime. This is where I found my grandmother’s collection of Scarlet Pimpernel novels, and discovered the French Revolution.
Sally Dugan’s publishing history of The Scarlet Pimpernel quotes Hilary Mantel as saying that The Scarlet Pimpernel is not a book to give to a child. I disagree, vehemently, and I’m surprised that a writer would segregate historical fiction by age. I’m not even sure what she worried such a reading might do to children. Children understand far more than adults think they do. Although I and thousands of other child readers learned more about, shall we say, sex and stickiness from a ‘too early’ reading of Nigel Tranter and other fine historical novelists, I think that we were quite up to snuff enough to know what was nonsense in these novels, and what was worth reflecting upon later.
Anyway, The Scarlet Pimpernel contains no sticky sex. It does contain some casual and clearly irrelevant anti-Semitic characterisation, typical of the period; blue-eyed blonde heroes valorising the aristocracy; simplistic villains and peasants; and a small amount of breathless swooning girly behaviour to make a decent 1970s feminist shudder with irritation. I could see all this, and it didn’t bother me one bit. I still like the novel, reread it occasionally, and when I heard that there was a book about it, I was passionately interested. It’s a good read. Sally Dugan’s book is a well-illustrated scholarly publishing history, but is rather too obviously a rewrite of her PhD thesis. The argumentation is aimed at examiners looking for holes to pick, and had she had the chance of rewriting it, I think she would smooth out the infelicities of style, and start a little further back, by not assuming that the reader (assumed to be an academic) already knows all the titles and events of Baroness Orczy’s works and life.
But, this is an excellent work, in that it takes one best-selling and really influential novel, and explores all of its aspects: its author’s life, its predecessors, its own influences, its spin-offs, its reuse in two world wars, and its fabulous marketing campaigns. I do like a period dustjacket: the many lovely reproductions of The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s covers in Dugan’s book, through the decades, are evocative and charming. The example of a manuscript page of the novel gives an unexpected insight into how Orczy made corrections, what beautiful handwriting she had, and the smooth pace of her writing. The Scarlet Pimpernel is as much about the construction of a kind of Englishness as it is a romping thriller. It ruthlessly reuses Dickens as well as many less well-known writers of the French Revolution to redefine what the English hero had to say about that Revolutionary impulse. Sir Percy Blakeney (for it is he) is chivalric, has a supernatural presence, has a mystic connection to the Scout Law, is even given aspects of divinity, especially when matched against the devilish Chauvelin, the Revolutionary ambassador to the court of St James. These are mythic elements that allowed the Pimpernel to reappear in film in The Elusive Pimpernel (1919 and 1950), The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1928), The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937), anti-Nazi hero Pimpernel Smith in 1941, The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950), and in (my personal favourite) Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head (1966). The TV versions are also legion.
What I forget each time until I reread The Scarlet Pimpernel again is that while the title and the hero are all about dashing masculinity, the plot is centred on a very absorbing heroine, Marguerite, Lady Blakeney, who is also a French émigrée, with the ideological foolishness to have denounced an aristocrat to the wrong side. Her moral anguish, her sense of honour, her fear for her hothead brother, and her hero-worship for the Pimpernel are terrific character traits, enough to carry the novel unaided. But somehow, the Pimpernel himself, possibly the original masked hero, tramples these interesting points into insignificance by simply existing. Orczy was onto a total winner when she created him, and Dugan’s book explains exactly why such a slight and short novel had such an immense influence, right up to the present day.
The original stage version (hah! you didn’t know that, before the novel, the Pimpernel was a play?) was reviewed in the New York Times as ‘The Worst Play in London the Biggest Hit’. It ran for over 2000 performances worldwide. Ignore the critics, look at the box office for the real measure of a novel’s worth. But before that, read Sally Dugan for everything you could possibly want to know about The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Sally Dugan, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. A Publishing History (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), ISBN 978-1- 4094-2717-9
Kate podcasts about the books she really, really likes every week on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com