Lest we forget the world's first masked Hero

21 May 2020

The Scarlet Pimpernel (written in 1903 and published in 1905) was born as a play written by both Baroness Orczy (Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orci, a Hungarian-born British novelist and playwright) and her husband Montagu Barstow. The title character of the novel, Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy foolish Englishman exceptionally concerned with his look and clothes, but transforms into a swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist in order to save ill-fated French royalty from "Madame Guillotine" during the French revolution.


The Scarlet Pimpernel, set the foundation for the concept of the "hero with a secret identity" in popular culture. Several decades later literary creations such as Bruce Wayne of “Batman”, Kent Clarke of ‘Spiderman”,  Don Diego de la Vega  of “Zorro” and Kent Allard or Lamont Cranston  of “The Shadow” were inspired by the novel.


The Scarlet Pimpernel was not released as a novel until 1905; however, it was an instant success, and Orczy went on to publish several sequels. The genre of the novel was historical fiction and it was set in France and England in 1792 during the French Revolution with realistic elements included. The Revolution was a widespread revolt of commoners that successfully overthrew the aristocracy and established a republic. This had began a worldwide trend for democracy and led to the decline of monarchies.


Prior to the revolution, several years of bad crops and increasing taxes left French peasants and other commoners suffering while the aristocracy enjoyed privilege and luxury. The commoners began to revolt, and in July of 1789, they stormed the Bastille, a French fortress and symbol of kings. Just weeks later, feudalism, a social structure and form of government that gives special privilege to aristocrats and large estate owners, was officially abolished in France.


In 1792, when Orczy’s novel takes place, the First French Republic was declared, and by 1793, King Louis XVI was executed at the guillotine (place of execution). In fact, thousands were executed at the guillotine during the ‘Reign of Terror’, sometimes hundreds in a day; however, it was through this violence that the French government sought to curb even more widespread violence throughout the country. French citizens knew that the government will eventually execute all aristocrats, so they had little reason to seek retribution on their own. This not only kept violence contained to the government but also induced fear in the aristocracy.


The ‘Reign of Terror’ ended in July 1794. The commercial success of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ series, and numerous unrelated novels, allowed Orczy to move to Monte Carlo in the French Riviera, where her beloved husband died in 1942. Afterward, Orczy lived alone and later died in Oxfordshire, England in 1947 at the age of 82.


The Scarlet Pimpernel is generally considered to be the first novel ever written on a masked hero with a dual identity. The dull and boring Sir Percy Blakeney’s secret identity as the daring Scarlet Pimpernel spawned an entire genre of books and comics that employ similar heroes with mysterious identities, most notably from the DC Comic publishing company. When Baroness Orczy first wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1903, the book was rejected by twelve London Publishers. Originally a play, The Scarlet Pimpernel was not accepted for publishing until after an impressive two year run on the London stage. There are 31 chapters for the book ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’.


Capsule Reading of the text The Scarlet Pimpernel:


The story revolves around the early stages of French Revolution, in the year 1792. As a result of the revolution, hundreds of traitorous aristocrats were sent to the guillotine to be executed each day and evening. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of a humble English wayside flower (red as commonly known); but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do.


Only very few , that is , 20 people who were associated with him—‘as one to command and nineteen to obey’—knew the real identity under solemn oath of secrecy. Scarlet Pimpernel usually worked in the dark. Marguerite St. a just, beautiful French actress, in this novel is the wife of the Englishman Sir Percy Blakeney, who is a baronet.


The Scarlet Pimpernel is not alone in this mission. Along with him across the Channel in Dover, is an “honest” Englishman named Mr. Jellyband and his fellows, John Bulls , who welcomes hungry and thirsty fishermen and travelers to his comfortable and old-fashioned English inn, “The Fisherman’s Rest.” Like most English citizens, Mr. Jellyband is “a royalist and anti-revolutionist,” and he wholeheartedly supports the Scarlet Pimpernel and his heroic efforts to save “innocent” aristocrats from “murdering’ devils” across the Channel. During an inspection Bibot meets an old hag in a cart who informed him that she won’t be returning as her grandson is sick with smallpox.


Bibot is worried with the information that he may catch the deadly illness. He then quickly grants her permission to leave. Immediately afterward, a captain of the guard appears in search of the cart and the hag. In the cart is the Comtesse de Tournay and her royal children, and the hag is none other than the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel.


Two of Pimpernel’s trusted accomplices, Lord Anthony and Sir Andrew, two well-born and well-bred Englishmen, make a stop at “The Fisherman’s Rest” after they bring the Comtesse de Tournay and her children from France. Mr Jellyband is happy to welcome them.




"There was general bustle in the coffee-room: Mr. Hempseed and most of the yokels and fisher-folk had gone to make way for “the quality,” and to finish smoking their pipes elsewhere. Only the two strangers stayed on, quietly and unconcernedly playing their game of dominoes and sipping their wine; whilst at another table Harry Waite, who was fast losing his temper, watched pretty Sally bustling round the table.


She looked a very dainty picture of English rural life, and no wonder that the susceptible young Frenchman could scarce take his eyes off her pretty face. The Vicomte de Tournay was scarce nineteen, a beardless boy, on whom the terrible tragedies which were being enacted in his own country had made but little impression. He was elegantly and even foppishly dressed, and once safely landed in England he was evidently ready to forget the horrors of the Revolution in the delights of English life.


“Know her?” said Lord Antony. “Know Lady Blakeney—the most fashionable woman in London—the wife of the richest man in England? Of course, we all know Lady Blakeney.”


“She was a school-fellow of mine at the convent in Paris,” interposed Suzanne, “and we came over to England together to learn your language. I was very fond of Marguerite, and I cannot believe that she ever did anything so wicked.”


“It certainly seems incredible,” said Sir Andrew. “You say that she actually denounced the Marquis de St. Cyr? Why should she have done such a thing? Surely there must be some mistake—”


“No mistake is possible, Monsieur,” rejoined the Comtesse, coldly. “Marguerite St. Just's brother is a noted republican. There was some talk of a family feud between him and my cousin, the Marquis de St. Cyr. The St. Justs' are quite plebeian, and the republican government employs many spies. I assure you there is no mistake. . . . You had not heard this story?”


“Faith, Madame, I did hear some vague rumours of it, but in England no one would credit it. . . . Sir Percy Blakeney, her husband, is a very wealthy man, of high social position, the intimate friend of the Prince of Wales . . . and Lady Blakeney leads both fashion and society in London.”



As they rest and enjoy a good meal, Sir Percy Blakeney, and his wife, Lady Blakeney, arrive at Jellyband’s inn. Sir Percy Blakeney is one of the richest men in England, who has travelled a great deal, before he brought home his beautiful, young, French wife. The fashionable circles at that time were ready to receive them both with open arms. The Prince of Wales took a very great liking to them both.


 In six months, the couple was acknowledged leaders of fashion and of style. Sir Percy's coats became the talk of the town, his inanities were quoted, his foolish laugh copied by the gilded youth at Almack's or the Mall. Everyone knew that he was hopelessly stupid, but then that was scarcely to be wondered at, seeing that all the Blakeneys, for generations, had been notoriously dull, and that his mother had died an imbecile.


Lady Blakeney’s brother, Armand, an “ardent” republican and French citizen, will be returning to his country with the tide. The Comtesse loathes Lady Blakeney; Marguerite St. just who is condemned to death of the Marquis de St. Cyr and his entire royal family back in France, and the Comtesse hates her on behalf of nobles everywhere.


Lady Blakeney's brother leaves for France, but before he leaves, he urges his sister to tell Percy why she denounced the St. Cyr family, but she says he already hates her for it, no matter the circumstances. As she goes back to the pub, she meets Chauvelin, a French officer, intent on discovering the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He has been spying on the activities of the Englishmen at the pub, and says that Marguerite must help him find the Pimpernel. She refuses.


Later that night, two members of the League of the Pimpernel are ambushed by Chauvelin just as they discuss plans to rescue the Countess's husband. Chauvelin finds a letter from Marguerite's brother, Armand, and now he sees that he can blackmail her to help her find the Pimpernel.


Chauvelin corners Lady Blakeney at the opera and reveals the letter he has found. If she does not help him, he will ensure that her brother is executed.


At the ball that night, Lady Blakeney finds out that the Pimpernel will be waiting in one of the rooms at one o'clock that night. But when she tells Chauvelin of this, he goes to the room, only to find Percy stretched out on the couch taking a nap. Chauvelin tells Lady Blakeney that she better help him find the Scarlet Pimpernel or else her brother will be in danger. Lady decided to discuss everything with her husband Sir Percy.



"Her voice became choked with tears. She paused for a moment or two, trying to regain some sort of composure. She looked appealingly at him, almost as if he were her judge. He had allowed her to speak on in her own vehement, impassioned way, offering no comment, no word of sympathy: and now, while she paused, trying to swallow down the hot tears that gushed to her eyes, he waited, impassive and still.


The dim, grey light of early dawn seemed to make his tall form look taller and more rigid. The lazy, good-natured face looked strangely altered. Marguerite, excited, as she was, could see that the eyes were no longer languid, the mouth no longer good-humoured and inane. A curious look of intense passion seemed to glow from beneath his drooping lids, the mouth was tightly closed, the lips compressed, as if the will alone held that surging passion in check.


Marguerite Blakeney was, above all, a woman, with all a woman's fascinating foibles, all a woman's most lovable sins. She knew in a moment that for the past few months she had been mistaken: that this man who stood here before her, cold as a statue, when her musical voice struck upon his ear, loved her, as he had loved her a year ago: that his passion might have been dormant, but that it was there, as strong, as intense, as overwhelming, as when first her lips met his in one long, maddening kiss.


Pride had kept him from her, and, woman-like, she meant to win back that conquest which had been hers before. Suddenly it seemed to her that the only happiness life could ever hold for her again would be in feeling that man's kiss once more upon her lips.


“Listen to the tale, Sir Percy,” she said, and her voice now was low, sweet, infinitely tender. “Armand was all in all to me! We had no parents, and brought one another up. He was my little father, and I, his tiny mother; we loved one another so. Then one day—do you mind me, Sir Percy? the Marquis de St. Cyr had my brother Armand thrashed—thrashed by his lacqueys—that brother whom I loved better than all the world! And his offence? That he, a plebeian, had dared to love the daughter of the aristocrat; for that he was waylaid and thrashed . . . thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life! Oh, how I suffered! his humiliation had eaten into my very soul! When the opportunity occurred, and I was able to take my revenge, I took it. But I only thought to bring that proud marquis to trouble and humiliation. He plotted with Austria against his own country. Chance gave me knowledge of this; I spoke of it, but I did not know—how could I guess?—they trapped and duped me. When I realised what I had done, it was too late.”



Under the stress of all of her dealings with Chauvelin and the aloofness of her husband, Lady Blakeney explains the circumstances that led her to denounce the Marquis de Cyr's family at the tribunal. But Percy says she's told him too late and he remains cool to her, even though deep down he still loves her. He promises to save her brother.



"She crossed the landing outside her own suite of apartments, and stood still for a moment at the head of the fine oak staircase, which led to the lower floor. On her left were her husband's apartments, a suite of rooms which she practically never entered.


They consisted of bedroom, dressing and reception-room, and, at the extreme end of the landing, of a small study, which, when Sir Percy did not use it, was always kept locked. His own special and confidential valet, Frank, had charge of this room. No one was ever allowed to go inside. My lady had never cared to do so, and the other servants had, of course, not dared to break this hard-and-fast rule.


Marguerite had often, with that good-natured contempt which she had recently adopted towards her husband, chaffed him about this secrecy which surrounded his private study. Laughingly she had always declared that he strictly excluded all prying eyes from his sanctum for fear they should detect how very little “study” went on within its four walls: a comfortable arm-chair for Sir Percy's sweet slumbers was, no doubt, its most conspicuous piece of furniture.


Marguerite thought of all this on this bright October morning as she glanced along the corridor. Frank was evidently busy with his master's rooms, for most of the doors stood open, that of the study amongst the others."



Later that night, Lady Blakeney is peeking around her husband's study when she finds a ring emblazoned with the image of the Scarlet Pimpernel -- she discovers his true identity.



"At once she was struck by the severe simplicity of everything around her: the dark and heavy hangings, the massive oak furniture, the one or two maps on the wall, in no way recalled to her mind the lazy man about town, the lover of race-courses, the dandified leader of fashion, that was the outward representation of Sir Percy Blakeney.


There was no sign here, at any rate, of hurried departure. Everything was in its place, not a scrap of paper littered the floor, not a cupboard or drawer was left open. The curtains were drawn aside, and through the open window the fresh morning air was streaming in.


Facing the window, and well into the centre of the room, stood a ponderous business-like desk, which looked as if it had seen much service. On the wall to the left of the desk, reaching almost from floor to ceiling, was a large full-length portrait of a woman, magnificently framed, exquisitely painted, and signed with the name of Boucher. It was Percy's mother.


Marguerite knew very little about her, except that she had died abroad, ailing in body as well as in mind, when Percy was still a lad. She must have been a very beautiful woman once, when Boucher painted her, and as Marguerite looked at the portrait, she could not but be struck by the extraordinary resemblance which must have existed between mother and son. There was the same low, square forehead, crowned with thick, fair hair, smooth and heavy; the same deep-set, somewhat lazy blue eyes beneath firmly marked, straight brows; and in those eyes there was the same intensity behind that apparent laziness, the same latent passion which used to light up Percy's face in the olden days before his marriage, and which Marguerite had again noted, last night at dawn, when she had come quite close to him, and had allowed a note of tenderness to creep into her voice.


Marguerite studied the portrait, for it interested her: after that she turned and looked again at the ponderous desk. It was covered with a mass of papers, all neatly tied and docketed, which looked like accounts and receipts arrayed with perfect method. It had never before struck Marguerite—nor had she, alas! found it worth while to inquire—as to how Sir Percy, whom all the world had credited with a total lack of brains, administered the vast fortune which his father had left him.


Since she had entered this neat, orderly room, she had been taken so much by surprise, that this obvious proof of her husband's strong business capacities did not cause her more than a passing thought of wonder. But it also strengthened her in the now certain knowledge that, with his worldly inanities, his foppish ways, and foolish talk, he was not only wearing a mask, but was playing a deliberate and studied part.


Marguerite wondered again. Why should he take all this trouble? Why should he—who was obviously a serious, earnest man—wish to appear before his fellow-men as an empty-headed nincompoop?


He may have wished to hide his love for a wife who held him in contempt . . . but surely such an object could have been gained at less sacrifice, and with far less trouble than constant incessant acting of an unnatural part.


She looked round her quite aimlessly now: she was horribly puzzled, and a nameless dread, before all this strange, unaccountable mystery, had begun to seize upon her. She felt cold and uncomfortable suddenly in this severe and dark room. There were no pictures on the wall, save the fine Boucher portrait, only a couple of maps, both of parts of France, one of the North coast and the other of the environs of Paris. What did Sir Percy want with those, she wondered.


Her head began to ache, she turned away from this strange Blue Beard's chamber, which she had entered, and which she did not understand. She did not wish Frank to find her here, and with a last look round, she once more turned to the door. As she did so, her foot knocked against a small object, which had apparently been lying close to the desk, on the carpet, and which now went rolling, right across the room.


She stooped to pick it up. It was a solid gold ring, with a flat shield, on which was engraved a small device.


Marguerite turned it over in her fingers, and then studied the engraving on the shield. It represented a small star-shaped flower, of a shape she had seen so distinctly twice before: once at the opera, and once at Lord Grenville's ball.


At what particular moment the strange doubt first crept into Marguerite's mind, she could not herself afterwards have said. With the ring tightly clutched in her hand, she had run out of the room, down the stairs, and out into the garden, where, in complete seclusion, alone with the flowers, and the river and the birds, she could look again at the ring, and study that device more closely.


Stupidly, senselessly, now, sitting beneath the shade of an overhanging sycamore, she was looking at the plain gold shield, with the star-shaped little flower engraved upon it.


Bah! It was ridiculous! she was dreaming! her nerves were overwrought, and she saw signs and mysteries in the most trivial coincidences. Had not everybody about town recently made a point of affecting the device of that mysterious and heroic Scarlet Pimpernel?


Did she not herself wear it embroidered on her gowns? set in gems and enamel in her hair? What was there strange in the fact that Sir Percy should have chosen to use the device as a seal-ring? He might easily have done that . . . yes . . . quite easily . . . and . . . besides . . . what connection could there be between her exquisite dandy of a husband, with his fine clothes and refined, lazy ways, and the daring plotter who rescued French victims from beneath the very eyes of the leaders of a bloodthirsty revolution?


Her thoughts were in a whirl—her mind a blank . . . She did not see anything that was going on around her, and was quite startled when a fresh young voice called to her across the garden."



And indeed, now she realizes she has betrayed her own husband to Chauvelin - and must make the choice between saving him and her brother.


Lady Blakeney sails to Calais, where she hides at an inn, only to witness a tense encounter between Percy and Chauvelin, who have accidentally run into each other. Unbeknownst to Percy, however, Chauvelin has six soldiers on the way to arrest him.


But Percy manages to outwit Chauvelin with the help of a snuff-box, filled with doses of pepper which made Chauvelin sniff  vigorously,  to the extent that his head burst—sneeze after sneeze seemed nearly to choke him and in the meantime Percy escapes, and a chase ensues to find him.


Marguerite follows behind as Chauvelin and his henchmen enlist the help of an Old Jew, who claims to know the way that Percy left. About five minutes later, Desgas returned, followed by an elderly Jew, in a dirty, threadbare gaberdine, worn greasy across the shoulders. His red hair, which he wore after the fashion of the Polish Jews, with the corkscrew curls each side of his face, was plentifully sprinkled with grey—a general coating of grime, about his cheeks and his chin, gave him a peculiarly dirty and loathsome appearance. He had the habitual stoop, those of his race affected in mock humility in past centuries, before the dawn of equality and freedom in matters of faith, and he walked behind Desgas with the peculiar shuffling gait which has remained the characteristic of the Jew trader in continental Europe to this day.


Chauvelin, who had all the Frenchman's prejudice against the despised race, motioned to the fellow to keep at a respectful distance. The group of the three men were standing just underneath the hanging oil-lamp, and Marguerite had a clear view of them all. Chauvelin, on ahead, jolted and jostled in the Jew's vehicle, was nursing comfortable thoughts. He rubbed his hands together, with content, as he thought of the web which he had woven, and through which that ubiquitous and daring Englishman could not hope to escape. As the time went on, and the old Jew drove him leisurely but surely along the dark road, he felt more and more eager for the grand finale of this exciting chase after the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel.


The Jew takes them to a hut, where Marguerite realizes that the fugitives are hiding. She throws herself towards the hut in an effort to save the ones inside, but she's captured by Chauvelin.



The soldiers were holding Marguerite pinioned to the ground, though she, poor soul, was not making the faintest struggle. Overwrought nature had at last peremptorily asserted herself, and she lay there in a dead swoon: her eyes circled by deep purple lines, that told of long, sleepless nights, her hair matted and damp round her forehead, her lips parted in a sharp curve that spoke of physical pain.


The cleverest woman in Europe, the elegant and fashionable Lady Blakeney, who had dazzled London society with her beauty, her wit and her extravagances, presented a very pathetic picture of tired-out, suffering womanhood, which would have appealed to any, but the hard, vengeful heart of her baffled enemy.


“It is no use mounting guard over a woman who is half dead,” Desgas said spitefully to the soldiers, “when you have allowed five men who were very much alive to escape.” Obediently the soldiers rose to their feet.



Chauvelin and his henchmen go inside the hut and find that its empty. A moment later they see a boat drifting out of the harbor and realize the fugitives have escaped.


Chauvelin leads his men on a hut for Percy, but not after making sure the old Jew is mercilessly beaten. Only after Chauvelin leaves does the old Jew get up groggily and reveals himself to the bound Marguerite as her husband Percy in diguise.



“Percy! Percy!” she shrieked hysterically, tortured between doubt and hope, “I am here! Come to me! Where are you? Percy! Percy! . . .”


“It's all very well calling me, m'dear!” said the same sleepy, drawly voice, “but odd's my life, I cannot come to you: those demmed frog-eaters have trussed me like a goose on a spit, and I am as weak as a mouse . . . I cannot get away.”


And still Marguerite did not understand. She did not realise for at least another ten seconds whence came that voice, so drawly, so dear, but alas! with a strange accent of weakness and of suffering. There was no one within sight . . . except by that rock . . . Great God! . . . the Jew! . . . Was she mad or dreaming? . . .


His back was against the pale moonlight, he was half-crouching, trying vainly to raise himself with his arms tightly pinioned. Marguerite ran up to him, took his head in both her hands . . . and looked straight into a pair of blue eyes, good-natured, even a trifle amused—shining out of the weird and distorted mask of the Jew.


“Percy! . . . Percy! . . . my husband!” she gasped, faint with the fulness of her joy. “Thank God! Thank God!”


...He bent forward to kiss them, for they peeped out through her torn stockings, and bore pathetic witness to her endurance and devotion.


“But Armand . . .” she said, with sudden terror and remorse, as in the midst of her happiness the image of the beloved brother, for whose sake she had so deeply sinned, rose now before her mind.


“Oh! have no fear for Armand, sweetheart,” he said tenderly, “did I not pledge you my word that he should be safe? He with de Tournay and the others are even now on board the Day Dream.”



...Marguerite was so happy, she could have stayed here for ever, hearing his voice, asking a hundred questions. But

at mention of Chauvelin's name she started in quick alarm, afraid for the dear life she would have died to save.


“But how can we get back?” she gasped; “the roads are full of soldiers between here and Calais, and . . .”


“We are not going back to Calais, sweetheart,” he said, “but just the other side of Gris Nez, not half a league from here. The boat of the Day Dream will meet us there.”


“The boat of the Day Dream?”


“Yes!” he said, with a merry laugh; “another little trick of mine. I should have told you before that when I slipped that note into the hut, I also added another for Armand, which I directed him to leave behind, and which has sent Chauvelin and his men running full tilt back to the 'Chat Gris' after me; but the first little note contained my real instructions, including those to old Briggs. He had my orders to go out further to sea, and then towards the west. When well out of sight of Calais, he will send the galley to a little creek he and I know of, just beyond Gris Nez. The men will look out for me—we have a preconcerted signal, and we will all be safely aboard, whilst Chauvelin and his men solemnly sit and watch the creek which is 'just opposite the “Chat Gris.”'



Percy and Marguerite set sail for England the next day, reconciled, having freed the fugitives and Percy promises to make sure Chauvelin never steps foot in English noble society again.



The rest is silence!—silence and joy for those who had endured so much suffering, yet found at last a great and lasting happiness.


But it is on record that at the brilliant wedding of Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Bart., with Mlle. Suzanne de Tournay de Basserive, a function at which H.R.H. the Prince of Wales and all the élite of fashionable society were present, the most beautiful woman there was unquestionably Lady Blakeney, whilst the clothes Sir Percy Blakeney wore were the talk of the jeunesse dorée of London for many days.


It is also a fact that M. Chauvelin, the accredited agent of the French Republican Government, was not present at that or any other social function in London, after that memorable evening at Lord Grenville's ball.



The author of this novel Baroness Orczy was well known publicly for her support of the aristocracy and her belief in the superiority of nobility, and these opinions are well established in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy was also in favor of British imperialism and colonialism, and this too is reflected in her novel, most notably through the character of Mr. Jellyband, the “worthy” and “honest” innkeeper.



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