As forerunner of both the spy and superhero genres, The Scarlet Pimpernel is something I really wanted to enjoy. There is delightful wordplay throughout and buried gems for those bemused by obscure words (where else can one read “loth” or see “balustrade” used these days?). When not outright stereotyping, there is some fun sarcasm at the expense of the French. It is Orczy’s lethargic pacing that allows for so much wordplay and all of the book’s humor.
Sadly, the story needs anything but this lethargic pace. The novel’s roots on the stage are evident in how long it takes to transplant characters from one spot to another. Most of eight chapters take place in one room of an inn, and then two characters return there later!
The Scarlet Pimpernel is not the main character, but the plot focuses on Lady Marguerite Blakeney and her efforts, first to learn the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity, and then to save him. That the Scarlet Pimpernel is actually her husband, Lord Percy Blakeney, is hardly a spoiler, being horribly easy to guess for anyone familiar with the cliché this started – the dashing hero disguised as the ineffectual fop (e.g. Zorro, Batman, et al.). What is more interesting is watching circumstances force Marguerite to mature to the point where she is ready to handle knowing his secret and then the excitement when she decides to race the villainous Chauvelin to her husband’s side to warn him. This race could have made the second half of the book very exciting, so it is the novel’s biggest disappointment when the race comes to a screeching halt almost as soon as it starts. A convenient storm delays the channel crossing and Chauvelin delays her in France, all for the purpose of slowing down the story and keeping characters from physically moving. It is no surprise when the focus shifts from this race to the false suspense built around the Pimpernel’s last, obvious disguise. Almost worse is the curt ending that snaps to a close with just a hint of the Blakeney’s reconciliation, without any emotional payoff from getting to observe it.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a superhero in the sense that he is supposed to have exceptional skill at disguise (although they seem obvious to us, he’s fooled his own wife for years), but is also supposedly quite strong. We never actually see him using his strength, but Chauvelin still guesses that it will take five men to take him down. Rather than brute force, the Pimpernel always outwits his foes and, interestingly, in the most subtle manner possible. His escape from Chauvelin (at yet another inn) is elegantly simple and one of the highlights of the second half.