The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Old-fashioned romantic swashbuckler a riveting classic.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Besides many phrases in French, readers will get an up-close-and-personal view of the French Revolution -- and how noble ideals can run amok, in history and in today's world.

Positive Messages

The Scarlet Pimpernel delivers many positive messages about heroism, friendship, self-sacrifice, true love, and creative thinking. Some elements that were standard at the time, notably much hand-wringing about being a poor weak woman, and a Jewish character who's equal parts Fagin and Stepin Fetchit, are jarring today -- but also a bit nuanced, as Marguerite proves anything but weak and the villain's anti-Semitism contributes to his defeat in a crucial scene.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Marguerite and Sir Percy have numerous blind spots that nearly prove their undoing, but this advances the plot nicely. Charming and attractive, they both conceal a lot of substance beneath a frivolous exterior and are courageous, loyal, and clever as they struggle to do the right thing, protect the innocent, and right wrongs. Many supporting characters are mostly window-dressing, but they model stalwart British values in author Orczy's vision of a well-functioning society.

Violence

The guillotine looms as a threat to many characters, including those the Pimpernel is trying to rescue. Swordplay, gunplay, beatings, and hand-to-hand combat occur frequently.

Sex

The married characters are estranged for most of the story, causing much romantic tension: "Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone; the will was powerless. He was but a man blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last." When the tension's resolved, the baroness coyly observes "the rest is silence." In a comical moment, Marguerite and Sir Andrew, the Pimpernel's BFF,  get the stink-eye from their beloved innkeeper because he thinks they're cheating on Sir Percy and eloping, when they're actually rushing madly to save him.

Language

One "Damn!" at a pivotal moment, but otherwise the baroness sticks to 18th-century decorum, as characters exclaim "La!," "Lud!," "Begad!," "Zooks!," and the like. Even the famous "We seek him here, we seek him there" verse refers to the "demned, elusive Pimpernel."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult characters drink assorted alcoholic beverages, gamble, and take snuff.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that more than a century after it first appeared in 1905, The Scarlet Pimpernel remains one of the great romantic swashbucklers of all time and still inspires readers and storytellers. There's the unlikely hero, who faces constant peril as he snatches hapless prisoners to safety during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror; his outwardly frivolous wife, who rushes right into the same peril to save him from a disaster of her making; and the wily, fanatical villain, who poses a mortal danger to them and their loved ones and who always turns up at the worst possible moment. The biggest issues for today's readers are the book's flowery, old-fashioned language and outmoded attitudes, from sexism to the cartoonish portrayal of Jews. There's a lot of romantic tension between the married but estranged protagonists, but decorum prevails. A single "damn!" occurs at a memorable moment.

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What's the story?

The Reign of Terror rages in France, and many an innocent aristocrat falls prey to the guillotine. But quite a few seem to be miraculously escaping their fate, thanks to an enigmatic rescuer who always leaves his calling card: a drawing of a little red flower, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. His identity's a secret to everybody except the 19 young gentlemen who've sworn allegiance to him, but all of England cheers him on -- including Lady Blakeney, formerly Marguerite St. Just of the Comedie Française, married to the rich, handsome, fashionable, but dimwitted Sir Percy Blakeney, who's been politely detached since their wedding day. Her brother Armand, still in France, falls into the hands of murderous revolutionaries, and the villainous Chauvelin gives her a choice: Help Chauvelin catch the Pimpernel and send him to certain death, or let the hero stay free at the cost of her brother's life. What the reader knows but she doesn't: The Pimpernel is none other than Sir Percy, who loves her madly but doesn't trust her a bit because of something in her previous life. Suspense, romantic misunderstandings, dramatic reversals, and epic adventures ensue.

Is it any good?

A hit with readers and audiences for more than a century, The Scarlet Pimpernel remains not only a ripping adventure and a swoony romance but also a lasting, influential pop-cultural creation. Generations of superheroes took the lead of the Pimpernel, who pioneered the concept of the secret identity, and a swarm of deceptively dim aristocratic detectives (such as Lord Peter Wimsey) hark back to Sir Percy. The Kinks' pop song "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" takes its verse form and its lyrics from the tale. The story itself is such a classic that it's being "reimagined" to this day.

When The Scarlet Pimpernel first appeared in 1905 (as a stage production; the book came out later that year), critics panned it as "old-fashioned," but audiences loved it. They also loved the two movies it spawned and the numerous sequels the Baroness Orczy produced for the next 40 years. Today, it's even more old-fashioned, from its flowery language to its outmoded prejudices -- and still a riveting page-turner with constant danger, impossible ethical quandaries, a dastardly villain, a resourceful and brave hero, and determined Marguerite trying to sort it all out before it's too late.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why stories of the French Revolution have always been popular. How might they be relevant to today's world?

  • Do you know any other stories about people who faced danger and death to save innocents from their would-be killers? Do you have any favorite characters? What do you like about them?

  • If you could go back in time and become a character in historical events, where would you go? Whom would you be? What would you do?

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