The year is 1792 and the French Revolution is in full swing. In Paris, the guillotine claims scores of aristocratic victims every day. However, one brave man known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel somehow continues to rescue a small percentage of the victims right out from under the watchful eyes of the bloodthirsty French citizens. Other than his mysterious moniker, nothing much is known of him, other than that he is an Englishman of means.
Meanwhile, in England. Sir Percy Blakeney, has been married to the celebrated French beauty Marguerite St. Just for about a year. In that time, they have become the most celebrated couple in England. They are even personal friends of the Prince of Wales. Marguerite is not only renowned for her beauty but also her wit. Many wonder how and why she married Sir Percy as he is considered one of the dullest men in England, despite his immense wealth and fancy clothes.
The fates of the Blakeneys abruptly changes when incriminating evidence is found on Marguerite’s beloved brother Armand. The French spy Chauvelin uses it to blackmail the lady into finding out the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Feeling cornered and unable to confide in her dim witted husband, Marguerite agrees. But what she eventually discovers is a shocking and well-kept secret which not only endangers the life of the English hero but her husband as well.
One of my reading goals this year is to start reading classics again. The ones I was required to read in school ruined my opinion of classic literature, but I don’t want to continue in my bias. One of the ways I’ve been choosing which classics to read, is to pick those books which have been adapted into films I’ve enjoyed.
Ever since my history teacher showed The Scarlet Pimpernel in one of my classes, it has been a favorite. I have seen both the available film versions; the 1935 classic with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon as well as the 1982 version starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. I must admit the eighties adaptation just slightly edges out the thirties as my favorite.
Surprisingly, both films stick fairly close to the story told in the origin novel, with a few small changes. The book has much more narrative and less dialogue than the films of course, which slightly took away from my enjoyment. I always prefer dialogue heavy stories.
I read The Scarlet Pimpernel hoping to come away with more details and insight into the characters than the films provided. However, I found the movies did a great job with the characterization of the main characters, so reading the novel added little in that area. The narrative is told from several points of views, mainly that of Marguerite and Chauvelin. We get a deeper glimpse into their thoughts and motivations. I actually came away loving Marguerite and hating Chauvelin even more than I did after watching the films, thanks to this. Marguerite is even more intrepid and brave than portrayed in the films and Chauvelin more depraved.
The one negative for me with the books is that Sir Percy remains a mystery through out. He is never included in the various narrative perspectives. He only enters the story as he interacts with the various characters. Thus, his hidden love for Marguerite, is much harder to believe than when viewing the movies.
For fans of the movie, the book will add little new information. It is the same fabulous story. Although the final climax is different and really shows Marguerite in a new light. If you love the story told in the films however, you will also enjoy the book. The author is a bit verbose, but subtly layers humor in with the tragedy. So, although the subject matter is dark and the tension palpable, the lighter tone keeps it entertaining rather than depressing.
I’m very glad I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and believe my strategy for reading more classics is a good one for me. I will continue to look for books whose film adaptions I love.