Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

(Book Review)

Another book I picked up from the Oita prefectural library the last time I was in Oita city.

Actually I was happy to find a copy, because this book’s been on my reading list for a few years for a couple of reasons.

This book continues my journey through the classics of pulp fiction. (See also “Sherlock Holmes”, “The Martian Trilogy”, “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu”, “Conan the Barbarian”). In fact, I read somewhere on the internet that “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is considered the first real antecedent of today’s modern superhero, so this book ties in with my interest in comic books as well.

At the same time, the fact that this story is set during the French Revolution satisfies the historical geek in me.
…Baroness Orczy wasn't a huge fan of the French Revolution, by the way, but I’ll get to the politics of the book in a minute. First I want to address the plot.

To my disappointment, there wasn't as much swashbuckling in this book as I was hoping for. In fact there was barely any. Most of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s exploits took place off stage, and the camera lens (so to speak) of the writer’s pen stays almost exclusively focused on our heroine Margaret Saint-Just, and takes place at ballroom dances and Opera houses.
(Saint-Just is the maiden name of the book’s heroine, as well as the surname of her loving brother, Armand. It’s an odd choice of names for a book as anti-revolutionary as this, considering Saint-Just was also the name of one of the more infamous Jacobin radicals, and Robespierre’s right hand man. As Baroness Orczy must no doubt have known.)

Margaret Saint-Just is the queen of London’s fashionable society. She attends the best parties and wears the finest dresses. She often hears stories of the deeds of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and admires his daring while she wonders what his true identity might be. She is also confused about her husband, and wonders why he seems so cold and distant and dull.

For over half the book, the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is unknown, and the suspense of the book revolves around Margaret trying to find out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is.
This may have been suspenseful to the book’s first readers, but by now the Scarlet Pimpernel is so much a part of popular culture, I suspect most people already know who he is before even picking up the book. (And if that wasn't enough, the cover jacket on my edition gave the name away anyway).
Perhaps it’s just as well, because the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is so obvious that all but the most dimwitted of readers will have figured out the mystery long before Margaret. Thus for the first 175 pages of the book, the reader is simply waiting for Margaret to figure out what they already know.

The second half of the book takes place in France, where Margaret journeys to France to try and warn the Scarlet Pimpernel of the French police who know his identity. Margaret is captured by the French soldiers as they are hunting the Scarlet Pimpernel. The soldiers are led by a mysterious Jewish man, who claims to know the Scarlet Pimpernel’s hide out. The Scarlet Pimpernel himself (who is well-known to be a master of disguises) is nowhere to be seen.

Once again, I think most readers will figure out what is going on long before Margaret does. (Margaret Saint Just isn't one of the most intelligent characters in the history of literature). And once again, it becomes a bit tiresome having to wait for several chapters until Margaret finally realizes what the reader knew all along.
(Although to be perfectly fair, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is supposed to be a children’s book, so maybe if I had read this book 20 years ago I might have been a little bit more taken in by the story. I think I was a lot easier to fool at that age).

Although the Scarlet Pimpernel dons several disguises in the course of this book, nowhere does he ever appear in the infamous mask and cape that have become his trademark. Maybe that costume pops up in one of the many sequels. Or maybe it’s just a Hollywood invention.

Now, onto the book’s politics…
“The Scarlet Pimpernel” takes place during the Reign of Terror phase of the French Revolution, at the height of which 60 to 80 people were killed on the guillotine each day. Writers like Mark Twain have pointed out that the Reign of Terror has achieved a place of infamy in the history textbooks not because of the number of people killed (which is comparatively low when compared with a lot of other historical massacres and atrocities) but because it was a time when the poor were killing the aristocrats instead of the other way around.
(Authors like Guy Endore point out that in 15 months the Reign of Terror executed 2,596 people, while during the suppression of the Paris Commune Versaille troops killed 20,000 commoners in one week—to give but one comparative example).

Nevertheless, comparisons to greater atrocities aside, I don’t think any sane person would argue that the Reign of Terror wasn't an awful episode of history, and the Scarlet Pimpernel efforts to save people from the guillotine is something we can all cheer. (If only an historical Scarlet Pimpernel had actually existed…)

Furthermore, it would be hard to accuse Baroness Orczy of being either anti-French or anti-Republican. After all the heroine of the book, Margaret Saint-Just is French (albeit one who immigrated to England and married an Englishman) and she and her brother both have moderate Republican views.

And yet the French police and French spies in this book are described in such exaggerated terms of pure evil. To take one example:
I had forgotten,” repeated Chauvelin, with a weird chuckle, as he rubbed his bony, talon-like hands one against the other with a gesture of fiendish satisfaction…. He laughed, as Dante has told us that the devils laugh at sight of the torture of the damned…That fiend there…was too much of a devil to allow a brave man to die the quick, sudden death of a soldier at the post of duty.”

England, by contrast, is described as the home of everything good and free. The young aristocratic gentleman belonging to the Scarlet Pimpernel’s league are described as virtue incarnate.

A friend of mine, when describing the reaction of the civilized world against the French Revolution, once said, “It was the Soviet Union of its day.” No doubt if Baroness Orczy had lived 100 years later, she would have fit right into the cold war spy story genre, and would have been writing stories about how the Scarlet Pimpernel battled the dastardly evil Boris and Natasha.

It has always been a feature of pulp fiction, especially superhero fiction, that the villain is the representative of everything evil, the hero the embodiment of everything good. This is perhaps all part of the fun when it’s Dr. Octopus battling Spiderman, but it gets a bit more problematic when the villains represent people from another country or another ideology. Especially when it is aimed at children.

Of course the fact that the French Revolution had been already over and done with and consigned to history 100 years before Baroness Orczy put pen to paper makes this book less morally problematic than say, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” or World War II era Warner Brothers cartoons, or any other kind of propaganda aimed at children (in a shameless attempt to get them to start hating the right people from a young age).
But it still makes me uneasy.

Link of the Day
Army Recruiter Threatens High School Student with Jail Time

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