The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

I’ve had my copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel for a long time. I can’t remember how long and there is no date in the book – all I know is that it cost 3s 6d and I must have been about 11, 12 or 13 when I first read it. Once I started to read it this time I realised that I remembered very little of the plot, apart from the fact that it’s about the French Revolution and a band of Englishmen, led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel,  rescuing French aristos from the guillotine. No-one knows his identity, the French hate him and are desperate to catch him whilst he is the toast of the British aristocracy – the Prince of Wales describes him to Chauvelin, the agent of the French government, as “the bravest gentlemen in all the world, and we all feel a little proud, Monsieur, when we remember he is an Englishman.”

And I hadn’t forgotten this little verse that that “six foot odd of georgousness as represented by Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart” had composed whilst tying his cravat:

We seek him here,
We seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?
Is he in hell?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel.

Everyone knows that Sir Percy is hopelessly stupid, but he is incredibly rich and as a leader of fashion he is the talk of the town and “his inanities were quoted, his foolish laugh copied by the gilded youth at the Almanack’s or the Mall.” His French wife, Marguerite is by contrast, a clever, witty woman, but she is trapped by Chauvelin into betraying the identity of the Pimpernel. Chauvelin had acquired a letter written by her brother revealing that he was working with the Scarlet Pimpernel – either she finds out who the Pimpernel is or her brother will go to the guillotine.

I wish I could remember whether I guessed the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel when I first read the book, but I do remember that I loved the romance and the action of this tale based loosely on the French Revolution. I was still spellbound by the romance and drama of it all. I’ve discovered that it start out as a play, starring Fred Terry (the brother of Dame Ellen Terry and great-uncle of Sir John Gielgud) as the Scarlet Pimpernel. There have been many films of the book and the role of the Scarlet Pimpernel has been played by many actors on stage and screen including Leslie Howard, Anthony Andrews, and Richard E Grant. Amazingly I have never seen any of them, so my mental vision of the characters is drawn straight from the book, which is what I prefer.

 I re-read this book as part of the Heart of a Child Challenge

It also qualifies for the What’s In a Name Challenge as a book with a plant in the title, because the Scarlet Pimpernel is not only the nickname of the hero but it is also the symbol with which he signs his messages.



9 thoughts on “The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

  1. It wasn’t too hard to figure out who the Scarlet Pimpernel was, but for some reason I was expecting things to turn out differently in the end (a not so happy ending). I really enjoyed it, but I think I will forego the films, as I like having my own visuals in mind, too.


  2. I read this and several more in the series when I was about 15, I think. I know I loved the romance aspect of them and I think they might have been what led me on to Jane Austen, bizarre as it might seem. I’ve actually seen the 1999 BBC series starring Richard E. Grant and enjoyed them a lot – my favourite performance being that of Martin Shaw as Chauvelin. Lastly… I do love the cover of your book and he does actually look a bit like Richard E. Grant!


  3. Danielle, it was fun reading it knowing who the Scarlet Pimpernel is and I think it’s pretty obvious from the start. I’d forgotten how it ended so I read that part as if for the first time – but I guessed where the Pimpernel was as Chauvelin chased after him!

    Cath, I think the cover picture does look a bit like Richard E. Grant, which is surprising as this picture must predate the BBC series by at least 40 years! And the Scarlet Pimpernel actually has fair hair in the book. I can’t imagine Martin Shaw as Chauvelin – he’s supposed to be thin and weasely – the opposite of Judge John Deed.


  4. All I can hear is the Kinks’ Dedicated Follower of Fashion – they seek him here, they seek him there. :<)


  5. I very much enjoyed this book, and it was a treat to watch a movie version in frech class (although I totally understand re the ‘mental version’ of characters). If you ever do bite the bullet, I recommend the Anthony Andrews version— although I may have particularly enjoyed that simply because I love Ian McKellen 🙂


  6. I put a link to your review in my own review, which can be found here.

    Sorry, it took me so long to get to you. I had your post starred back a couple of weeks ago, but only am getting to it now.

    I guess I’m the only one who didn’t remember who The Scarlet Pimpernel was. My wife was like: “Oh, yeah, I saw that coming.” I must not have a woman’s intuition or something. 🙂


  7. I am one of those French teachers who uses the Anthony AndrewsJane Seymour version of the film with my French I students. It’s great to see some of them suddenly begin to understand bits about persecution during the Fr. Revolution. I also show brief scenes of the Richard Grant version for comparison/contrast of the sylishly perfect Andrews versus the grittier (and more darkly realistic) tone of the Revolution.
    As a kid, also read more of Orczy’s serial which takes the Pimpernel to fight Nazi’s during WWII !!


  8. Hi,
    Thanks for a great review. I was happy to read it. I have been a BIG fan of the Scarlet Pimpernel from when I was in grade seven and I must have read the book dozens of times. I also have read all the sequels and prequels, written by Baroness Orczy. Two of them, the immediate ones are as brilliant as the original I strongly recommend all fans to read them. They are available in Gutenberg.

    And yeah I also bought the DVD of the 1982 movie and though the plot is not entirely original, the characters, settings and costumes fit the story (of my mind from the book) and it is the best version as far as I can see.


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