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.



The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911, my copy is a Penguin paperback published in 1958, 254 pages.

For the Heart of a Child Challenge

I read The Secret Garden several times as a child and the story has stayed with me ever since. For years my picture of the ideal garden has been a walled garden, just like the secret garden. The story can be read on different levels. As a child it seemed to me to be a straight forward story of Mary Lennox, orphaned after her parents died of cholera in India. Up until the age of nine she had lived a cosseted life looked after by servants, in particular her Ayah, ignored by her parents. After their death she was sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, on the bleak Yorkshire moors, with her uncle, who was a hunchback recluse, who took little interest in her. Soon after Mary’s arrival, her uncle went abroad leaving her again in the care of servants. These were very different from the servants in India and Mary struggled to adjust.

Soon after she discovers she is not the only child in the house, when she finds Colin, her cousin, a hypochondriac, unable to walk, who believes he won’t live to grow up. Both Mary and Colin are selfish children, hating both themselves and the adults in their lives. Both also hate the outdoors, but encouraged by Martha, her maid, Mary wanders in the gardens of the Manor house and comes across a walled garden, which apparently has no door. There seems no way to get inside it – until guided by a robin, she finds an old key buried in the earth. I loved the descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside, the garden and how under the influence of Martha and her younger brother Dickon and even the grumpy gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, Mary blossomed as the year progressed along with the garden.

Reading it now I can see it is full of symbolism using nature, the Bible and myths, that I never noticed as a child. The image of the garden is used as both paradise lost and paradise regained. As the garden is nurtured and begins to blossom so do Mary and Colin, through springtime and into summer, culminating in the autumn when both are brought to full health. Dickon is accompanied by a young fox, a lamb, a crow and tame squirrels, reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi and plays his pipe to charm the animals, like Pan. His mother, Mrs. Sowerby, is a plain-speaking down-to-earth Yorkshire woman, full of common sense and wisdom, who through Dickon and Martha helps the children, feeding Mary and Colin with both her words and wholesome food. At times I thought the language becomes over sentimental and a bit syrupy (I never thought that as a child). But there are descriptions that still appeal to me, such as this description of the roses in the garden:

And the roses – the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sundial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades – they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair, fresh leaves and buds – and buds – tiny at first, but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air

Above all it is the power of Magic that is invoked in this book. The magic of nature, that makes plants and people grow and develop, the magic of the power of positive thinking and prayer, of the healing power of the mind, and of laughter and love. Sometimes it seemed too simplistic and yet at the same time I was swept along with the sentiments and enjoying the experience of re-reading this book.

Mr Blossom’s Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd

When I read about the Heart of a Child Challenge I immediately thought of several books that I still had, Mr Blossom’™s Shop being one of them. I remembered reading it as a child and hadn’™t given it away because it was a prize from Sunday School for attendance. When I was a child every Christmas we were encouraged by the Sunday School to give books and toys for the ‘˜poor children’™ whose parents couldn’™t afford to buy them Christmas presents. I always found it difficult to give away books, and would look for excuses to hold on to them! I’ve included photos of the illustations in the book, which I particularly like now. I’d coloured them in my book as I had a book that used to belong to my mother when she was a child in which she had coloured the pictures, so I knew she couldn’t tell me off. I don’t think I coloured in any other books after that.

I was eight when I was given this book and I remember thinking it was a bit young for me (how ungrateful) but it has stuck in my mind so it can’™t have been too bad. Mr Blossom’™s shop was of course not your everyday, ordinary village shop but was stocked full of the most surprising and magical things. There was the Sally Lunn bun that turned into Miss Sally Lunn, a plump little old lady with ‘œblack curranty eyes set deeply in to her shiny brown face, and she wore a stiff little bonnet, as prim and neatly goffered as though it were made out of pie-crust.’ I can’™t believe I knew what ‘œgoffered’ means when I was eight or if I did I’™ve forgotten because I had to look it up. ‘œ To goffer’ is to make wavy or to crimp, so it’™s a good image for a frilled bonnet or a crimped piecrust.

There were snapdragon seeds that produced real live little dragons that eat plants and candytuft seeds that come up as tiny cherry pies with sugary crusts and ‘œtufts and tufts of the most delicious mauve and white sugar-candy’.

One of my favourite stories is ‘œSand-Shoes’, which I used to call pumps when I was a child. They are canvas shoes with rubber soles (also known as plimsolls). The sand-shoes Jennifer’™s god mother bought her were very special shoes, ‘œas light as leaves’ that carried her out of her garden and then she ‘œfound that she was running on air. Her shoes never touched the ground.’ They carried her to the seaside. Unlike the shoes in Hans Christian Andersen’™s fairy tale The Red Shoes, the sand-shoes returned Jennifer home unharmed, the only signs being her sandy feet and tiny shells that fell out of the shoes. I did like The Red Shoes as a child, even though Karen is forced to dance without stopping when she puts on shoes and the ending is just horrible.

Helping Mr Blossom in his shop was Mrs Macgillicuddy who was a nice witch, complete with cauldron and broomstick. She is the source of the magic pills and potions, ‘œthe magic headache powders, and the everlasting ball of string, and the pencil that added up sums by itself, and many other strange things that only witches know the ways of.’

I enjoyed my journey into the past reading this book. I’™d read on Tara’™s blog of an adult book by Barbara Euphan Todd and when I found this was in the library I was lucky enough to find it on the shelves recently. So now I’™ll see if I enjoy Miss Ranskill Comes Home.

Until I started to write this post I knew nothing about Barbara Euphan Todd. She was born in 1890, worked as a VAD (volunteers who ran military hospitals) during the First World War and began writing at first for magazines such as Punch and the Spectator. Her first book, Worzel Gummidge was published in 1936, followed by nine others. She died in 1976 as plans were being made to televise her Worzel Gummidge books. So, what a pity she never saw Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who) as Worzel.

Heart of a Child Challenge

I really shouldn’t be entering another challenge, but I just can’t resist this one. It’s being run by Becky at Becky’s Book Reviews – see her post on this challenge here.

The challenge is to read 3 to 6 books between February 1, 2008 and July 14, 2008, choosing from books and authors that you discovered, loved, or adored as a child. Anything and everything that you read through the age of 18 would qualify.

The books I will be choosing from are:

  • Mr Blossom’s Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd.
  • Heidi by Joanna Spyri
  • The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
  • The Gloriet Tower by Eileen Meyler

These were all favourites. I may have to add Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children and also What Katy Did Next.