The Scarlet Pimpernel: Four Complete Novels (by Baroness Orczy)

I knew of Baroness Orczy - such an unusual name that it would be hard to forget! - having read a couple of her books many years ago, probably when I was a teenager. What little I know of the French Revolution comes from them. A couple of years ago, my son and his wife gave me a 1932 hardback edition of four of Orczy’s classic novels for Christmas. It sat on my to-be-read shelf, a little daunting by its length, until I picked it up to read about a week ago.

I had thought that it would take me at least two weeks, perhaps longer to finish ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel (four complete novels)’ since there are nearly 1300 pages; it is, after all, not just one novel but four. However, it’s taken me only a little over a week. I admit I skimmed here and there; the slightly archaic language was long-winded in places, with a tad too much description. But it was also very difficult to put down. I read long past my bedtime one evening, unusually for me, as I was so eager to finish one of the books.

The first book in this volume is the original one, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, which introduces the folk hero who rescued many aristocrats from the terrors of the guillotine in the late 1700s. It’s fiction - the hero himself did not exist, but set in a real and terrible climate, amidst many historic figures. In this story, we don’t - at first - know the identify of the Scarlet Pimpernel, although as I’d read the book as a teenager, I did quickly recall who it was. He is the master of disguises, and at first is unknown even to his wife.

It’s cleverly written, exciting and fast-paced, setting the scene of the horrors of the revolution and the widespread destruction of those from aristocratic lines, yet without ever becoming gory. It’s oddly light-hearted, taking us, at times, to upper-class English society. The climax is thrilling; again, I had an inkling of how it would end, probably deep from my subconscious, but I enjoyed it very much.

The second book, ‘I will repay’, features a young woman who has sworn to avenge the death of her brother in a duel. She made a promise to her father when she was young, and has determined to carry it out.. only to find herself falling in love with the person she must betray.

I found this plot a little more confusing although, once again, it’s extremely well-paced and gives a different viewpoint of the revolution; it’s set a little after the first book, so the identify of the Scarlet Pimpernel (who features, eventually) is now well known.

The third book, ‘Eldorado’, is my least favourite of the four. It’s another that I had read many years ago; I may even have a paperback edition somewhere. The setting is different again; this time, the heroine is a young woman who acts on stage, something which remains popular in France despite the fear and destruction that surrounds everyone, with increasing suspicions and arrests.

In this book, the Scarlet Pimpernel and his followers have determined to rescue the ‘Dauphin’ - the presumed child king Louis XVII who is imprisoned following the end of the French monarchy. After I’d finished I did some research online, and learned that mystery surrounded the life of the child, who was presumed dead of disease at age ten, yet was rumoured to have been spirited away. Orczy manages a believable story, amidst real historic figures, settings and events.

What makes uncomfortable reading, however, is the behaviour of the Pimpernel’s brother-in-law, who falls in love, and then behaves in ways that cause great shame and distress to many. It’s foreshadowed, it’s not unexpected, but in places it’s sordidly unpleasant.

The final book in this series, ‘Sir Percy hits back’ is one I had never read before. It begins in the countryside, with a family of aristocrats, one of whom is captured while his wife and invalid daughter mysteriously vanish. We then meet Fleurette, a courageous and gentle young woman who has little idea of what’s going on in Paris; her father is evidently involved in the Revolution, but has protected her rather too much.

Fleurette’s young man is taken away and she determines to travel to find her father, to ask him for his release, only to find herself in deadly trouble. There’s an unexpected twist in this story which I thought excellent - I did not see it coming at all! - and while the climax is tense, the ending is entirely satisfactory. It made a good end to the four-book volume; I don’t have any particular desire to read the others (there are at least eight more) although if I see one second-hand I might pick it up.

These books and others about the Scarlet Pimpernel would make good supplementary reading for anyone interested in the French Revolution. While there’s a great deal of violence, it mostly happens off-set without too much description or gore, and the tone is, in general, somewhat satirical. The author was evidently on the side of the aristocrats, perhaps due to her own ancestry; but she introduces some delightful people of all classes as well as some evil schemers.

I’d recommend it to anyone - teenager or adult - who likes historical fiction; the language is, naturally, a little dated but the plots are exciting and cleverly crafted.

Buying these individually is often better value than the entire set. Alternatively, many of Baroness Orczy's books can be found available for free download at Project Gutenberg.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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