Comics / Cult Favorite

The Scarlet Pimpernel

By Philip Schweier
March 5, 2013 - 12:29

Who would you say is the first super-hero? Most people might immediately suggest Superman (1938), but it is widely accepted that he inspired by several predecessors, including Hugo Danner, the super-human star of the 1930 novel, Gladiator, by Philip Gordon Wylie.

Okay, let’s try again: Who is the first costumed crime-fighter? Well, the Phantom by Lee Falk first appeared in comic strip form in 1936, but before that, Zorro leaped from the pages of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel, The Curse of Capistrano.

Merle Oberon (left) and Leslie Howard (right) in the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel
Actually, pre-dating them all was the hero-with-a-secret-identity known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, the public identity of an English nobleman whose mission is to rescue French aristocrats during the Reign of Terror in 1792.

But a better writer than I once said, “The play is the thing,” and that is where the Scarlet Pimpernel began – on the stage, in a play by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It opened in October, 1903 to less than stellar reviews at first, but a hasty rewrite won audiences over.

The novel was published shortly afterward and its success led to numerous sequels written over the next 35 years. Since then, the story has been adapted for virtually every form of media.

As with many defenders of justice, the Scarlet Pimpernel is a master of disguise, an imaginative tactician, a formidable swordsman and a daring escape artist. He taunts his enemies by leaving behind a card showing a small flower – a scarlet pimpernel. Like many later heroes, he hides his true identity behind that of a witless dandy.

Anthony Andrews as Sir Percival Blakeny
The original story is told through the eyes of Lady Marguerite Blakeny, a French woman with a reputation as “the sharpest wit in Europe.” A former actress, she fled France prior to the Revolution, to marry Sir Percival Blakeny, a wealthy English nobleman. Lady Blakeny believes this is due to an innocent indiscretion on her part; testimony that resulted in a French nobleman being sent to the guillotine. Despite being duped, she bears some guilt for his death and confesses to her husband.

This leads to a strain in their marriage. Sir Percy estranges himself from his wife, developing a reputation in the eyes of the general public as a shallow fop.

Richard E. Grant and Elizabeth McGovern
Meanwhile, the Scarlet Pimpernel has become the talk of both England and France, as he is credited – or blamed, depending on one’s allegiance – with helping French aristocrats (including women and children) avoid their unjust executions

Following one such rescue, Marguerite is approached by Chauvelin, the French envoy to England. Using her brother’s life as leverage, he coerces Lady Blakeny into divining the Pimpernel’s true identity. Forced to choose between a faceless legend and her brother, she reluctantly agrees.

When Lady Blakeny eventually informs her witless husband of the terrible bind she is in, Percy promises to intervene on her brother’s behalf. When Percy unexpectedly leaves for France, Lady Blakeny realizes he must be the Pimpernel. She follows Percy to France to warn him of Chauvelin’s plot to trap him. Nevertheless, through craft and guile, Sir Percy is able to outwit Chauvelin, rescue Marguerite’s brother and escape to England.

Ian McKellan as Chauvelin
Of course, Hollywood was quick to adapt the story to film several times, most notably the 1934 version starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon. A popular TV film was made in 1982 starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and a younger Ian McKellen as Chauvelin. More recently, a British TV series starred Richard E. Grant and Elizabeth McGovern.

I recently read the original novel, which is relatively short, yet challenging due to its out-dated writing style. It hasn’t the swashbuckling adventure one might expect, but is long on intrigue. Orczy applies a number of strategic elements which reminded me of Walter Gibson’s literary sleight-of-hand in The Shadow stories of the 1930s.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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