Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thoughts on The Scarlet Pimpernel

Sometimes the idea of a thing is far better than the thing itself.

Among other examples that come to mind, The Scarlet Pimpernel must be added to that list.  This is a classic piece of literature that is a cross between the swashbuckling literature of the 19th Century and the superhero genre of the 20th.  It is, in fact, the bridge between them.  But it is probably inferior to both.

Baroness Orczy brought her multicultural background to the story of a member of the British elite who chooses to aide his French counterparts during the Reign of Terror, saving them from the guillotine that famously claimed the head of, among other, Marie Antoinette.  Sir Percy Blakeney is a fop who doesn't have the respect of his French bride, who is the real star of the story, whom we follow as she comes to England and almost immediately runs afoul of French inspector Chauvelin.  Lady Blakeney is repeatedly referred to as the shining intellect of Europe, yet Orczy doesn't really illustrate how, except to repeat the same description countless times in a melodramatic narrative that could have stood as the inspiration for 24 a century ahead of time, dragging out a series of events that take several usually short chapters to happen.  About halfway through, Lady Blakeney realizes the truth of her husband, who is at the center of an entire league trying to undo the foolish savagery of a revolution.  (A pimpernel, by the way, is a flower, which the mysterious hero uses as a calling card, much as Batman does today with bats.)

It's funny that I've read this book after Emile Zola's Germinal (or even Martin Millar's Lux the Poet, which revolves around a riot caused by social injustice), since it's another example of the way we tend to react to things like Occupy Wall Street, the most recent exhibit of the inequalities people are always trying to address in some definitive way.  Yes, it's frustrating, but we have many examples of the wrong way to deal with it, and The Scarlet Pimpernel is a curious addition to this literature, showing sympathy for "the other side" through a hero who seems to contradict every expectation.  The introduction makes much of the fact that Lady Blakeney is the author's surrogate, but that doesn't mean it makes the story interesting.  The title character and plot are interesting, the execution is not.  It is worth considering in the grand scheme of the tradition in which it fits, but it should not be remembered for any real contribution.  Zorro, Batman, and Iron Man each have more to say than Orczy, who seems to have wrapped herself up in a fantasy about horrid times a century in her past.

It would have been terrific to report that this was a rousing and relevant piece of fiction, but that's only the facade, the Percy Blakeney veneer.  There's no Pimpernel to be found here.

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