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.