Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.
I hope you enjoy my attempt to create a series of blogs around great works of heroic fiction that most folks haven’t read. Several of these I have mentioned before in one forum or another but now I want to try and do several things: amuse you, get you interested in checking them out, and perhaps find a window into the writer’s craft through these past works that resonate with us so well in other forms.
There’s no shame in seeing the movie, let me hasten to mention that. In nearly every case I can think of, I found the book to be better, but usually that was only after seeing the tale. When a classic is redone, it’s interesting to see whether the basic inner stuff of it has changed. I find, most often not; even Hollywood doesn’t always screw that up!
This Question of Disguises, Now…
For my first theme, I want to look at two great classics that share one such common idea. Their heroes, set in almost the same time period but halfway around the world, do the same thing when faced with evil. They adopt a secret identity. This raises a great question, one that classic heroic and epic fantasy seldom touches on- why pretend?
Most folks know why Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent took on a mild-mannered alter ego- freedom to act and the need to protect loved ones from harm. But Superman and Batman, it turns out, were far from the first.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is widely thought to be the first hero in history to have a secret identity. It’s also one of the first heroic fantasy tales authored by a woman, the Baroness d’Orczy in 1903. There’s definitely something up with that, and if I say much more I’ll be accused (with justice) of chauvinism. But I’m here to tell you, guys aren’t nearly as interested in hiding their powers as women are in believing this dope before them truly has hidden talents. Deep water here, and I don’t swim well…
This is a gorgeous tale of death and danger in the blackest days of the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror was eating people by the hundreds. Faking his disinterested, foppish life as a useless English dandy, Sir Percy Blakeney conceals from everyone- including his beautiful new French wife- that he secretly commands, as one of his followers puts it, “nineteen men who would lay down their lives” for him. Guided by his brilliant mind, the Pimpernel and his gang outwit the horrid, cruel, secular (!) French soldiers and agents to save dozens of innocent French aristocrats from the guillotine’s embrace. Then he returns to English society sporting the latest fashions, on the arm of his wife making witty remarks and annoying everyone- especially her- with his “inane laughter”.
The Best Intentions
We discover as the story moves briskly along that there has been a terrible misunderstanding crossing the main characters, one that probably won’t be happily resolved and which could lead to Blakeney’s death. He had only started his career of rescuing French nobility when he married the gorgeous Parisian actress Marguerite, whom he secretly still worships. For her part, Marguerite defended her beloved brother Armand by speaking down about a leading aristocrat, and her denunciation led to the death of that entire family- staining her with suspicion of sympathy for the Revolution. Blakeney adopts the guise of a flaccid fool, always honoring his wife and giving her every luxury but never letting on that he could be the mysterious hero capable of leading such daring and intelligent escapes. She is stung by the change in her husband and resorts to sarcasm, making fun of him in an effort to rouse the man she thought she knew. All this makes her look even more guilty to Blakeney’s heartbroken view. And when the dastardly French agent Chauvelin gets wind that Marguerite’s brother Armand may be helping the Pimpernel, he blackmails her with the young man’s life in order to enlist her help in exposing the enemy of the Revolution.
One remarkable aspect of this secret identity theme is that the hero is so obviously torn; he dare not let Marguerite know the truth because she appears to side with the enemy. Yet Percy is hopelessly in love with his wife still. After a moonlit encounter on their veranda where Marguerite implores him to be more truthful with her, he holds firm as the lazy, disinterested dandy until she turns to go. Then he throws himself to the tiles and kisses the ground whereon she walked. I’m telling you, chicks dig this stuff!
But the other aspect that may be of interest to the writer is that this situation compels us to see almost nothing directly from the hero’s point of view. For at least three-quarters of the story, you search for the Scarlet Pimpernel along with everyone else (you do better than they do). Nothing is told from Percy’s perspective until close to the end; there is a level of remove where you don’t read what he thinks or feels, only what he says and does. This increases the tension and reveals his character beautifully, whereas an omniscient third-person view would struggle hard not to seem maudlin or cute. Much of the heart of the tale is really from Marguerite’s point of view. The moment when the awful truth finally breaks down the doors of her mind- when she realizes that she has already led her husband, the man she always loved, into Chauvelin’s death-trap- is the height of the story.
What Hollywood Made of It
Hugh Grant did well enough in the movie-version I would say, but the earlier flick with Leslie Howard (who played Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind”) sticks in my head. Ironically, it was Howard who immortalized the phrase “Sink me!” coming from the dandy Sir Blakeney; yet in the first book of The Scarlet Pimpernel Blakeney never uses that phrase. Also Merle Oberon perfectly matches my image of Marguerite.
In summary, we have a tale in which the hero adopts a secret identity specifically to prevent his plans from being overset and to keep his men from even greater danger. And he takes this foppish guise chiefly to keep the tale away from his beloved- not because he fears harm to her, but because he suspects she is his enemy. This sets up tremendous pathos and conflict in every scene they spend together, and d’Orczy exploits this original idea with fabulous prose that cuts to the heart of the scene each time. Her descriptions, dialogue and turns of phrase are uniformly apt and convey the emotion without slowing the pace too much. I think like any reader, I had moments where I “got it already” and was a bit impatient when she lingered on an image or reinforced an emotion, but there was nothing here to take me out of the tale for a second. I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as classic Heroic Fantasy (using my Fantasy Solar System taxonomy), shading towards Cinematic mood in places, particularly where Percy adopts an ingenious disguise despite his enemies knowing what to watch for.
Final bit of trivia- it was first put up as a stage play and evidently struggled, but the novel was published in the same year and did wonderfully right away. And I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of my top three ever Broadway shows- “Into the Fire” still makes me stand up and cheer out loud.
Read it For Free
I downloaded The Scarlet Pimpernel for free to my phone from Amazon Kindle Classics- this is a wonderful value for me because I’m often traveling or without my laptop and can still read quite easily on the phone. I can change the background and font-size to suit my failing eyes, and the only feature I miss from the laptop version is the automatic dictionary. The free versions do suffer from imperfect formatting and there is the occasional mis-spelled word or even repeated phrase, but it’s nothing to pull down your enjoyment of the tale. Here’s another site to get it as an e-book, and you can also listen to it as an audio-book.
So, which tale is set at the same time, but far away and also makes use of a secret identity? Stay tuned for Part Two! And let me know how you reacted to any version of The Scarlet Pimpernel you may have seen or read.