Review of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)


Baroness Orczy (writer).

Read in 2022.

From the start of la Terreur in September, 1792, the French people lustfully kill the descendants of those aristocrats who, since the Middle Ages, have made its royal courts “brilliant”.

A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.

Fortunately for the fleeing French aristocracy, there is an English aristocrat in disguise who helps them escape using his “boundless pluck and audacity”.

Hungarian-British author Emma Orczy was an outspoken believer in the genetic superiority of the aristocracy. Supporting British imperialism and militarism, in WW1 she formed the “Women of England’s Active Service League”, an organization of some 20,000 women whose pledge was not to go into active service themselves, but to convince men to do so instead.

H. P. Lovecraft, like Orczy, was a backwards-looking bastard. He pretended to be among the idle rich himself, though he didn’t actually have the money. Orczy’s fiction, more than Lovecraft’s, is driven by her regressive political beliefs. The text is as open about this as The Turner Diaries (1974). Orczy stops short of saying “real aristocrats are better than other people”, because it would be redundant. She does say, for example, that the hero holds “valuable lives in his hands”: Those are the lives of unnamed aristocrats, in contrast to the lives of commoners, which are not valuable. Like so many other reactionaries, the author was also antisemitic and mysophobic. Even her writing of women looks like that of sexist men. The focalizer—Lady Blakeney—is a 25-year-old married woman but the narrator continually emphasizes that she is like a child with “tiny hands” and “little feet”. Beauty is her main characteristic and everyone loves her:

Downstairs on the landing she was soon surrounded. Lady Blakeney never stepped from any house into her coach, without an escort of fluttering human moths around the dazzling light of her beauty. But before she finally turned away from Chauvelin, she held out a tiny hand to him, with that pretty gesture of childish appeal which was so essentially her own.

Orczy is sometimes credited with inventing the superhero in The Scarlet Pimpernel. That is false. Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE) is a superhero. At his height, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) exceeds the Scarlet Pimpernel in his willpower and in his practical abilities, including disguise and combat. More fantastic, morally polar characters in young-adult fiction already existed, such as The Invisible Man (1897). In a weaker version of the claim, Orczy is instead credited with inventing the weak secret identity, an attribute of some later superheroes like Superman. That claim is more credible, and it’s why I read the novel.

Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo’s true self, is weak before he meets Abbé Faria. His weakness is realistic, and he does not feign it. The Scarlet Pimpernel, on the other hand, does feign weakness—especially stupidity—in his everyday life. He is aided by misleading physical attributes associated with weakness. The word “feminine” is used three times in the novel, two of them about the hero’s hands, which are not actually weak. His heroic alter ego is named after a pretty flower.

Weakness invites what is loosely called “identification” from a reader who feels weak. Lovecraft’s characters, as a rule, are consistently weak. Edmond Dantès lost his weakness, but the Scarlet Pimpernel is always strong. The narrative device of the ostensibly weak secret identity thus appeals to a reader who feels weak, while the strong superhero persona presents the same narcissistic power fantasy as the Count.

The hero’s anonymity, the narrator thinks, is his most attractive feature, which is odd. People like Orczy tend to enjoy a gnostic position of secret knowledge, but anonymity itself is already present in The Invisible Man etc.; it was not invented here. What Orczy may have invented is weakness and strength in self-contradictory superposition. This resembles the fragile self-image of a typical child. Because he is a dandy who parties with the Prince of Wales, the Scarlet Pimpernel is glamorous both in his secret identity and in his alter ego, stabilizing the superposition.

Beyond supporting the aristocracy, Orczy also adores pure power over other people. The Count of Monte Cristo was renowned for having competent servants and it was shown how he earned their loyalty. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, by contrast, the loyalty of the hero’s inferiors is one of his own heroic attributes: “his personality, his strength, his bravery, the loyalty of those who served under him in the same noble cause”. I know the Reign of Terror was an atrocity, but it is perverse that the “human moths” surrounding the protagonist and those who “served under” the hero all seem to be “human only in name”, just like the French crowd in the opening passage introducing the Reign of Terror.

Read the novel if you want to look into the imagination of a reactionary. Because it oozes contempt, it’s too tedious to read for entertainment. The prose is juvenile, full of telling instead of showing; an opera singer is described as wearing “classic garb, but in approved eighteenth-century fashion”, whatever that may be. The thriller plot is dumb and the glamour is predicated upon political beliefs that were vile in 1905 and became abhorrent to the British public in the 1960s, when people like Robin Douglas-Home pissed away the last illusion of their genetic superiority. For a British novel about the Reign of Terror, prefer A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which was written with intelligence.

References here: Lord of the World (1907), Action Comics (1938), Rose of Versailles (1979), “Pocketful of Dharma” (1999).

text fiction