Book Review | The Scarlet Pimpernel

I hardly remember my views of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy the first time I read it in high school, but this time I greatly enjoyed it. Gotta love a historical fiction with romance, adventure, and a mysterious figure in disguise.

The characters are excellent. Marguerite is a good protagonist, clever and brave, if a bit impulsive. Her desire for love warring with her desire to protect her family creates frustration for her and the reader, but I was rooting for her all the time. She’s certainly no Mary Sue, given complexity and depth and believable flaws.

Sir Percy Blakeney, our other hero, is simply amazing. His intelligence, resourcefulness, pride, bravery, and daring all make him awesome. He’s so great; I love him; he is glorious.

Chauvelin is great in another way—sinister and menacing, cruel and conniving. The way he speaks to Marguerite is chilling. It’s clear he doesn’t care for her suffering, only that he can use her.

The story is well paced, and I was very invested, screaming at Percy and Marguerite to just talk to each other, please. Normally I don’t like when misunderstanding/miscommunication is used as a device to create drama and angst, but Orczy makes it work. You root so hard for these two and want them to overcome the circumstances that are keeping them apart.

However, there were a couple elements of the writing I found frustrating. For one thing, Orczy has a tendency to switch points of view in the middle of scenes, rather than separating them with chapter or section breaks. To me, it can make for a slightly hard-to-follow reading experience. She also tends to use comma splices, which I can forgive in dialogue sometimes, but it bugs me when she uses it in description.

… I sound like a griping editor, don’t I? I’ll get off my soapbox.

Romance is the reigning theme, but this book also can’t help but take a stance on the politics that surrounded the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Aspects come off pro-aristocracy/anti-democracy, but I feel the issue Orczy truly has is with the murders, especially of children, rather than with oppressed people fighting for rights. To me, she seems to see “aristos” as products of their circumstances as much as the bourgeoisie. There’s probably been essays written analyzing the nuances of Orczy’s treatment of aristos vs. commoners, but I’m not going to get into it here.

I also want to mention the portrayal of Jewish people in this book. I was cringing so hard when we first met Benjamin Rosenbaum. The utter disdain with which he is viewed, and the stereotypes he depicts, was so uncomfortable and offensive. Yet as it turns out (and this could be seen as a minor spoiler) “Benjamin” is Sir Percy in disguise. Percy knows exactly what he’s doing, using the prejudice of Chauvelin and his minions against them, and that kind of turned it around for me. The villain’s disgusting bigotry and racism contribute to his downfall, which I appreciate.

In the end, The Scarlet Pimpernel is an enjoyable voyage through revolutionary France and its horrified neighbor, England. The historical aspects are detailed, the characters marvelous, and the adventure exciting. The themes provoke discussion and thought, with no easy answers or clear interpretations. That elevates this from a simple romance novel. I’ve recently learned this is a series, so I’ll have to check those out! (Let me just add them to my immense to-read list…)

Overall rating: 8.5/10

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