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Literature: The Scarlet Pimpernel

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.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic action-adventure story written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy and turned into a play in 1903-05. This wildly popular tale is set during The French Revolution, an era when screaming, toothless peasant mobs rose up against the poor sympathetic aristocracy and began slaughtering them wholesale. (Madame la Guillotine was a very busy woman at this time.) It seemed there would be no hope for the French Nobs, until a dashing hero arrived on the scene to snatch those destined for death from the hands of the bloodthirsty and fanatical Revolutionary government. This hero was a mysterious masked figure known only as The Scarlet Pimpernel (note: a pimpernel is a small flower with five petals), and together with his small band of followers, he managed to spirit many a doomed aristocrat safely to England.

But who is this "Scarlet Pimpernel"?

The beautiful expatriate French actress, Marguerite Blakeney, doesn't know, but she's recently discovered that her brother, Armand, is one of his band of followers. Unfortunately, Armand's been revealed to the Revolutionaries, and if Marguerite doesn't help Citizen Chauvelin, the slimy agent of the French Republic, discover the Pimpernel's true identity, Armand will be executed.

To whom can Marguerite turn for help? Certainly not her foppish, empty-headed dandy of a husband, Percy. He barely has the brain cells to choose what outrageous outfit he'll wear to their next social function. He surely couldn't be of any use in finding out who the Pimpernel really is.

Then one day Sir Percy leaves for France, and Marguerite makes a discovery that will turn her world upside down...

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a notable work of Western literature, which would go on to influence popular culture throughout the generations. It's an early precursor to the Spy Drama genre of fiction, and it can also be argued that the Pimpernel himself is a proto-Superhero. It arguably created the modern concept of the Secret Identity. Like Batman (or that other early "superhero", Zorro), he's a wealthy personage who hides behind a foppish face by day and performs dashing and heroic deeds under the cover of darkness. Like Superman, he hides his intellect and intentions behind a mask of clueless ignorance. He also uses an iconic symbol (the Pimpernel flower) to denote his identity. Truly, modern-day movies and comic books owe a lot to this character. Even Anime seems to have been influenced a bit by him, judging by the number of series (like Trigun and Trinity Blood) which feature seemingly dorky — yet secretly competent — heroes... who often wear red.

The Scarlet Pimpernel would go on to spawn a series of sequel books, operettas, musicals, movies and TV adaptations. The Pink Carnation book series by Lauren Willig features characters who took up where Sir Percy left off (i.e. the Carnation, and prior to that, the Purple Gentian). In 1941 it was even updated and remade as Pimpernel Smith to be about rescuing Jews from Nazi Germany.

    Novels and collections by Baroness Emuska Orczy 
Listed by publication order. The chronological order of the series is a bit more complex.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
  • I Will Repay (1906)
  • The Elusive Pimpernel (1908)
  • Eldorado (1913)
  • The Laughing Cavalier (1913). Set in the 17th century, it covers the adventures of Percy Blake, the Laughing Cavalier. He is an ancestor to the Pimpernel.
  • Lord Tony's Wife (1917)
  • The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1919)
  • The First Sir Percy (1920). A direct sequel to the Laughing Cavalier.
  • The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1922).
  • Pimpernel and Rosemary (1924). Set in the 1920s, it follows the adventures of Peter Blakeney, a descendant of the Pimpernel.
  • Sir Percy Hits Back (1927)
  • Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1929)
  • A Child of the Revolution (1932)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World (1933). The Pimpernel offers his views on the world of the 1930s.
  • The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1933)
  • Sir Percy Leads the Band (1936)
  • Mam'zelle Guillotine (1940)

This story has also been the subject of many a parody:


The original novel provides examples of:


Orczy's sequels provide examples of:

  • Aesop Amnesia: Chauvelin repeatedly continues to underestimate his Arch-Enemy and to use the I Have Got Your Wife Sadistic Choice no matter how many times it backfires on him.
  • Always Save the Girl: Armand for Jeanne Lange in Eldorado. Tragedy ensues.
  • Anyone Can Die: Bertrand Moncrif in The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • Baddie Flattery: Chauvelin towards Marguerite, particularly in Eldorado.
    Chauvelin: Just now you taunted me with my failure in Calais, and again at Boulogne, with a proud toss of the head, which I own is excessively becoming...
  • Berserk Button: Threatening Sir Percy's wife is not a good idea, Chauvelin...
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Apparently an English thing that the French Armand at first finds unnerving in Eldorado.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: 17 days of sleep deprivation in Eldorado.
  • Covered in Kisses/Anywhere but Their Lips: Marguerite and Sir Percy, repeatedly.
  • Cruel Mercy: Percy's revenge on Chauvelin in Sir Percy Hits Back is sparing his life, which Chauvelin considers a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Death by Childbirth: Fleurette's mother
  • Distressed Damsel: Chauvelin switches tactics from giving Marguerite the Sadistic Choice to making her the hostage in her husband's Sadistic Choices.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Eldorado
  • Everyone Looks Sexier If French: English gentlemen seem to have a thing for Parisian beauties and are very eager to marry them. Poor English gals, they are doomed to die old spinsters at that rate.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Chauvelin is repeatedly guilty of this. Prime examples are Eldorado, where he believes his current Sadistic Choice plot has been foiled because he doesn't in the least expect the Scarlet Pimpernel to consider giving his life or honor for the "friend" who betrayed him, and Sir Percy Hits Back, where he thoroughly believes his daughter is doomed because surely the Scarlet Pimpernel wouldn't lift a finger to save his Arch-Enemy's daughter.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Planned by Chauvelin in The Elusive Pimpernel, to Collot d'Herbois' chagrin.
  • Good People Have Good Sex: Just short of stated outright for the Blakeneys, whenever Sir Percy can take a break from his heroics, that is. (They have a year of lost time to make up for, after all...)
  • Happily Married: The Blakeneys and the Ffoulkeses.
  • Heroic BSOD: Armand in Eldorado
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Robespierre, though he didn't need too much alteration to make him into a larger-than-life Evil Overlord.
  • Honey Trap: The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel — the Genre Savvy Theresias first asks her would-be employers if they're not worried about her Becoming the Mask.
  • The Ingenue: Fleurette.
  • It's All My Fault: Percy's guilt over what Marguerite suffers as the Scarlet Pimpernel's wife features prominently in Eldorado.
  • Keep Circulating the Tapes: Good luck tracking down physical print versions of the sequels.
  • Legacy Character: The Pimpernel is the descendent of a hero of The Cavalier Years, as shown in The Laughing Cavalier and The First Sir Percy. His own Identical Grandson appears in Pimpernel and Rosemary.
  • Love at First Note: Armand for Jeanne in Eldorado
  • Loved I Not Honor More: Comes up in just about every one but is discussed most prominently in Eldorado.
  • Love Makes You Evil: An in-universe Epileptic Tree — the residents of Laragne attribute "citizen Armand's" sudden change in personality to the death of his wife in childbirth. This is most likely not true, given that the narrator calls his daughter the only person he's ever loved.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Sir Percy constantly deliberately mispronounces Chauvelin's name as things like "Chaubertin" and "Chambertin."
  • Master Actor/ Master of Disguise: The Pimpernel impersonates several known French people, authority figures, civil servants and grimy tramps alike. At one point, he reflects that he plays the part of Rateau (a coal-heaver he often impersonates) more convincingly than Rateau himself.
  • Missing Mom: Sir Percy Hits Back states that Fleurette's mother is dead. No more information about her whatsoever is shared, not even her name.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Armand in Eldorado.
  • Papa Wolf: Chauvelin in Sir Percy Hits Back.
  • Perspective Flip: Several novels focus more on the rescuees than on the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • Plucky Girl: Josette Gravier in The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • Promotion to Parent: After being hinted in The Scarlet Pimpernel, established in Eldorado, which reveals that Armand's name for Marguerite is "little Mother."
  • Rescue Romance: Armand and Jeanne both decide they're in love (less than 24 hours after they first met) after Jeanne saves him from Héron.
  • Save the Villain's Daughter: Sir Percy Hits Back
  • Stating the Simple Solution: Chauvelin's Hypercompetent Sidekick Collot d'Herbois wonders why they don't just shoot the Pimpernel in The Elusive Pimpernel.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment:
    • In Eldorado, Marguerite smuggles letters from the Scarlet Pimpernel to his League out of prison in her kerchief... or, as her husband puts it, "... on your exquisite bosom where I so love to pillow my head."
    • In Sir Percy Hits Back, the Scarlet Pimpernel sends a secret message to Fleurette, his latest rescuee, by slipping it into her Victoria's Secret Compartment... while disguised as her prison warden, which freaked the poor girl out.
  • Villain Episode: Sir Percy Hits Back
  • Villainous BSOD: Chauvelin in Sir Percy Hits Back
  • What Is This Thing You Call Love??: Explored in Eldorado.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Two in Eldorado. First, Armand accuses Percy of not understanding what it means to love; Percy thoroughly agrees with him (Marguerite, however, doesn't) and spends a good subsequent portion of the novel condemning himself for what he puts his wife through. Later, Percy sends Armand a letter to this effect after his brother-in-law betrays him.
  • You Have Failed Me: Robespierre gives Chauvelin this ultimatum in The Elusive Pimpernel.

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