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 the Pimpernel himself can be counted as 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 1982 film has its own page.

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:

  • Agent Peacock: Sir Percy, in this and just about every adaptation ever made except the A&E miniseries. Special note is taken of his hands, which are lily white and slender enough to pass as a woman's hands (on multiple occasions), and which the ladies at court fawn over.
  • Almost Kiss: Sir Percy desperately wants to kiss Marguerite after she asks him to save her brother, but he doesn't trust her, so he stops himself.
  • Arch-Enemy: Chauvelin.
  • The Atoner: Marguerite.
  • At the Opera Tonight: Chapter 10. Marguerite is attending the opera when Chauvelin pays a visit to her box to propose an arrangement of mutual benefit.
  • Author Catchphrase: Read the unabridged version and count how many times Chauvelin's "fox-like face" is mentioned. Or Marguerite Blakeney's "tiny" feet and hands.
  • Batman Gambit: The Scarlet Pimpernel is fond of these. No, seriously. The entire final rescue of the first book hinges on the French's hatred of the Jews.
  • Beta Couple: Suzanne and Sir Andrew.
  • Big Bad: Robespierre.
  • Big Good: The Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • Blackmail
  • Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word: When Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into spying on her peers to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel:
    "Well!—and you would now force me to do some spying work for you in exchange for my brother Armand's safety?—Is that it?"
    "Fie! two very ugly words, fair lady," protested Chauvelin, urbanely. "There can be no question of force, and the service which I would ask of you, in the name of France, could never be called by the shocking name of spying."
  • Blue Blood
  • Bound and Gagged: Well, Percy gets bound, and Marguerite gets gagged in the climax.
  • Burn Baby Burn: One of the Pimpernel's associates tries to burn his instructions to prevent Marguerite reading them. It doesn't work.
  • Camp Straight: Percy is effiminate even by the standards of the time, but he's also got a reputation as a rake. Many aristocratic male characters also qualify, but Percy stands out the most.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Chauvelin's snuff habit.
  • Clark Kenting
  • Color Character Title
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Unless he's disguised, Chauvelin always wears black ("sable"), even in the sequels.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Percy
  • Dating Catwoman: Sir Percy, leader of the aristocrats' proverbial Secret Service, marries a French republican. He distances himself from his wife when she confesses her (unwitting) contribution to the execution of the Marquis de St. Cyr.
  • Deadpan Snarker
  • Determinator: Marguerite
  • Dressing as the Enemy: A ruse often used by the Pimpernel and his associates.
  • Evil Gloating: Chauvelin indulges a lot in the last act of the first book... and he pays for it.
  • Evil Laugh: Bibot and Chauvelin love indulging in these; the phrase "evil laugh" is even used once.
  • The French Revolution
  • Gone Horribly Right: Marguerite denounces the Marquis de St Cyr as revenge for attacking her brother; as a result, the Marquis and his entire family are sent to the guillotine, to Marguerite's horror.
  • Gratuitous French: Just to remind the reader that the scene is laid in France, Orczy sprinkles the dialogue with phrases like ci-devant, citoyen, and Sacres aristos! even when the rest of a given Frenchman's speech is translated.
  • Grande Dame: The Comtesse de Tournay is a stiffly dignified old lady, implacably opposed to Marguerite — but forced by the Prince Regent to acknowledge her nonetheless.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Chauvelin has his men so scared to disobey him, they ignore Common Sense in favor of following his orders to the letter.
  • Heel Realization: Marguerite and her brother, just prior to the start of the novel.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Marguerite is a redhead, shading towards strawberry blonde.
  • Hero Secret Service: The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel
  • The Hero's Journey: For Marguerite, complete with "Night Sea Voyage."
  • Hidden Depths: Both Marguerite and her husband, which they both wish they'd discovered long ago.
  • Historical Domain Characters: Robespierre; Lord Grenville; the Prince of Wales; the Dauphin...
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Chauvelin is loosely based on a real French politician of the time.
  • I Didn't Mean to Kill Him: Marguerite with the Marquis de St. Cyr, in her Backstory.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: Chauvelin's treatment of Marguerite at the Opera and when he captures her on the beach.
  • I Have Your Wife: The French have Marguerite's brother. She frequently finds herself on the other end of this trope in the sequels, being taken hostage by Chauvelin to force Sir Percy's hand.
  • I Want Them Alive: Which, naturally, proves to be Chauvelin's undoing. Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!
  • Innocent Innuendo: Chauvelin claims he has the remedy to Marguerite's boredom and disappointment in her marriage... helping him track down the Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • Inspector Javert: Chauvelin — must be a French thing.
  • It's All My Fault: Marguerite and her husband while reconciling, natch.
  • It's Personal: Chauvelin
  • Lady of Adventure: Marguerite
  • Loves My Alter Ego: Marguerite swoons over the Pimpernel while unhappy in her marriage with Percy. Most of England falls in this trope, too, loving the daring and romance of the mysterious Pimpernel.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: The Pimpernel's men follow him out of devotion, Chauvelin's out of fear.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Chauvelin, even moreso in the sequels.
  • Master of Disguise: The Pimpernel himself. Even his own wife can't recognise him when he's dressed up. His wife?! Not even Chauvelin recognises him, more than once!
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Marguerite
  • No Accounting for Taste: The world can't understand why the intellectual Marguerite St. Just fell for the ditzy Sir Percy.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Ordered by Chauvelin on their Jewish prisoner after the Scarlet Pimpernel escapes their surveillance. Sir Percy had to let them do it so they would leave him behind with his wife afterwards.
  • Not What It Looks Like: When Marguerite and Sir Andrew show up in disguise at the Fishermen's Rest inn, Mr. Jellyband and his daughter naturally assume they're running away together.
  • Number Two: Sir Andrew
  • Obfuscating Stupidity
  • Opposites Attract: Pondered by Armand — the graceful, witty Marguerite and her husband, the ditzy dandy. Of course, his ditzyness is all just an act, turning this into Birds of a Feather.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise
  • Pepper Sneeze: During a confrontation with Chauvelin, the Pimpernel sneaks some pepper into his snuff box; the consequent sneezing fit gives the Pimpernel an opportunity to escape.
  • Play-Along Prisoner: The Pimpernel, at one point, to be in position to aid another prisoner.
  • Proto-Superhero
  • Pseudo Crisis: It seems many times that the Pimpernel or the people he's rescuing are on the verge of capture, but many of these "crises" were actually built into his rescue plans.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Marguerite's pride won't let her give Percy a full explanation of her 'betrayal' of the Count of St. Cyr putting their marriage on ice for years leading to her inadvertant betrayal of Percy.
  • Redemption Quest: For Marguerite.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Most of the plans that aren't Batman Gambits.
    • Percy wins at the end of the original novel by... dressing up as a Jew and relying on the French's rampant anti-Semitism to make them overlook him. It comes as quite a surprise to modern students who have to read the book for English class...
  • Rich Idiot with No Day Job: The ur-example.
  • Right in Front of Me
  • Sadistic Choice: Chauvelin gives one to Marguerite — either your brother or your husband. He specializes in his "either — or" tactic.
  • Secondary Character Title: Adaptations would do well to remember that Marguerite is the protagonist here.
  • Secret Keeper: The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, as well as Percy's butler Frank, all know his Secret Identity.
  • Sexless Marriage: Marguerite and her husband have apartments as far apart in their mansion as possible.
  • Shut Up and Save Me!: Yeah, Margot, honey, I'm glad to see you, too, but how about we talk after you untie me?
  • The Summation: Percy explains exactly what he did to save everyone as he sits on the beach with Marguerite after it's all over.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: In his Backstory, Armand St. Just fell in love with the aristocrat Angèle de St. Cyr. He ended up beaten within an inch of his life as punishment for sending her a love letter.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Blink and you'll miss it — Sir Andrew tries to dissuade Marguerite from chasing after her husband because "this is man's work." And that one sentence is the first and last time he tries.
  • Stern Chase
  • The Stoic: Sir Percy's mask of choice for when alone with his wife.
  • Superhero: The Ur-example
  • Swashbuckler: Hovers near the edge of this genre. The Pimpernel tends to use his wits rather than weaponry.
  • Terms of Endangerment: Chauvelin towards Marguerite; adaptations have run with this and promoted him to a past love interest.
  • This Is Reality: Chauvelin tells himself this at one point, when he catches himself speculating that the Pimpernel's ability to evade capture may have some supernatural source.
  • Together in Death: Marguerite constantly steels herself for this fate. Fortunately, they both Earn Your Happy Ending.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: The Scarlet Pimpernel and his everyday identity are treated as two separate characters until Marguerite realises who the latter is, a considerable distance into the novel.
  • Violently Protective Wife: Marguerite.
  • Well, Excuse Me, Princess!: Lady Marguerite "smartest-woman-in-Europe" Blakeney
  • What Does She See in Him?: Everyone wonders, what did the smartest woman in Europe see in the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney?
  • You Don't Want to Catch This: Done with smallpox.
  • You Got Spunk: Both Chauvelin and Percy realize this about Marguerite.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: The revolutionists hail Marguerite as a heroine for turning in the Marquis de St. Cyr.

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.
  • Damsel in Distress: Chauvelin switches tactics from giving Marguerite the Sadistic Choice to making her the hostage in her husband's Sadistic Choices.
  • Death by Childbirth: Fleurette's mother.
  • 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-Domain Character: Baron de Batz, a real-life royalist agent of the time.
  • 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 — 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.
  • 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:
    • 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.
    • Devinne in Sir Percy Leads The Band is infatuated with an aristocrat's daughter, and turns traitor in the hope of sending his rival for her to the guillotine.
  • 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.
  • One Steve Limit: Marguerite's brother and Chauvelin share the first name Armand, but Chauvelin's first name is very infrequently mentioned (and if Armand St Just is in the book, never).
  • 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.
  • Ultimate Job Security: Chauvelin's persistent failure to catch the Pimpernel would have had him dismissed from his job if not executed — were it not that he's the only man in the French government who knows the Pimpernel's secret identity. He's careful to keep things that way.
  • 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.