Goodreads: Beau Brocade
Summary: King George’s troops scour the countryside of Derbyshire for traitors after the failed rebellion led by Bonny Prince Charlie. Falsely accused of siding with the pretender, Philip, the young Earl of Stratton, hides on the moors until his sister Lady Patience can deliver to London letters that prove his innocence. The man who accused Philip, however, remains hot on his trail. Only one man can help the Earl and his sister outwit their adversary, but dare they place Philip’s life in the hands of the notorious highwayman Beau Brocade?
Review: Beau Brocade should please fans of Orczy’s better-known work The Scarlet Pimpernel as it contains many of the same elements—a beautiful young aristocrat with her brother in danger, a dashing hero with a double identity, and a ruthless villain who will stop at nothing to catch his prey. Although the plot is unlikely to catch any readers by surprise, it proceeds apace—the majority of its interest lying in the budding romance as well as the various tricks played upon the villains by the audacious Beau Brocade. As is usual with Orczy’s books, the characters carry the story; hating the villains is almost as fun as cheering on the protagonists.
Beau Brocade has immediate reader appeal as he functions as a slightly more questionable version of the Scarlet Pimpernel–a man who lives outside the law, but who steals from the rich only to give to the poor (and always while wearing the latest fashion). Thus, although Orczy takes care to draw attention to his chivalry, his boyish laughter, his zest for life, and his ability to win the loyalty and love of all the poorer folk in Derbyshire, an air of mystery surrounds him; if this man is so noble, what crime in his past forces him to hide upon the moors like a common thief? That nagging doubt plays into his relationship with Lady Patience, who finds herself attracted to his honorable qualities but fearing to lose her heart to a man who could betray her for personal gain.
If Beau Brocade is the Scarlet Pimpernal (or perhaps a better parallel can be drawn to Blakeney’s ancestor Diogenes, hero of The Laughing Cavalier), Patience obviously corresponds to the Pimpernel’s love interest, Marguerite. Fortunately, however, she lacks that lady’s talent for falling captive to her enemies every so often so they can more easily blackmail the hero. I admit I had high hopes for Patience. Her brother thinks highly of her intelligence and good sense, and early on in the story she takes the initiative to discover his whereabouts and formulate a suitable plan for his recovery. She, too, quickly discerns the identity of their hidden enemy and takes various precautions to attempt to elude his clutches. By the end of the story, however, she finds herself unable to resist the relentless plots of her adversary and meekly places herself in the hands of the hero. Admitting one’s weaknesses and deferring to another’s strengths indeed counts as good sense. Even so, I wish Lady Patience had had a few more opportunities to exhibit the intelligence she clearly possesses. She has the ability to take stock of a situation much more quickly than anyone else in the story and tries to use this to her advantage. For some reason, however, things never work out in her favor, which leads to the sense that Beau Brocade is forever rescuing her–even though I think they would work remarkably well together as a team.
I thought the villain of the story was particularly notable, especially in light of comparisons with the Scarlet Pimpernel’s main adversary, Chauvelin. I suspect Chauvelin can gain the sympathy of readers much more easily, especially considering the implication in various adaptations (such as the musical) that he and Marguerite were once a couple. Chauvelin’s defining trait, after all, is merely his obsession with capturing the Scarlet Pimpernel–an understandable one considering his precarious position in the new hierarchy of the French Revolution. As book after book progresses and Chauvelin always loses, he increasingly becomes more pitiable than threatening. The villain of Beau Brocade, however–well, there’s a villain for you.
This villain lacks all honor, all chivalry, all trace of any finer trait. Perversely, however, he acts always with the intention of winning the hand of the Lady Patience in marriage. His love turned to obsession paints the picture of a truly warped mind–one so far gone that he would hurt the one he claims to love simply to possess her. He may not be threatening physically, but he is truly terrifying psychologically. One can almost see him tottering on the brink of madness. Even more terrifying, he retains the ability to enlist others in his cause–solely because of his place in society.
Though I am a fan of Orczy’s Pimpernel books, Beau Brocade still surprised me with the depth of its characterization (often hidden behind seeming stereotypes), the gripping nature of its plot, and the general feel-good quality of the story overall. If you like dashing heroes, scheming villains, and a good romance, Beau Brocade is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Review: The success of Sherlock Holmes helped popularize mystery stories and Baroness Orczy took advantage of the moment to offer to the public her collection of short stories featuring an elderly man who solved crimes merely by reading newspaper accounts and attending some of the subsequent trials. The stories are held together by a main narrative in which journalist Polly Burton eats lunch each day at the same tea shop as the titular character. He tries to impress her with his mental prowess while she, annoyed by his ego, vainly attempts to prove his theories wrong. Their back-and-forth sets the stage for the shocking final scene.
The mysteries themselves are told in such a way that the readers can attempt to solve the puzzle before the old man reveals his conclusions. Those who read mysteries regularly will probably not find themselves too baffled. However, even those who are new to the genre will soon pick up the pattern of the crimes and their solutions. The repetitive nature of the mysteries means that the real interest of the stories lies not in the race to discover an answer but in the vivid personality descriptions given of the actors in the dramas.
The Old Man in the Corner will probably best be enjoyed by those who already count themselves fans of Baroness Orczy. They know her faults already—know that she is repetitive, melodramatic, and sometimes unbearably stereotypical. Even so, her clean prose style combined with an intriguing premise and a colorful cast of characters manages to erase her most grievous faults.
You Might Also Like
Summary: Diogenes, a soldier of fortune and a mercenary, finds himself in the Netherlands in need of money. He therefore accepts the job of kidnapping a woman who accidentally overheard plans to assassinate the ruler. Unfortunately, even the best of plans can go awry when one’s heart becomes entangled. A story of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor.
Review: Baroness Orczy begins this tale with the simple premise that the descendants of Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, wished her to research the ancestor who must have given to the Pimpernel those particular qualities that enabled him to risk his life in service of others. She thus breaks from the familiar formula of the Pimpernel novels, which generally chronicle breathtaking escapes enacted by members of the League in sundry disguises. The result threatens to disorient an audience that has grown comfortable in its expectations: endangered aristocrats in France, the noble Sir Percy on the case, an encounter with Chauvelin/agents of the Revolution, escape pulled off in style—this done much more easily supposing Marguerite has managed to keep herself from being taken hostage. Instead of giving readers this predictable story, however, Orczy throws them in the middle of the Netherlands without any warning and then leaves them to conjecture where the author means to take them next. All the rules seem to be broken. This side of Orczy is refreshing, but also upsetting. Part of the charm of a formulaic series is its very predictability; readers like to know that a Pimpernel story will contain brave men, beautiful women, some swashbuckling and romance, and a happy ending. Orczy’s sudden move toward novelty can lead readers feeling left at sea.
The obvious action for any fan of Orczy’s to make is to begin analyzing the story to determine where the formula will enter and how it will manifest itself. Orczy, however, does not make this as easy as one might suppose. Diogenes enters the story a bit late and, once he does, his likeness to Sir Percy is by no means clear. He is a soldier of fortune, maintaining some inclinations toward higher ideals, but surrounding himself with friends who have no qualms at robbing gentlemen. He himself tends to boast that he will take almost any job if it means money. Some of his actions suggest nobler qualities, but his character remains largely ambiguous; only his bravery admits no doubt. All this leaves the readers with the overall question of whether Diogenes deserves the same loyalty and admiration generations have given to his descendant. He admittedly faces some dangerous foes, villains as evil as those Sir Percy fights. However, in this case, the protagonist does not stand starkly as their antithesis. He is drawn in shades of grey, leaving it up to the judgment of the readers as to how far they should cheer him on.
All this may leave the readers feeling a bit uncomfortable as the purported purpose of writing the book in the first place was to illuminate the noble person to whom Sir Percy bears a likeness. Diogenes has courage, a love of sport, and a tendency to want to pull things off in style, but he seemingly uses all these qualities for ends less admirable than his descendant. It is not enough to say Sir Percy had a colorful ancestor who could wield a sword with exceptional skill. Readers want to know that ancestor wielded his sword in a good cause. Orczy gives hints that Diogenes has more to him than would first appear, but she leaves enough signs to the contrary to keep the audience worried.
The Laughing Cavalier ultimately contains enough of Orczy’s trademark elements—a mysterious hero, a beautiful hostage, a wicked villain, and a tangled romance—to satisfy her fans, even if some of the explanations for Diogenes’ actions stretch the imagination. Hopefully the following book, The First Sir Percy, will elaborate upon the character of the Pimpernel’s ancestor and reveal him as Orczy meant him to be seen. This book tantalizes with its suggestion of a noble soul, but a straightforward depiction of his true personality must inevitably prove much more satisfying.
Goodreads: The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel
Series: Pimpernel #5 (in order of internal chronology)
Summary: A collection of short stories about the exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel, an English aristocrat who rescues men and women from the guillotine during the French Revolution. The seventh book in the Scarlet Pimpernel series (in order of publication). Preceded by Lord Tony’s Wife and followed by The First Sir Percy.
Review: The previous Scarlet Pimpernel books had grown repetitive and I had begun to fear that Orczy could not retain my interest in the series much longer, but then I read The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and everything changed. The first three stories, I admit, closely resembled each other, and I was able to predict nearly every action of Sir Percy’s in the rest, but the short story format ultimately proved a refreshing change. Orczy utilizes the format to introduce readers to a wider range of characters than usual, focusing this time not only on the aristocrats and the bourgeois, but also, in one or two instances, servants and other members of the lower class. Sir Percy’s interest in a starving man he meets on the street reassured me that his kindness does not extend solely to those born wealthy, an issue I had struggled with after reading Lord Tony’s Wife. Furthermore, many of the characters wrote their own stories, giving readers an even more intimate glimpse at the Scarlet Pimpernel. Thus far we have seen him largely through the eyes of his wife and his friends, but now we get to see the extreme kindness, the authority, the courage, and the mercy that draw complete strangers to him. I appreciate Sir Percy’s character much more now than when Orczy merely focused on the Pimpernel’s love of sport. Read the rest of this entry
Goodreads: Lord Tony’s Wife
Series: Pimpernel #8 (in order of internal chronology)
Summary: When a vengeful peasant kidnaps Lord Tony’s new wife, the Scarlet Pimpernel and his friends set out to rescue her. The sixth in the Scarlet Pimpernel series (in order of publication). Preceded by The Laughing Cavalier (a prequel about Sir Percy’s ancestor) and followed by The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Review: Lord Tony’s Wife provides offers nothing new in the Scarlet Pimpernel series. By this point, readers know the way the Scarlet Pimpernel operates and can probably predict the events that will lead to a successful rescue. The lack of innovation disappointed me as many books follow this one, and I fear they will soon grow old if Orczy does not change her formula. Despite the predictability, however, I enjoyed the story both because it is, after all, about the Scarlet Pimpernel, and because it gives readers a closer look at some of the other characters—in particular Lord Anthony Dewhurst and his wife Yvonne. I found the focus on Yvonne particularly intriguing since adventure novels often concentrate on men. In consequence, the female perspective felt refreshing and unique.
Despite the amount of time readers spend with Yvonne, however, her personality remains a little ambiguous. This stems largely from Orczy’s seeming reluctance to criticize the aristocracy. Our introduction to Yvonne portrays her as proud and stubborn, and specifically states that she has grown up learning to consider the peasants under her father as beasts. I found myself disliking her immediately. The next time we see her, however, she is suddenly charming and sweet. She has won over all those who know her. I can only attribute her change in manners to the people around her. We first see her interacting with peasants; we then see her interacting with aristocrats. Read the rest of this entry
Goodreads: El Dorado
Series: Pimpernel #10 (in order of internal chronology)
Summary: The league of the Scarlet Pimpernel has plans to rescue the Dauphin and, for the first time, Sir Percy has allowed Marguerite’s brother Armand St. Just to join the band in Paris. Armand has strict orders to lie low and not to renew any old friendships, but he quickly disobeys orders and joins the Baron de Batz, who has his own designs for the Dauphin, at the opera. Noticing Armand’s infatuation with actress Jean L’Ange, de Batz decides to strike at the league through the actress, presenting Armand with a terrible choice: the life of the Scarlet Pimpernel or the life of Jean. The fourth in the Scarlet Pimpernel series (in order of publication). Preceded by The Elusive Pimpernel and followed by The Laughing Cavalier (a prequel about Sir Percy’s ancestor).
Review: I have always felt that the genius of Baroness Orczy lay in her characters. She possesses an extraordinary ability to paint their hopes and fears, their passions and desires, their strengths and their weaknesses. Her plots contain many thrilling accounts of danger and adventure, yes, but this all means nothing if readers do not find themselves invested in the characters. Orczy, however, does not merely get her readers to admire or sympathize with her characters. She uses her characters’ personalities to heighten the suspense, to increase the danger, to depict the sorrow and terror. Her sensitivity in describing the thoughts and feelings of her characters allow readers to enter the horror of the French Revolution through their eyes. Along with Sir Percy, Marguerite, and their friends, readers experience the constant fear of finding themselves or their loved ones arrested and murdered, the pain of separation, the agony of choosing between what they want to do and what they know they have to do. It is perhaps Orczy’s greatest triumph that she could create a world where right and wrong are so often so clearly defined, yet illustrate that this clarity does not make it any easier to choose right.
My respect for Orczy increased greatly after reading this installment of the series, for the author did not shy away from giving her characters terrible flaws. Sir Percy and his band generally stand in stark contrast to the servants of the Revolution, depicted as ugly men with an unspeakable thirst for blood. They are young, brave, honorable, and good, devoted to saving their fellow men from an undeserved death. They can seemingly do no wrong. Every man has his temptations, however, and in El Dorado we finally see a member of the league abandon his ideals in order to accomplish what he perceives as a greater good. This results not only in incredible drama and suffering for the other characters, but also in a debate about what it means to love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel has always faced accusations from his wife that he does not love her enough, or he would not jeopardize his life to save the lives of men and women he does not even know. She tempts him to remain at home by calling his attention to the suffering he causes her by leaving her behind in dreadful uncertainty as to whether he will ever make it home. Sir Percy reminds her gently each time of his duty. Although his behavior can seem cruel since it causes his wife sorrow, readers recognize that Sir Percy does indeed love Marguerite. Furthermore, his obedience to his duty and his love of honor are the things that allow him to love Marguerite properly. A love for woman placed before the love of doing right would be a twisted thing no woman would actually want to accept.
Baroness Orczy contrasts the behavior of Sir Percy with that of Armand, who accuses Sir Percy of not knowing what love is because the Pimpernel will not allow him to abandon the cause of the Dauphin to save his lover. Armand’s subsequent disobedience leads him to great unhappiness and remorse—and threatens to ruin the very love he tried to serve. He cannot enjoy something that he gained through sin. This idea that romantic love has a proper ordering and that it must come after the love of God in order find its fullest and most beautiful expression is completely foreign to the literature of today—and yet readers recognize instinctively that it is true. Every woman wants to marry the Scarlet Pimpernel; few want to marry his disloyal, oath-breaking friend.
Most readers, of course, enjoy the Scarlet Pimpernel series because of the daring exploits, not necessarily because they want to ponder weighty issues. Rest assured that El Dorado comes very close to surpassing its predecessors with its drama, suspense, romance, and adventure. Orczy raises the stakes higher than ever before, trapping the Pimpernel so completely that his escape this time remains seriously in doubt. Only the repetitive nature of the hostage subplot mars the work. Even so, the Scarlet Pimpernel continues to capture the imagination and promises many breathtaking adventures to come.
Summary: Chauvelin, a spy for the revolutionary French government, smarts under the disgrace of having been outwitted by the daring Scarlet Pimpernel, an English gentleman who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine. He has one last chance to redeem his reputation and end the Pimpernel’s exploits, or the French government will demand the head of their failed servant. He accordingly lures the Pimpernel to France and sets before him a terrible choice: declare before all of Europe that he is in the pay of the revolutionaries, or sacrifice his wife to a fate worse than death. The third book written by Baroness Orczy in the Scarlet Pimpernel series.
Review: Baroness Orczy raises the stakes in this story, creating a story even more gripping than the original. Readers will find themselves on the edges of their seats, desperate to know how the Pimpernel will escape the snares laid for him on every side. Marguerite’s character does mar the work a little as her actions will certainly baffle and annoy some readers. We expect a little more from a woman called the most intelligent in all of Europe. The Pimpernel, however, does not disappoint, and anyone who enjoyed The Scarlet Pimpernel will surely want to continue reading the series.