Lord Tony’s Wife by Baroness Orczy

: 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.

Orczy’s works undoubtedly have a slant that favors the aristocracy, but the insistence that readers accept Yvonne as a worthy heroine despite her contemptuous treatment of her social inferiors tested my ability to accept the black-and-white world of the Scarlet Pimpernel: a world where the servants of the Revolution are invariably ugly and depraved even in their private lives, and the nobility of England are invariably handsome and good.  I thought back to the The Elusive Pimpernel where a character accuses the Pimpernel of not caring for the peasants who go to the guillotine—only the aristocrats.  That book subsequently tried to prove that character wrong by having Sir Percy make an attempt to save a village from destruction, but the village people were only caught up in the machinations of the French government by accident; Sir Percy was obligated to save them simply because he was on the scene.  I cannot think of any rescue planned out in advance for the benefit of anyone other than an aristocrat or a friend of one of the league members.  But why should Sir Percy save the peasantry if they are truly as brutal and degenerate as the ones depicted by Orczy?

Ordinarily I can accept the good-and-evil dichotomy of adventure novels as a device to highlight the qualities to which a man should aspire.  However, in the Scarlet Pimpernel series, good and evil have been drawn largely across class lines.  Occasional descriptions of the sufferings of the ordinary men and women crushed by poverty and hard living as a result of the Revolution do little to outweigh all the instances where the poor prove themselves desperate and mean.  Until Orczy gives readers a kindhearted and honest peasant as a major player and until she shows the Scarlet Pimpernel specifically setting out to aid one of the poor, I will be left wondering about the series’ latent classism, and if Sir Percy is really less of a man than I had thought.

Published: 1917

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