The Laughing Cavalier by Baroness Orczy

Goodreads: The Laughing Cavalier
Series: Pimpernel #1

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.

Published: 1913

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