This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. We asked other readers to tell us what one of their favorite classic is and why we should read it.
Lyse enjoyed pretentious books in college, but her heart forever belongs to fantasy and YA. You can read her unapologetic fangirling at lyseofllyr (lyseofllyr.wordpress.com).
Reading classics can be a scary proposition, especially if your only introduction to them has been a dull English assignment. But The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Orczy, 1905) is a great way to start reading classics. I first read it when I was 14 and I’ve enjoyed it many times since.
The Plot (spoiler-free)
In the midst of the bloodbath of the French Revolution, aristocrats are being saved by the mysterious and daring Scarlet Pimpernel and his band of English noblemen. Chauvelin, a French spy, blackmails Marguerite, Lady Blakeney, into helping him discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. In an effort to save her brother’s life, she becomes hopelessly entangled in a world of treachery and danger. Meanwhile, she attempts to save her marriage and understand why her husband is so distant.
^^that’s probably a rubbish synopsis–they’re hard to write without giving away important details.
Why is it a good read?
If you don’t read very much or don’t like classics, SP should be less daunting than most classics. Where many classics run 400+ pages (or 1000+!), this one is only 250.
While some classics lose many pages to conversations about Russian farming, The Scarlet Pimpernel is nearly nonstop action. From inns to ballrooms to the French countryside, the guillotine threatens at every turn–this classic is the equivalent of a western or action/thriller.
Depth and nuance are beautiful things in writing, but sometimes they work to obscure the story. I know I get bored with books that are so full of philosophical conversation that I almost can’t see the plot–and I like classics! SP does include a few French phrases and some historical references that might be obscure, but they are unlikely to dampen your enjoyment of the story. (And you can get annotated versions, if you really want to know!) So if you’re new to classics and concerned that you might not get it, this is the book for you.
The story SP tells–of a masked hero rescuing people from the jaws of death–is one with which we are very, very familiar. Our superhero stories and even real-life narratives of Jewish allies in WWII all follow smack of the mysterious and noble Scarlet Pimpernel. And this familiarity is one of my favorite things about The Scarlet Pimpernel.
As classics go, SP is sort of the cheap paperback in a grocery store. It’s a romance, an action story–a novel that was short and very popular when written. Originally, SP was a very popular play; when Orczy published the novel, the British public loved it. If you’ve ever spent much time in academia, you know that professors often like to like obscure things. SP has never been obscure.
But that familiarity makes it the perfect introduction to classics. It is stylistically very different from YA fiction or fantasy or modern fiction, but not so different that it alienates.
Not all perfect
While I love The Scarlet Pimpernel (I’m guilty of reading a scene in the middle countless times), I need to acknowledge that it is certainly not a perfect book.
Orczy’s approach to women is troubling. The women in the book (who, frankly, barely pass the Bechdel test) are simpering, beautiful, girlish. Suzanne, a friend of Lady Blakeney, is repeatedly described as a child, although, as far as I can tell, she is not much younger than Marguerite and is of marriageable age. Marguerite herself is practically useless for the second half of the book, essentially serving as eyes for the reader to see the action.
On the other hand, at times Orczy seems sarcastic toward the typical role of women:
“While pretty, motherless Sally had need of four pairs of brown hands to do all the work that fell on her shapely shoulders, worthy Jellyband [her father] discussed the affairs of nations with his most privileged guests.”
In many ways, her approach to women and romance is a clear precursor to today’s romance novels full of noble, handsome heros.
Orczy introduces a stereotypically money-grubbing Jew later in the book and is patently British-centric. While that is reflective of her times and of historical attitudes of her characters, it’s still disturbing for modern readers.
I’ll be honest–I was nervous about reading The Scarlet Pimpernel again for this review. I was afraid it wouldn’t stand up to my memories. That, having taken countless college English classes and having read many classics, I would find SP tawdry. And while I did note some points of concerns (which I outlined above), I was glad to read it again. I still enjoyed Marguerite and Percy’s marriage struggles and the endless suspense of intrigue.
For everyone, but especially those who are new to classics, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a great read.