Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
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."
- —Sir Percy Blakeney (ch.12)
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic adventure novel by Baroness Orczy. It was first published in 1905, and is seen as a precursor to the spy fiction and the superhero genres. It gave rise to numerous sequels, and has been adapted several times for television and film.
The action takes place during the French Revolution, when a secret society of English aristocrats, called the "League of the Scarlet Pimpernel", is engaged in rescuing their French counterparts from the guillotine. Their leader, the Scarlet Pimpernel, takes his nickname from the small red flower (illustration, left) with which he signs his messages. No one except his small band of followers knows his true identity.
The 1934 film directed by Harold Young , starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, is widely regarded as the best screen adaptation. It was also remade by Leslie Howard in 1941 as Pimpernel Smith, set in Nazi Germany instead of Paris. A 1997 Broadway musical based on the story was composed by Frank Wildhorn and written by Nan Knighton .
The Scarlet Pimpernel is arguably an early (perhaps the earliest) precursor of the superhero of American comic books: he is an independently wealthy person who has a secret identity which he maintains in action by disguises, while in public life he appears as a politically irrelevant dandy to draw attention away from himself. In his hero guise, he accomplishes good in a field in which the state is not competent to act with his superior fighting abilities. He even has a symbol in his name, which he does use as an emblem, though not on a costume. Bob Kane's Batman later followed the same pattern.
Marguerite Blakeney, wife of the foolish, foppish and wealthy Sir Percy Blakeney, is of French origin, and is blackmailed by the wily French revolutionary, Chauvelin, into betraying the Pimpernel—without realising that he is one and the same as her despised husband. The couple have become estranged as a result of Marguerite's denunciation of a French aristocratic family. However, all misunderstandings are eventually resolved and Percy and Marguerite return to England relatively unscathed. Some of the subsequent books in the series deal with other characters with whom Blakeney comes into contact, and with the activities of his followers, Lord Tony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Hastings and Armand St Just.
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