Here's a book I had never imagined myself reading. Truth be told, though I'd heard the words scarlet and pimpernel used in succession,* I can't say for sure that I even knew they referred to a book. Nor did I know precisely what a pimpernel was. To my credit, I knew pretty much all along that scarlet was a shade of red.
So, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a novel published in 1905 by Emma Orczy, a Hungarian-born noblewoman who lived in London. But before it was a book, it was a popular stage play of the same name, also written by Baroness Orczy. Enough can't really be said about the influence this book had on popular culture, for it introduced an entire genre into English language literature: the hero with the secret identity (think Zorro, Superman, and Batman).
Pimpernel, set in 1792, tells the story of an aristocratic couple during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. Marguerite Blakeney (née St. Just) before her marriage hosted a popular salon in Paris, and was moderately sympathetic to the republic. At one point, in fact, she had denounced the Marquis de St. Cyr for having beaten her beloved brother, Armand, for the crime of having feelings toward St. Cyr's daughter—naïvely unaware that this would lead to the nobleman's execution by guillotine.
At some point before the novel begins, the extravagantly wealthy English Baronet Percy Blakeney—who is nearly as shallow as he is rich—falls in love with Marguerite. But it isn't until after the wedding that he discovers his beautiful wife's rôle in St. Cyr's death. The resulting estrangement—Percy's resentment of his wife's past and Marguerite's disdain for her husband's foppishness—becomes important to the plot.
Despite their (lack of) feelings for each other, the Blakeneys are seen on the other side of the channel as true trendsetters, and so much of the plot finds them in London settings such as balls and the theater. All of English society is at that time enamored of an underground Englishman who has helped hundreds of French aristocrats escape the guillotine—often in amazing ways—right under the noses of the Revolution's Committee of Public Safety. Because of the device he uses in his secret correspondance—a red star-shaped flower known as the pimpernel—this secret hero is known to all as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
With all this as a background, Marguerite is approached by the newly appointed French ambassador to London, Citizen Chauvelin, who blackmails her: Help him discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or he will denounce Armand St. Just, who has recently returned to Paris. Though she hates doing so, she loves no one more than her brother, and helps Chauvelin, only to discover later that the man she has betrayed is actually her husband.
The rest of the book concerns itself with how Marguerite pursues her husband in order to rescue him, only to discover that his exploits are well deserving of the Scarlet Pimpernel's fantastic reputation.
According to Baroness Orczy's biography, her own parents fled Budapest for fear of a peasant uprising of some sort, and she was brought up in various European capitals before finally settling in London. This personal history must certainly have played a part in her interest in rescuing the aristocracy from revolutionaries. And she admirably places the reader firmly on the side of the aristocrats in this novel. Moreover, the pathos she outlines in Marguerite's relationships (with her brother and her husband) and the excitement she conveys in describing Percy's exploits truly are the work of an expert wordsmith. Not only does Pimpernel roll a ⚄, but I now want to read other books in the series, so that I can see what else the Scarlet Pimpernel got up to.
*Or it might simply be the case that I'd simply seen the Daffy Duck parody of it, entitled The Scarlet Pumpernickel.