Monday, October 14, 2013

The Scarlet Pimpernel (with thoughts from @JenRyland)

Over the summer, the amazing Jen Ryland/YA Romantics and I decided to read a classic together, settling on the 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy in anticipation of Diana Peterfreund's Across a Star-Swept Sea. We'd both read books that twisted the pimpernel story and I'd seen the 1934 film adaptation with Leslie Howard but we had no idea what to really expect.

 The Scarlet Pimpernel Summary:

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a British man who has led many French aristocrats to safety, escaping the French revolutionary bloodlust and saving countless lives, leaving behind a card with a scarlet pimpernel as his trademark. Sir Percy Blakeney is a dull wealthy English baronet who somehow managed to win the heart and hand of Marguerite, the most beautiful and charming woman around. The two could never have anything in common or could they? For in actuality, they are one and the same with Percy cleverly using his dim-witted persona to hide his real identity. This book follows a French agent attempting to smoke out the Pimpernel once and for all, manipulating Marguerite into providing help by threatening her beloved brother.

Our immediate thoughts centered on the language, which is flowery, ornate, over-the-top, very theatrical, fitting its origin as a play. The characters are caricatured and defined by one or two traits that are hammered home over and over again. For example, Percy has thick blond hair and lazy eyes while Marguerite is beautiful, little, and childlike. Still it was easy to read and the plot moves crazy fast. We both feared muddling through some difficult Dickensian passages (he loved the look of his writing, just sayin') but once the book gets going, it keeps going with barely a chance to catch a breath. Again this fits perfectly with its theatrical roots and helps me to imagine how it might look on stage.

Historically it is a very exciting time with all the tumult around the French Revolution and the British desire for stability. Neither of us knows much about the period although we've read other books set during that time (for example A Tale of Two Cities and were able to make some comparisons to that excellent novel such as when the Scarlet Pimpernel disguises himself as a knitter, bringing to mind Madame Defarge's knitting.) Some real-life figures are mentioned but for the most part, it centers on the fictional. As I already mentioned, they're not very deeply-drawn. Though Percy has the secret life, which could potentially add many layers to his personality, they are not explored. Neither does Marguerite get much nuance to her personality. And if the main characters are so sketchily drawn, what hope do the secondary characters have? There are many small amusing moments with them like the British innkeeper who disdains the French but ends up unwittingly drinking with two Frenchmen in disguise.

One of the most interesting aspects ended up being how the pimpernel disguises himself as a Jew for his most daring escapade. As a Jew, he is considered the lowest of lows and the agents tracking him never consider that it could possibly be a disguise. It's a very clever idea, taking advantage of the unquestioned prejudices of those men. However it left me unsettled as I didn't feel it challenged the status quo of Jewish people being considered so low. Deanna Raybourn wrote a fascinating post about this and other instances of antisemitism in fiction.

Overall: I would say we had a lot of fun reading this and it might be good for reluctant classic readers if they give themselves some time to become accustomed to the writing. It is full of action and moves very quickly though the writing style very much dates it.

Check this out:

On Wednesday, Jen will be posting a review of Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund, which will include some thoughts about its relationship to The Scarlet Pimpernel. And currently she is hosting an amazing giveaway. I'll be hosting one starting Friday too so you have two chances to win :)

If you'd like to give The Scarlet Pimpernel a try, it is available for FREE through Project Gutenberg. We'd love to hear your thoughts if you've read the book.

30 comments:

  1. On a trip and have finally found wifi!
    Thanks so much for doing this joint reading with me - it was so much fun and I'd love to do it again next summer. I'm starting AASSS today and very excited about that.
    Jen @ YA Romantics

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    1. I hope we can do it again next summer too-maybe we'll be able to tie it in to another YA book or maybe it will be something completely different. But we should definitely do something together again!

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  2. Oh, thanks for the link to Deanna Raybourn's article! I love examining the attitudes of classics.

    (Also, you should totally look up Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series. It's the Scarlet Pimpernel + lady spies.)

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    1. Isn't it great? Jen actually found it and I wanted to make sure to share it with everyone because we both found it so fascinating.

      I love the Willig series-I think I'm behind at least one book so will need to visit the library soon.

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  3. The action sounds great, and I need to read more classics

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    1. I think this is a great starter book for classics-it's not dumbed down but it's not as intimidating as some others.

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  4. I grew up on the Richard Grant miniseries of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but when I tried reading the book in high school, I couldn't get into it. But I've been thinking I should try again before I read Across a Star-Swept Sea.

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    1. I've never seen that version-will have to hunt it down to see how it compares to the book.

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  5. I have not read this, but I do appreciate the review! I want to try and read more classics.

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    1. This would be a great pick then-it moves very fast!

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  6. I need to try reading The Scarlet Pimpernel -- I loved Peterfreund's retelling and also The Secret History Of The Pink Carnation. Glad to hear this was a decent classic!

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    1. You should definitely check it out! I do prefer Willig's series with its more interesting characters but this is a fun classic and it made me feel so literary to be reading it.

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  7. If you're interested in another YA retelling of this story, check out LIFE AFTER THEFT by Aprilynne Pike. It's an entertaining tale no matter what, but even more so when you realize that Kimberlee represents the French Revolution.

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    1. I had read Life After Theft, which was another reason I wanted to check out the original but I hadn't put together that Kimberlee represents the French Revolution-thank you for sharing!

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  8. Hmmm. This sounds like an interesting read, but I'm really not much for classics. I'm glad that it was action-packed, but I'm sorry that the characters were so sketchily drawn! Awesome review, girly!

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    1. In some ways it didn't even seem like a classic because it was so accessible; one to check out if you ever do want to explore the classics more.

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  9. Oh I just realized I hadn't responded to your message about reading a classic next year. I need to find a moment to reply... I'm not ignoring you!
    This is one book I haven't really learned much about. I didn't even know what it was about! I'm thinking the one I might want to read is Wuthering Heights because I have a copy of the version Harper put out a few years ago. I don't know that the story is changed but it has a more modern cover. And it's one I've wanted to read for awhile.

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    1. No big-we're both busy! I have read WH and I do not want to read it again-I hate Cathy and Heathcliff and the writing. Would love to know your thoughts though.

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  10. Sounds interesting :D Thank you both for sharing your thoughts on it. <3

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    1. It was a lot of fun reading it at the same time and then being able to talk it over. I like doing that for classics as part of the reason they're classics is because there's a lot to explore in the themes.

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  11. I really enjoyed this when I read it. It is a pretty light read for a classic and the plot does move fast, like you said. I think this also is a great read for all ages and for those who might feel adverse to reading classics. I think what I enjoyed most about the story, ignoring any political/religious discussions, is the cleverness of The Scarlet Pimpernel and the humor that he portrays. I also really liked the love story, even though it isn't the focus of the book. I'm looking forward to seeing what Jen says about AASSS tomorrow! Thanks for the review!

    Tressa @ Tressa's Wishful Endings

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    1. Definitely a light read-I liked the love story too because I embellished it in my mind since we don't get much in the actual text.

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  12. I read The Scarlet Pimpernel as a young teen and I found it to be a very readable and entertaining classic. I had no idea that it had its roots from a stage play. That would make it interesting to read again and imagine it being performed that way. In college I had the opportunity to watch a film version and my friend and I had fun mocking Percy Blakeney's foppish aristocrat.

    I guess I never noticed the lack of depth to the characters perhaps because I was so happy to find a classic that was entertaining and not as challenging to read. Your review has certainly given me some food for thought.

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    1. I can see it as a play (there's also a musical version too). I really appreciate it for its entertainment value and highly recommend everyone here check it out.

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  13. If you are looking for more historical fiction set during that time period, I'd suggest Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran and The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. The Red Necklace is a teen novel with more of an adventure/suspense feel to it while Madame Tussaud is very historically detailed and looks at a lot of the real figures behind the Revolution and the political climate, etc.

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    1. Thanks for the recs-I will keep them in mind when I crave the French Revolution.

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  14. This is one classic that I have not read yet, but it's on my list. I'm glad that you enjoyed it overall, although it sounds like the flowery language got in the way of the character development But still, this whole concept of having a thrilling secret life as a spy while in public you are completely different, totally fascinates me! I enjoyed Across a Star-Swept Sea so much, and was interested in how it compared to the original, so I'm excited about Jen's post. Thanks for telling me about it.

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    1. I do recommend it especially since you have tried this retelling (have you tried Life After Theft?) I think the idea of double identity is such a fascinating one and I love checking out every book that takes a stab at it.

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  15. This is one of my favorite classics, mostly because it's just plain fun. I like how over the top everything is and, of course, the fast pace is right up my alley. I saw the play many years ago and it is very funny. Glad to hear you liked it! I agree with your comment that this is a great pick for readers reluctant to try classics.

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    1. FUN! Definitely one of the best descriptors for this novel :)

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