MAY / JUNE 2012: BY RUTH ANDERSON
MY EARLIEST MEMORIES of classic literature are not drawing room romances in the vein of Jane Austen or epic social commentary and meaty family drama from the pen of Dickens, but were swashbuckling, romantic adventures.
Critical in developing my love of fiction and the power of imagination were classic films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk, the latter two based on novels by Rafael Sabatini, a master at penning unforgettable, swashbuckling romances. Sabatini’s works led me to Scaramouche, the story of an adventurer during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, “born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” an apropos description of life during the reign of Madame Guillotine. That time period captivated my imagination and in my quest for like adventures I found Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, which captured my heart and has in no small way informed my preferences in fiction and film to this day.
Considering The Scarlet Pimpernel, the first image that comes to mind is likely a dashing, brave English nobleman masquerading as an inane fop to hide his daring in saving countless members of the French nobility from death at the guillotine. The novel’s title and its male connotation is a bit of a misnomer. While revisiting it, I was struck by a similar statement in the introduction by Gary Hoppenstand. When I discovered Orczy’s book I fell hard for her hero and never stopped to examine the fact that this isn’t the Pimpernel’s story at all, but rather his wife’s, the beautiful and intelligent Marguerite.
In his introduction, Hoppenstand posits that Marguerite is Orczy’s “idealized self.” Reading it with that in mind, I have a deeper appreciation not only for my own decades-long love affair with it but a newly-articulated kinship with its creator. As a reader who usually inserts herself in a novel via the character I identify with, I can relate to Orczy’s desire to inhabit a fictionalized ideal. In Marguerite, she gave the world an unforgettably strong-willed, classy, competent heroine willing to fight for what she believes in, and one half of a heart-stopping romance that occurs after marriage.
Love stories are usually about a meet, conflict, and resolution, culminating in a permanent, committed relationship with the implication that marriage is soon to follow. But what happens after all of that? In books, films, and most television shows, as an entertainment-consuming public we’re addicted to the chase, dragging it on for years in the case of the latter because somewhere along the line we’ve bought into the idea that when a couple commits to one another the adventure and romance end—the story has lost its spark, is no longer worth following.
That concept has always maddened me. But in the characters of Marguerite and Percy I’ve come to the conclusion that one reason Orczy’s novel is timeless and has resonated so strongly with me for years is the fact that she flew in the face of convention. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, when we’re introduced to Sir Percy and his wife, the initial chase has occurred and the marriage vows recited, but the happy couple has hit a seemingly impenetrable wall. Thanks to Marguerite’s foolish words, used to condemn an entire noble family to death, Sir Percy has shut his wife out of his life, donning a mask of indifference. His foppish attitude drives Marguerite to use her considerable intellect to belittle her husband at every turn.
Rereading it, I was struck by a parallel to my “other” favorite classic literary couple from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If Darcy and Elizabeth’s story is a tale of pride and prejudice as an obstacle to marriage and a happily ever after, perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to argue that Percy and Marguerite’s adventure is a story of the danger of pride and prejudice in a marriage and the damage those emotions can wreak in a marital relationship. Her journey from embittered bride to passionate fighter for marriage and a future with Sir Percy sets Orczy’s novel apart from more traditional romances.
When the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’ … linked her fate to that ‘demmed idiot’ Blakeney in marriage, it sent shock-waves through society as the pair seemed so ill-suited. Initially for Marguerite, it was enough to be ‘blindly, passionately, wholly…worshipped,’ until the revelation of her part in sending a noble French family to the guillotine is revealed. Percy’s passion for her transforms into ‘complete contempt’; she responds in kind.
Marguerite entered her married life in love with the idea of being in love—she’s flattered by Percy’s adoration but doesn’t respond to it equally. Then she discovers that in a desperate attempt to save her brother from death, she’s condemned her husband instead. Only when she stands on the brink of losing Percy does she realize what their love and marriage could be, recognizing and rejecting the emptiness of living life as a glittering ‘ornament.’ Marguerite and Percy began their marriage wearing masks of pride and indifference. But when she realizes Percy’s true nature, she discovers the sacrifice she’s willing to make for true and lasting love.
Orczy’s fictional “other” is no quivering wallflower needing to be rescued. For the chance to save her husband and marriage she willingly braves the lion’s den, determined to meet Percy as an equal partner, stripped of artifice and disguise, to aid him in his quest or die at his side in the attempt. It’s high adventure to be sure, but it’s what makes Marguerite and her love story timeless. Through her, Orczy crafted a fiercely intelligent, capable heroine, a delicate balance of femininity and smarts, whose passionate determination to fight for her marriage’s survival resonates to this day. ♥