Marguerite Blakeney is known as the most intelligent woman in all of Europe. Unfortunately in Revolutionary France she is also known as Marguerite St Just. She may be married to the English fop Sir Percy Blakeney, but her brother Armand St Just still lives in France, and has a dangerous connection to the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel – the English people-smuggler reviled by the new republican government of France for squirrelling away men, women and children otherwise destined for a swift death beneath the blade of the guillotine.
When Armand is unwittingly implicated in the Scarlet Pimpernel’s activities, the dastardly French ambassador Chauvelin approaches his sister with a devious attempt at blackmail. Chauvelin knows that if Armand moves in the same social circles as the Scarlet Pimpernel’s league of supporters, then Marguerite almost certainly does too – even if she isn’t aware of it. Desperate to save her brother she agrees to spy for Chauvelin, but what she finds out may lead to her own death, let alone the Scarlet Pimpernel’s.
The first book in Baroness Orczy’s series featuring her eighteenth-century Batman reads a bit like A Tale of Two Cities played for larks and derring-do. It starts with a good depiction of the insane mob-fury that gripped France during the Reign of Terror, though Baroness Orczy’s sympathies are obviously not with her one-dimensional Jacobins. Unfortunately, whilst A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables, the two pre-eminent stories about the French getting upset in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are also two of my favourite novels, this one doesn’t really stand up to any sort of comparison next to them.
After a fantastic first chapter, which could have gone on to form a story in itself, the novel slows right down. It’s short as it is, but it is also padded out. Baroness Orczy’s storytelling style amounts to belabouring the suspense to spell out what’s going to happen, then describing it happening, and after it’s happened, ruminating on what’s just happened. It’s interesting as an adventure story driven by a morally complex female character who is romantic without being a fainting waif, but – spoiler alert – as such its title shouldn’t really be The Scarlet Pimpernel, it should be The Scarlet Pimpernel’s Wife.