Friday, 7 April 2000

Baroness Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 471

The Scarlet Pimpernel is undeniably one of the world's great adventure stories, its hero attaining an almost mythological status in English speaking culture; Sherlock Holmes is one of the very few fictional characters to have higher prominence. It is not the writing which has made this happen - Orczy wrote a great number of other novels which have all sunk into oblivion - but the quality of the idea of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the romance of his actions.

Orczy's flaws as a writer are fairly obvious. Her characters are two dimensional at best (the only ones in the novel that even reach this level are the Blakeneys and Chauvelin). Her prose is fairly pedestrian, particularly when descriptive. The plot is obvious; most first time readers will guess the secret identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel pages before its revelation. The historical background is one sided, presenting a view of the French Revolution which is seriously distorted. And yet, the reader is drawn in, becoming engrossed as the climactic confrontation approaches. The drama of the idea is so strong that it overcomes all the barriers to enjoyment of the novel.

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