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Sep 23

“They Seek Him Here, They Seek Him There…”

 

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

September 23rd marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Baroness Emma Orczy. You may not know her name, but you’ve probably heard of the most famous thing she wrote.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a play and adventure novel set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. The title character, Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy English fop who transforms into a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist, represents the original “hero with a secret identity” that was a precursor to subsequent literary creations such as Zorro and Batman.

Opening at the New Theatre in London’s West End on 5 January 1905, the play became a favourite of British audiences, eventually playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in Britain.

When I was a child in the UK, it was a very popular series on television. Marius Goring played the leading role.goring

Sir Percy is a wealthy English baron who rescues people sentenced to death by guillotine. He is a master of disguise. With each rescue he taunts his enemies by leaving behind a card showing a small flower—a scarlet pimpernel. The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel thus becomes a topic of widespread popular interest and the hero himself becomes the subject of an international manhunt by the French revolutionary authorities. To hide his true identity, Sir Percy presents himself in everyday life as a dim-witted, foppish playboy. His secret is kept by a band of friends known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The league operates as an undercover team in enacting Sir Percy’s rescue plans.

Orczy’s general sympathy with aristocrats is evident in her stories, where nobility of birth and nobility of character easily correspond. Even so, her tales present commoners as capable of selfless and heroic actions. Marguerite St. Just and her brother Armand, both commoners who initially help bring about the French Revolution, work closely with Sir Percy as members of the League.

pimpernelBaroness Emma “Emmuska” Orczy de Orci (23 September 1865 – 12 November 1947) was a Hungarian-born British novelist, playwright, and artist of noble origin.

She submitted her novelization of the story under the same title to 12 publishers. While waiting for the decisions of these publishers, the play was accepted for production in the West End. Initially, it drew small audiences, but the play ran four years in London, broke many stage records, was translated and produced in other countries, and underwent several revivals. This theatrical success generated huge sales for the novel.

Moral of the story. Never give up. You too can write a classic.

“They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he is heaven or is he in hell? That demmed elusive Pimpernel.” Sir Percy Blakeney.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is available on Amazon. kindlepimpernel

1908 Cover courtesy of Wikipedia

1908 Cover courtesy of Wikipedia

8 comments

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  1. Melissa Keir

    What a wonderful tale of resistance and mystery! I like to think that many people have often worked to overturn bad rulers who set out to harm others. These people often work in secret because they don’t need the celebrity. Schindler is another such person… I wonder who will be the new names added to that list.

    1. Anna Markland

      Yes, Melissa, there are many “hidden heroes” both in the fictional and real worlds.

  2. Nancy Morse

    I remember watching the film version of the Scarlet Pimpernel with Leslie Howard. History is filled with men and women who masqueraded as one thing but were really another. Didn’t I read that there was a hidden heroine who worked undercover as a spy of something like that for George Washington and whose identity has never been revealed? And think of all the hidden heroes who worked the Underground Railroad.

    1. Anna Markland

      I forgot about the film! The interesting thing about Blakeney is that Orczy managed to turn a “foppish” figure into a hero at a time when “foppishness” was suspect.

  3. Kathy Otten

    My favorite book. I’ve probably read it four or five times and seen numerous movie and TV versions, including the cartoon with Daffy Duck, as the Scarlet Pumpernickel.

    1. Anna Markland

      Ha! Thanks for that fun reminder, Kathy.

  4. Pat Amsden

    The Scarlet Pimpernel was my mother’s favorite book. Funny that you mention Zoro because I can remember thinking Zoro and for that matter The Lone Ranger were far better. Little did I realize Zoro might not have existed without The Scarlet Pimpernel. I suspect the refugee situation right now will generate it’s own set of heroes, many of which we won’t know until much later.

    1. Anna Markland

      Interesting observation, Pat. The refugees certainly need a superhuman hero.

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