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.
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.
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.