Photos: Leslie Howard in a scene from 'Scarlet Pimpernel'. (Bettmann /Getty Images) Inset: Marilyn Lightstone (Courtesy of Marilyn Lightstone); 'The Scarelet Pimpernel' by Baroness Orczy
Marilyn Lightstone Reads ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’
The popular 1905 novel featured an addled British fop by day who transformed into his swashbuckling alter ego by night / BY Athena McKenzie / June 30th, 2023
“We seek him here, we seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? That demmed, elusive Pimpernel?” — from The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
Before Batman, James Bond and even Zorro, there was the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The alter ego of addle-brained fop Sir Percy Blakeney, the character first appeared in a 1903 play that delighted theatre-goers when it ran for more than 2,000 performances in London’s West End.
By night, the English aristocrat transforms into the legendary Pimpernel and smuggles the nobility out of France during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
The play was co-written by a Hungarian noblewoman, Baroness Orczy (born Emma Magdalena Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci), and her British husband, Henry Barstow. In 1905, Orczy made it into a novel, which was the first in a series of 16 featuring the swashbuckling hero.
While the adventures of Pimpernel are over-the-top and frequently humorous, some believe the story may have roots in Orczy’s past. Born into the Hungarian aristocracy in 1865, the Baroness spent her childhood on the move, first from the family’s country estate to Budapest, in fear of a peasant uprising, then to London as a teenager, where she met Barstow at art school.
The Scarlet Pimpernel introduced many tropes we have come to take for granted in fiction and film, including Sir Percy’s secret dual identity, his masterful swordplay, a secret league (a group of English aristocrats united in their life-saving mission) and, his calling card, the Scarlet Pimpernel, a flower. Some would argue that without the inspiration of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Bruce Wayne would probably be stuck in his day job.
The novel was a huge success, and allowed Baroness Orczy to live the high life while writing its sequels over the next 35 years. It has been adapted for film multiple times, re-imagined as a Broadway musical in the 1990s, and has multiple television versions, including two series featuring Richard E. Grant as Sir Percy, which first aired in 1999. Nothing, though, can rival the original.
Hear Marilyn Lightstone bring this classic to life on her podcast Marilyn Reads.