When this was chosen for one of my book groups, I was looking forward to re-reading it for the first time in many years. Sadly, meeting the Scarlet Pimpernel again in his book form did not live up to my expectations. Since I first read it, I've seen both the Leslie Howard and the Anthony Andrews film versions several times. It turns out that most of my memories of the story are from the films, and alas for the Purist Principle, I think in this case the film versions might actually be better.
The opening of the story is certainly exciting enough, set in "Paris: September, 1792," amid "A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name..." But once the story shifted to England, it seemed to slow down to a crawl. Everyone was always sitting around waiting, for someone to arrive, a signal to be given, the tide to turn. Emotions were at a fever-pitch as people waited, hearts surging with fear and anger and love and desperation - but still they sat and waited. For such a classic adventure story, there wasn't nearly as much action as I remembered. Hardly a buckle was swashed, in the end. We heard a lot about the daring feats of the Scarlet Pimpernel, but we didn't get to see much of the action.
On the other hand, Marguerite Blakeney certainly played a heroic part, in her determination to save her husband. Though she mostly had to sit around and wait (for a ship, in the hovel, on the beach), it was still bravely done, and she earned her happy ending. I did feel that the romance at the heart of the story was more than a bit overblown, but that might have been partly the effect of the ripely purple prose. If I had been the Baroness's copy editor, I would have pointed out that the words "merry" and "merrily" appear on every page in some chapters. Everyone who laughs does so merrily, except perhaps M. Chauvelin. I found it annoying, after a while. I would have also pointed out to her that an agent as experienced as M. Chauvelin would never leave a valuable hostage like Lady Blakeney sitting unguarded on the beach, however deserted it may appear.
With almost no memory of the book, Chapter XXVI, "The Jew," came as quite a surprise to me. With all due latitude for a book written in 1905, I was uncomfortable with the appearance of Benjamin Rosenbaum and the part he plays in the story. Orczy is at pains to point out the anti-semitism of Chauvelin and the French in general, contrasting it with the more liberal attitudes of the British. But Rosenbaum is presented in stereotypical terms: greasy, greedy, obsequious. Does the fact that this is a disguise negate the negative portrayal? It doesn't feel that way to me, not when it is described as "the weird and distorted mask of the Jew." I think Orczy is having it both ways, condemning anti-semitism while playing to its stereotypes. I realize this is of its time. I just found it particularly jarring in this story.
I'll be interested to see what the group makes of this book. I think I will be donating my copy to the library book sale.