Note: All page numbers in this guide refer to the edition of The Scarlet Pimpernel published by Barnes & Noble Classics (New York, 2005).
Chapter I: Paris: September, 1792
Summary: As hundreds of nobles lose their heads to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, a small band of Englishmen, led by an especially daring and audacious but mysterious figure known only as “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (for the floral image he leaves behind on small slips of paper as a sort of “calling card”) spirits intended victims of execution away from Paris to safety. Sergeant Bibot, committed agent of the Committee of Public Safety, vigilantly watches and defends the city’s West Gate, and vows that the enigmatic and elusive Pimpernel will never get past him. Nonetheless, that very day—indeed, not long after he has spent himself in laughter at Grospierre, who allowed a noble family to slip past his barricade, concealed in wine casks in a cart by the Pimpernel—Bibot lets pass a cart driven by “an old hag” who, he learns later, was the Pimpernel in disguise.
Analysis: While the narrator of a fictional work cannot be uncritically equated with the work’s author, the narrator of The Scarlet Pimpernel may well share Baroness Orczy’s personal attitudes toward the French Revolution. The experience of having lived through a peasant uprising on her parents’ estate as a child no doubt shaped Orczy’s opinion of the Revolution in France.
La Révolution was actually sparked by the monarchy’s 1787 attempt to raise taxes on the privileged; however, two years later it became an uprising of the productive classes and the peasantry. In April 1793, the government established the Committee of Public Safety to safeguard the reforms won in the Revolution’s early years. Maximilien Robespierre became the Committee’s dominant member. The Committee’s centralization of power, however, marked the beginning of the “Reign of Terror.” From September 5, 1793 to July 27, 1794, thousands of real or suspected “enemies of the revolution” were executed by guillotine. Ultimately, both French military successes abroad and a new law eliminating a suspect’s right to public trial contributed to Robespierre’s downfall and the end of the “Terror.” “About 300,000 suspects were arrested during the period; about 17,000 were executed, and many others died in prison” (Britannica Concise Encylcopedia; http://www.answers.com/topic/reign-of-terror#ixzz1KGGaqx5D).
In September 1792, the Terror had not yet begun; nevertheless, Paris was in turmoil. The sans-culottes (“without fine clothes,” specifically, the silk knee breeches worn by the fashionable and elite)—radical militants from the working and lower classes of French society—were demanding “a more democratic constitution, price controls, harsh laws against political enemies, and economic legislation to assist the needy” (Darline Levy, Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795, p. 145). These demands turned violent, resulting in the mob violence of the “September Massacres.” The sans-culottes, allied with radical factions of the Paris Commune, seized control of the government; and some 1400 prisoners were tried and executed.
The opening chapter introduces the Pimpernel’s nemesis, Sergeant Bibot. He is not presented as a sympathetic character! He enjoys the sport of hunting down “aristos” seeking to flee the city. He toys with his prey; he may even be a misogynist, as he seems to get special satisfaction when the fleeing noble he catches is a woman (p. 9). Clearly, Orczy is drawing the villain of the piece in broad strokes; he is, at least at this early point, more a caricature than a character: the overzealous lawman (perhaps a parody of Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, 1862, a novel similarly set against the backdrop of revolutionary barricades in France) whose pride and arrogance lead to his downfall: despite his defiant boast, quoted above, the Pimpernel nevertheless escapes from under Bibot’s very nose at the chapter’s conclusion. Readers are clearly supposed to enjoy the sight of Bibot’s “purple cheeks… suddenly becom[ing] white with fear” as he learns the news and “a superstitious shudder [runs] down his spine” (p. 15). Bibot is to the Scarlet Pimpernel what the Sheriff of Nottingham is to Robin Hood: the representative of an immoral “law and order” who is constantly bested, despite his best efforts, by an “outlaw” who, though counted as a devil by his enemies, in the eyes of the narrator—and, the narrator presumes, the readers—is on the side of the angels.
The narrator also speaks from a self-appointed position of superiority, characteristic of the traditional hostility between England and France: the flower the aristocrat-rescuing vigilante uses as his symbol is given by its English name—“a little star-shaped flower, which we in England call the Scarlet Pimpernel” (p. 10). Readers can hardly help hearing a stress on the words “we” and “England.” As the narrator describes the French revolutionaries as “human only in name” (p. 7), a blood-thirsty crowd who view the public executions as spectacular entertainment—“the crowd had seen a hundred noble heads fall beneath the guillotine to-day; it wanted to make sure that it would see another hundred fall on the morrow” (p. 9)—readers can sense that the narrator considers his or her own society, let alone him or herself, much more civilized than the French citizens being depicted. The rather gruesome image of the tricoteuses (p. 13)—old women wearing tri-cornered hats who sit calmly, knitting, as they watch the procession of executions, allowing the blood from the severed heads to splatter over them—further cements the low opinion the narrator has of the French revolutionaries. (The tricoteuses were real, however; Dickens also made use of them in his Tale of Two Cities). And, clearly, not for nothing is the titular hero of the book an Englishman! No less than three times in this opening chapter, French characters associate the Pimpernel with the supernatural and the satanic (“Strange stories were afloat…,” p. 10; “He won’t get through my gate, morbleu! Unless he be the devil himself,” p. 11—“morbleu” is a curse meaning, “The Devil”; “Truly that Englishman must be the devil himself,” p. 12); but the narrator, obviously, holds a far different opinion of him
Chapter II: Dover: “The Fisherman’s Rest”
Summary: At the tavern “The Fisherman’s Rest” in the English coastal town of Dover, Mr. Jellyband, the proprietor, discusses events of the day, at home and abroad, with his guests (over many tankards of beer, kept flowing by his “buxom daughter” Sally). Jellyband announces that he is expecting nobility fleeing from the Terror in France to arrive at his inn that night, aided by Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and other young English noblemen. One of Jellyband’s patrons, Mr. Hempseed, objects to the English nobles’ activity as “interferin’ in other folks’ ways.” Jellyband accuses Hempseed of sympathizing with the French Revolution, consorting with French spies and calling for a similar upheaval in England, as Jellyband believes his friend and fellow tavern-owner Peppercorn has done. When the conversation takes this turn, an unknown gentleman (one of two who sit silently in the tavern, playing dominoes, keeping to themselves) asks how Jellyband thinks Peppercorn was so led astray. Jellyband replies that the French spies probably “talked ‘im over,” but that he, for his part, will always remain a loyal Englishman, who could never be fooled by “any God-forsaken furriner!”
Analysis: Despite the verisimilitude with which Orczy describes this chapter’s setting—going so far as to tell her contemporary readers that Jellyband’s tavern “is a show place now at the beginning of the twentieth century” (p. 17)—The Fisherman’s Rest neither was nor is an actual tavern in Dover. Dover, however, really does sit “across the [English] Channel” from France (p. 19). Opposite Calais, Dover was long a strategic port; thus, it is a logical place for Orczy to choose as a place to which the noble French refugees rescued from the guillotine would flee to safety—it is indeed “something more than a rendezvous for [the] humble folk” we meet in this chapter (p. 19). The name of Jellyband’s establishment may also be symbolic, if readers choose to view the Scarlet Pimpernel as a “fisherman” who “catches” those aristocrats from the turbulent seas of the Reign of Terror.
For all that the narrator is suspicious of the French Revolution—note, for example, how the narrator makes pains to use the Gregorian calendar rather than the radical new calendar established by the Revolutionaries, setting the chapter’s action not on “2 Sans-culottide” but on September 18 “in the year of grace 1792” (p. 17)—the narrator also betrays some signs of holding him- or herself as distant from British common folk as from French. For instance, the narrator refers to the “pleasant, if not highly intellectual, conversation” filling Jellyband’s coffee room (p. 19); and seems to recreate (and perhaps exaggerate?) the characters’ working-class dialects as much for comic effect as for accuracy. And, if he is indeed intended as a representative of “every self-respecting innkeeper in Great Britain” (p. 18), Jellyband does not emerge (at least to modern sensibilities) as a very attractive one. He is full of xenophobia (e.g., “God-forsaken furriner,” p. 23), with his vitriol especially aimed at the French (e.g., “Why, I wouldn’t so much as drink a glass of ale with one o’ them murderin’ Frenchmen… I’ve ‘eard it said that them frog-eaters can’t even speak the King’s English,” p. 23), and perhaps even some anti-Semitism (see his remark about Jewish peddlers’ fruit being acceptable only in the lack of “nicely swelled” English apples and pears, p. 20). Jellyband is altogether a fine specimen of “our prejudiced insularity” (p. 18)—and yet, readers may ask, is the narrator that different, given the descriptions of the rebelling French in the first chapter as sub-human savages?
The debate among the characters in the coffee-room reflects actual political debates in late 18th-century Britain. Jellyband accuses Hempseed of being “a personal friend of Mr. Pitt”—a reference to Prime Minister William Pitt, who was initially sympathetic to the French Revolutionary cause (although he changed his mind when France invaded the Low Countries)—and saying, “along with Mr. Fox: ‘Let ‘em murder!’”—a reference to Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox, who also supported the French Revolution (he said, of the storming of the Bastille, “How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world! and how much the best!”), and who worked for such domestic reform efforts as repealing the limits on the liberties of Catholics and other dissenters. Jellyband seems to view all such work as unwelcome agitation: he views his (former?) friend Peppercorn as a traitor to the English crown (at the time, George