The streets of Paris are teeming with scores of people who are “human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and hate.” Near the West Barricade, the guillotine has been “busy” for most of the day at its “ghastly work,” where the “ancient names and blue blood” of France pay “toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity.” Many French citizens gather around the guillotine to watch the public executions, but near the end of the day, they all make their way to the town barricades for the nightly entertainment.
Baroness Orczy’s opinion of the French Revolution is clear from the start of her novel. The French citizens revolting against an oppressive aristocracy and feudal system are described as animals, whereas the French royals are described in terms of superiority rooted in “blue blood.” Orczy implies that the revolutionists’ desire for equality is unwarranted because they are not, in fact, equal to the aristocracy.
Every evening, the “fool” aristos (aristocrats) can be found trying to flee the city. All aristocrats are traitors to the citizens of France since their noble ancestors were guilty of “oppressing the people.” Now, the people rule France, and all nobility will find themselves under the guillotine sooner or later. No one is safe from “Madame la Guillotine”— “old men, young women, [and] tiny children” have all met their end here—and new victims are claimed each hour. But, the narrator says, “this is as it should be: are not the people now the rulers of France?”
Orczy does not paint a flattering picture of the French Republic. She notes, in a way, that the aristocracy has treated the French people unfairly, but she implies that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime and that innocents perish alongside those who might deserve punishment. Her question is obviously rhetorical; the widespread killing of the elderly, women, and children is certainly not how “it should be,” which suggests that the people are not qualified to rule France.
Many aristocrats try to escape, but the Committee of Public Safety captures most of them and sends them directly to Madame la Guillotine. Usually, the fleeing aristocrats are caught at the town barricades by citizen soldiers like Sergeant Bibot. Stationed at the West Gate, Bibot is known around Paris for his “wonderful nose” that never fails to sniff out an aristo. He is never fooled, even by the most ingenious disguises, and he looks upon “his prey as a cat looks upon the mouse.” Bibot is “proud” to have sent “at least fifty” aristocrats to the guillotine, and he has been personally commended by high ranking members of the French Republic.
The aristocrats’ attempted escapes speak to their level of fear and desperation. They know they will eventually be killed if they do not escape France, and guards like Bibot take pleasure in capturing and sending them to death. Bibot even plays with them like a cat with a mouse, which makes him appear especially evil. Orczy frequently describes the French with animal-like qualities, which reinforces her argument that the revolutionists are “savage creatures” and not human. Bibot’s excessive pride in sending aristocrats to their death is despicable, and Orczy later implies that this hubris leads to Bibot’s own death at the guillotine.
Recently, a mysterious band of Englishmen has helped several aristos escape Paris, and all the citizen guards are on high alert. The leader of the Englishmen, “whose pluck and audacity are almost famous,” always alerts the Committee of Public Safety when a rescue attempt is underway. He signs each “brief notice” in red with “a little star-shaped flower,” known in England as a Scarlet Pimpernel. The Englishman has proven himself exceedingly elusive, and France has promised five thousand francs to anyone who catches the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The fact that the men who save the aristocrats are British begins Orczy’s portrayal of the English as the epitome of integrity and heroism. French men in Orczy’s novel are constantly outsmarted and humiliated by the English, through which Orczy argues the superiority of the British, especially over a group of people determined to murder their nobility. This also introduces the Scarlet Pimpernel, a popular English flower, as the hero’s symbol.
Everyone assumes that Bibot will be the one to catch the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Englishman’s disguises have become increasingly brilliant, and he even tricked Grospierre, a guard who “thought himself very clever.” One day, a cart loaded with barrels pulled up to the barricade, and after searching most of the cart, Grospierre allowed the cart to leave the city. A captain of the guard and a dozen soldiers appeared shortly after and inquired about the cart. “You have let them escape!” shouted the captain. The captain and the soldiers ran after the cart and Grospierre was sent to the guillotine. After, it was discovered that the Scarlet Pimpernel was not in the cart but was disguised as the captain, and each of his soldiers was a fleeing aristocrat.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s disguises and his ability to repeatedly fool the French guard speaks to his brilliance and deceptive abilities. Disguising himself as a French captain was an incredibly bold move that required him to directly interact with his enemies. But his plan was also simple and ingenious, and it relied on intelligence and thought, not violence and brute strength. This places the Scarlet Pimpernel, an Englishman, in a position of intellectual and moral superiority over the French Republic. This also suggests that Grospierre’s pride, which suffered at the hands of the Scarlet Pimpernel, is likewise a detestable quality.
Knowing of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s resourcefulness, Bibot approaches his job with the utmost seriousness, closely inspecting each cart. “You never know,” Bibot says, “and I’m not going to be caught like that fool Grospierre.” Many carts come and go through the barricades daily, bringing crops to market from the countryside, and most are driven by “horrible hags.” An old hag, whom Bibot remembers seeing earlier in the day, approaches the barricade. She tells Bibot that she most likely will not be returning tomorrow, as her grandson has smallpox. Bibot immediately recoils and stands back. “Morbleu! The plague!” he yells, waving the hag through the gate.
Bibot clearly respects the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ability to trick the French guard, but he thinks the other guards were fools and that he is too smart. Orczy again suggests that conceit is an undesirable quality when Bibot becomes the next victim of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ingenious disguises. The Pimpernel’s disguise as the hag also lends insight into the social structure of the French Republic. Despite fighting for equality, Bibot clearly treats the woman, who may also be ill, as a diseased peasant to be shooed away, not as an equal to be respected.
Minutes later, a guard anxiously approaches Bibot, looking for the hag and her cart. Comtesse de Tournay and her children are hiding in the cart, the guard says. “And their driver?” Bibot asks nervously. “That accursed Englishman himself—the Scarlet Pimpernel,” confirms the captain.
A Comtesse is the French equivalent of a Countess, a midranking title of nobility. Ironically, the title of Comte (Count) or Comtesse was not originally hereditary. Instead, the title signified a large estate or an honorific for services rendered to the crown. Thus, the Comtesse and her children do not necessarily have ancient noble blood.