Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., is “still a year or two on the right side of thirty.” He is of above average height and is “massively built,” and he would be “usually good-looking” if not for the “lazy expression” in his blue eyes and his “perpetual inane laugh.” About a year ago, Sir Percy shocked England society by bringing home a French wife. Sir Percy, “the sleepiest, dullest, most British Britisher,” had married the most beautiful woman in Europe.
Sir Percy embodies only good qualities—he is young, tall, and handsome—except for those qualities he fakes as part of his act as Sir Percy Blakeney. His expression and his laugh are manufactured, not natural, and his “dullness” is as well. All of Sir Percy’s “real” qualities are positive, which makes him the ideal Englishman.
Marguerite St. Just, a French actress who is “lavishly gifted with beauty and talent,” was coming of age just as the French Revolution began, and since her parents were dead, her young brother, Armand, was her only chaperone. She is “from principle and by conviction a republican,” and “equality of birth” is her motto. “Money and titles may be hereditary,” Marguerite is fond of saying, “but brains are not.”
Marguerite takes pride in her intelligence, and her saying about brains establishes her as a bit of an elitist. For all her support and talk of equality, Marguerite clearly considers intellectuals above those of lesser intelligence, which is why she initially treats Sir Percy so poorly.
As a young, single woman, Marguerite was at the center of the European “world of intellect,” and she “glided through republican, revolutionary, bloodthirsty Paris like a shining comet” trailed by handsome, eligible men. When she abruptly married Sir Percy, others viewed it as “artistic eccentricity” that “the cleverest woman in Europe” had fallen in love with a “stupid, dull Englishman.”
Marguerite “gliding” through the violence of the revolution makes her appear indifferent and uncaring. Innocent people were being executed around her, but she appears to be only concerned with her social circle and impressing eligible men.
Sir Percy has been “universally voted to be totally unqualified for the onerous post he had taken” in marrying Marguerite, and everyone thought it would have been better for him to have picked “a less brilliant and witty wife.” Sir Percy is a “prominent figure” in society, but most of his life has been spent abroad. His mother had gone insane not long after he was born, and since her illness was “looked upon as hopelessly incurable and nothing short of a curse of God upon the entire family,” Percy’s father moved the family from England. Both of Sir Percy’s parents are now dead, and since they lived a quiet life abroad, the Blakeney “fortune had increased tenfold.”
Ironically, it is Sir Percy who is actually the “brilliant and witty” one in this situation. Marguerite is “the cleverest woman in Europe,” but Sir Percy easily fools her into thinking he is brainless, which makes him even cleverer than his wife. Sir Percy’s life spent abroad makes his history even more mysterious—as he has been out of the public eye for most of his life, he can easily keep secrets about his past or physical abilities. For example, he could be an accomplished swordsman, and no one would be the wiser.
Everyone knows that Sir Percy is “hopelessly stupid.” The Blakeneys have been known to be “notoriously dull” for generations, but Sir Percy has the best horses and “his fêtes and wines [are] the most sought after,” so society accepts him. He appears very proud of his wife and doesn’t seem to care that Lady Blakeney doesn’t hide the “good-natured contempt” that she feels for him. She frequently “sharpens her ready wits at his expense,” but Sir Percy is “really too stupid to notice.”
Despite Orczy’s clear preference for England and British society, this passage makes it appear shallow and concerned mostly with money and other superficial luxuries. This passage also makes Lady Blakeney appear especially awful. “Good-natured contempt” is essentially an oxymoron—what Lady Blakeney really does is make fun of Sir Percy because she thinks he is “too stupid” to know the difference.
“La!” yells Sir Percy as he enters the coffee-room, “how sheepish you all look…. What’s up?” Marguerite looks to him. “Oh, nothing, Sir Percy,” she says dryly, “nothing to disturb your equanimity—only an insult to your wife.” She laughs forcefully. “Begad!” replies Sir Percy, “who was the bold man who dared to tackle you—eh?” The Vicomte steps forward. He tells Sir Percy that his mother has insulted the lady, and he won’t apologize. “But I am ready to offer you the usual reparation between men of honour,” he says, drawing his sword.
The Vicomte’s challenge to Sir Percy depicts the Vicomte as a passionate and violent Frenchman. He is prepared to kill Sir Percy just because his wife insulted the Vicomte’s mother. This kind of hot-headed reaction, Orczy argues, is what has led to the revolution. Orczy suggests that the French would be better served if they practiced some restraint and composure like the British.
Sir Percy points to the Vicomte’s sword. “What the devil is that?” he asks. “My sword, Monsieur,” he answers, confused. Sir Percy laughs, “demmit, young man, what’s the good of your sword to me?” The Vicomte stares at him. “A duel, Monsieur,” he says. Sir Percy laughs even louder and calls him “a bloodthirsty young ruffian.” Lady Blakeney looks to Sir Anthony for help. “The child is bursting with rage,” she says sarcastically, “and might do Sir Percy an injury.” Sir Percy laughs. “Clever woman my wife,” he says as Sir Tony gently puts his hand on the Vicomte’s shoulder. A duel is not the way to start his time in England, Sir Tony tells the young aristocrat.
Lady Blakeney worries that the Vicomte will hurt Sir Percy, but it is Sir Percy who would undoubtedly hurt the Vicomte. Percy, however, never resorts to violence like the young Frenchman. Percy relies on his intellect and cunning to overcome adversity, not his muscles and strength. Ironically, Sir Percy’s cunning and intellect here takes the form of stupidity, but it is just as effective as any display of strength or brute force, and the Vicomte immediately withdraws.
The Vicomte drops his sword. “If I have done wrong, I withdraw myself,” he says. “Aye, do!” Sir Percy says and then yells to Mr. Jellyband for a drink. Lady Blakeney says there’s no time—the skipper of the Day Dream is coming to take Armand back to France, and she doesn’t want him to miss the tide. “Then Armand can join us in the merry bowl,” says Sir Percy. Lady Blakeney excuses herself to say goodbye to her brother in another room and shoots Sir Percy a “slightly contemptuous glance” as she leaves. Sir Andrew watches as Sir Percy stares at his wife with a “curious look of intense longing” and “deep and hopeless passion.”
Sir Percy’s disguise as a senseless socialite means that he wants to drink and play, but Marguerite is irritated that he will make Armand miss the tide, and her “contemptuous glance” is proof of her resentment. She is anxious about Armand going back to France and Sir Percy isn’t giving her feelings enough attention. Sir Percy stares at Marguerite in a loving way a she leaves the room because he doesn’t want her to know that his stupidity is just an act, and that despite his anger, he deeply loves her and is merely wrestling with his pride and ashamed of his emotions.