Baroness Orczy’s historical novel The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place in 1792, approximately three years into the French Revolution. For years prior to the Revolution, French peasants lived a meager existence at the hands of the French aristocracy. In 1789, the French lower class began to revolt, and by 1792, King Louis XVI was imprisoned and the French Republic was formed. Orczy’s novel opens during a time in history known as the Reign of Terror, when hundreds of aristocrats and royal supporters were condemned and beheaded daily in the streets of Paris. While it is debatable whether the violence of the Reign of Terror was justified, the historical consensus is generally sympathetic toward the Republic and the plight of the lower class. Orczy, however, clearly favors an opposite opinion. The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place both in France and Great Britain, and it is through the juxtaposition of these two countries that Orczy makes her allegiance known. With her portrayal of the “bloodthirsty” French Republic and, by comparison, the noble and sophisticated British Royal society, Orczy ultimately argues on behalf of the aristocracy and implies that the French Revolution was an unjustified atrocity that merely allowed murderous peasants to kill their alleged oppressors.
Orczy portrays the French Republic and its leaders as violent and uncivilized, which reflects a distaste for the Revolution and support of the aristocracy. The people of the French Republic are described as being “human only in name” and are “savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.” The rebellion is depicted as animalistic, and their grievances—to be treated with equality and respect—are likened to sin fueled by a desire for revenge against the aristocracy, rather than the desire for liberty and justice. Orczy writes of the “ghastly work” of the guillotine—the preferred form of execution during the Revolution—and claims that the “ancient names and blue blood” that France “boasted” in the past “paid toll to [the guillotine’s] desire for liberty and for fraternity.” Orczy’s sympathy for the fallen aristocrats is clear, and she implies that freedom and equality for all is not worth sacrificing those of noble birth. The novel’s antagonist, the villainous Chauvelin, is a representative of the newly formed French government, and he serves as an example of “the bloodthirsty leaders of that monster republic.” Chauvelin believes the French aristocracy to be a “bitter enemy of France” and wants to see “every one of them annihilated.” Like the French people, Orczy depicts the French government as violent and unjustified in their rebellion.
In contrast, Orczy portrays British society, especially those of noble birth, as righteous and heroic, and this representation speaks to what she sees as the inherent goodness of the aristocracy. The novel’s protagonist, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is a mysterious Englishman who repeatedly outsmarts the French Republic and rescues “innocent” aristocrats from the guillotine. From the perspective of the Scarlet Pimpernel (and, by extension, Orczy), the guillotine is not a justified and humane form of punishment but a tool for the indiscriminate murder of the French aristocracy. Lord Anthony Dewhurst, one of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s loyal men, is the son of a Duke and “a very perfect type of a young English gentleman.” Similarly, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, another member of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, is portrayed as the epitome of royal integrity and bravery. He risks his life to aid the Scarlet Pimpernel and save the Comte de Tournay, a French aristocrat sentenced to death by the French Republic. Noble characters like Sir Andrew and Lord Anthony embody only positive qualities, which more broadly reflect Orczy’s own opinion of the aristocracy. While the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is unknown for most of the novel, his alter ego, Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., comes from “a long line of English gentlemen” and has an “ineradicable pride” in his aristocratic heritage. Percy’s status as a baronet, a hereditary title of the British Crown, and his secret identity as the Scarlet Pimpernel portrays aristocrats not as oppressive rulers, but as heroes who claim the moral high ground.
Orczy’s sympathetic and romanticized view of the aristocracy continues with her depiction of Lady Blakeney, Sir Percy’s wife and former citizen of the French Republic. Lady Blakeney and her beloved brother, Armand St. Just, are fervent republicans and supporters of the French cause, but by the end of the novel, they both join forces with the Scarlet Pimpernel and rescue the Comte de Tournay from the evil Chauvelin and the Reign of Terror. While Lady Blakeney and Armand claim “enthusiasm for liberty and equality,” they both believe the French Republic has gone “too far” in “exacting her pound of flesh” from “the noblest of her sons.” In this way, Orczy implies that regardless of the cause, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror went above and beyond any reasonable argument of right or wrong, and ultimately resulted in the blind killing of innocents based only on their noble blood. Of course, Orczy’s status as a baroness herself also explains the obviously biased angle she writes from.
Social Class and the French Revolution ThemeTracker
Social Class and the French Revolution Quotes in The Scarlet Pimpernel
A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant raised an undying monument to the nation’s glory and his own vanity.
During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the past centuries, of ancient names and blue blood, had paid toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity. The carnage had only ceased at this late hour of the day because there were other more interesting sights for the people to witness, a little while before the final closing of the barricades for the night.
“That’s quite right, Mr. ’Empseed,” retorted Jellyband, "and as I says, what can you ’xpect? There’s all them Frenchy devils over the Channel yonder a murderin’ their king and nobility, and Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox and Mr. Burke a- fightin’ and a-wranglin’ between them, if we Englishmen should 'low them to go on in their ungodly way. ’Let ’em murder!’ says Mr. Pitt. ‘Stop ’em!’ says Mr. Burke.”
“And let ’em murder, says I, and be demmed to ’em,” said Mr. Hempseed, emphatically, for he had but little liking for his friend Jellyband’s political arguments, wherein he always got out of his depth, and had but little chance for displaying those pearls of wisdom which had earned for him so high a reputation in the neighbourhood and so many free tankards of ale at “The Fisherman’s Rest.”
Lord Antony and Sir Andrew had said nothing to interrupt the Comtesse whilst she was speaking. There was no doubt that they felt deeply for her; their very silence testified to that—but in every century, and ever since England has been what it is, an Englishman has always felt somewhat ashamed of his own emotion and of his own sympathy. And so the two young men said nothing, and busied themselves in trying to hide their feelings, only succeeding in looking immeasurably sheepish.
She went up effusively to them both, with not a single touch of embarrassment in her manner or in her smile. Lord Tony and Sir Andrew watched the little scene with eager apprehension. English though they were, they had often been in France, and had mixed sufficiently with the French to realise the unbending hauteur, the bitter hatred with which the old noblesse of France viewed all those who had helped to contribute to their downfall. Armand St. Just, the brother of beautiful Lady Blakeney—though known to hold moderate and conciliatory views—was an ardent republican; his feud with the ancient family of St. Cyr—the rights and wrongs of which no outsider ever knew—had culminated in the downfall, the almost total extinction, of the latter.
Sir Percy Blakeney had travelled a great deal abroad, before he brought home his beautiful, young French wife. The fashionable circles of the time were ready to receive them both with open arms; Sir Percy was rich, his wife was accomplished, the Prince of Wales took a very great liking to them both. Within six months they were the acknowledged leaders of fashion and of style. Sir Percy’s coats were the talk of the town, his inanities were quoted, his foolish laugh copied by the gilded youth at Almack’s or the Mall. Everyone knew that he was hopelessly stupid, but then that was scarcely to be wondered at, seeing that all the Blakeneys for generations had been notoriously dull, and that his mother had died an imbecile.
She hated the Marquis. Years ago, Armand, her dear brother, had loved Angele de St. Cyr, but St. Just was a plebeian, and the Marquis full of the pride and arrogant prejudices of his caste. One day Armand, the respectful, timid lover, ventured on sending a small poem—enthusiastic, ardent, passionate —to the idol of his dreams. The next night he was waylaid just outside Paris by the valets of the Marquis de St. Cyr, and ignominiously thrashed—thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life—because he had dared to raise his eyes to the daughter of the aristocrat. The incident was one which, in those days, some two years before the great Revolution, was of almost daily occurrence in France; incidents of that type, in fact, led to the bloody reprisals, which a few years later sent most of those haughty heads to the guillotine.
She had but little real sympathy with those haughty French aristocrats, insolent in their pride of caste, of whom the Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive was so typical an example; but, republican and liberal-minded though she was from principle, she hated and loathed the methods which the young Republic had chosen for establishing itself. She had not been in Paris for some months; the horrors and bloodshed of the Reign of Terror, culminating in the September massacres, had only come across the Channel to her as a faint echo. Robespierre, Danton, Marat, she had not known in their new guise of bloody justiciaries, merciless wielders of the guillotine. Her very soul recoiled in horror from these excesses, to which she feared her brother Armand—moderate republican as he was—might become one day the holocaust.
“I am sure,” said the Comtesse, pursing up her thin lips, "that if this Chauvelin wishes to do us mischief, he will find a faithful ally in Lady Blakeney.”
“Bless the woman!” ejaculated Lady Portarles; “did ever anyone see such perversity? My Lord Grenville, you have the gift of the gab—will you please explain to Madame la Comtesse that she is acting like a fool? In your position here in England, Madame,” she added, turning a wrathful and resolute face towards the Comtesse, “you cannot afford to put on the hoity-toity airs you French aristocrats are so fond of. Lady Blakeney may or may not be in sympathy with those Ruffians in France; she may or may not have had anything to do with the arrest and condemnation of St. Cyr, or whatever the man’s name is, but she is the leader of fashion in this country; Sir Percy Blakeney has more money than any half-dozen other men put together, he is hand and glove with royalty, and your trying to snub Lady Blakeney will not harm her, but will make you look a fool. Isn’t that so, my lord?”
"Listen to the tale, Sir Percy,” she said, and her voice now was low, sweet, infinitely tender. "Armand was all in all to me! We had no parents, and brought one another up. He was my little father, and I, his tiny mother; we loved one another so. Then one day—do you mind me, Sir Percy? The Marquis de St. Cyr had my brother Armand thrashed— thrashed by his lacqueys—that brother whom I loved better than all the world! And his offence? That he, a plebeian, had dared to love the daughter of the aristocrat; for that he was waylaid and thrashed ... thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life! Oh, how I suffered! His humiliation had eaten into my very soul! When the opportunity occurred, and I was able to take my revenge, I took it. But I only thought to bring that proud marquis to trouble and humiliation. He plotted with Austria against his own country. Chance gave me knowledge of this; I spoke of it, but I did not know—how could I guess?—they trapped and duped me. When I realised what I had done, it was too late.”
He stood aside to allow her to pass. She sighed, a quick sigh of disappointment. His pride and her beauty had been in direct conflict, and his pride had remained the conqueror. Perhaps, after all, she had been deceived just now; what she took to be the light of love in his eyes might only have been the passion of pride or, who knows, of hatred instead of love. She stood looking at him for a moment or two longer. He was again as rigid, as impassive, as before. Pride had conquered, and he cared naught for her. The grey of dawn was gradually yielding to the rosy light of the rising sun. Birds began to twitter; Nature awakened, smiling in happy response to the warmth of this glorious October morning. Only between these two hearts there lay a strong, impassable barrier, built up of pride on both sides, which neither of them cared to be the first to demolish.
Since she had entered this neat, orderly room, she had been taken so much by surprise, that this obvious proof of her husband’s strong business capacities did not cause her more than a passing thought of wonder. But it also strengthened her in the now certain knowledge that, with his worldly inanities, his foppish ways, and foolish talk, he was not only wearing a mask, but was playing a deliberate and studied part.
Marguerite wondered again. Why should he take all this trouble? Why should he—who was obviously a serious, earnest man—wish to appear before his fellow-men as an empty-headed nincompoop?
He may have wished to hide his love for a wife who held him in contempt... but surely such an object could have been gained at less sacrifice, and with far less trouble than constant incessant acting of an unnatural part.
The mask of the inane fop had been a good one, and the part consummately well played. No wonder that Chauvelin’s spies had failed to detect, in the apparently brainless nincompoop, the man whose reckless daring and resourceful ingenuity had baffled the keenest French spies, both in France and in England. Even last night when Chauvelin went to Lord Grenville’s dining-room to seek that daring Scarlet Pimpernel, he only saw that inane Sir Percy Blakeney fast asleep in a corner sofa.
She looked through the tattered curtain, across at the handsome face of her husband, in whose lazy blue eyes, and behind whose inane smile, she could now so plainly see the strength, energy, and resourcefulness which had caused the Scarlet Pimpernel to be reverenced and trusted by his followers. "There are nineteen of us is ready to lay down our lives for your husband, Lady Blakeney,” Sir Andrew had said to her; and as she looked at the forehead, low, but square and broad, the eyes, blue, yet deep-set and intense, the whole aspect of the man, of indomitable energy, hiding, behind a perfectly acted comedy, his almost superhuman strength of will and marvelous ingenuity, she understood the fascination which he exercised over his followers, for had he not also cast his spells over her heart and her imagination?
The distant roar of the waves now made her shudder; the occasional dismal cry of an owl, or a sea-gull, filled her with unspeakable horror. She thought of the ravenous beasts— in human shape—who lay in wait for their prey, and destroyed them, as mercilessly as any hungry wolf, for the satisfaction of their own appetite of hate. Marguerite was not afraid of the darkness; she only feared that man, on ahead, who was sitting at the bottom of a rough wooden cart, nursing thoughts of vengeance, which would have made the very demons in hell chuckle with delight.
He certainly felt exceedingly vicious, and since he had no reasonable grounds for venting his ill-humour on the soldiers who had but too punctually obeyed his orders, he felt that the son of the despised race would prove an excellent butt. With true French contempt of the Jew, which has survived the lapse of centuries even to this day, he would not go too near him, but said with biting sarcasm, as the wretched old man was brought in full light of the moon by the two soldiers, —
“I suppose now, that being a Jew, you have a good memory for bargains?”
“Dressed as the dirty old Jew," he said gaily, “I knew I should not be recognised. I had met Reuben Goldstein in Calais earlier in the evening. For a few gold pieces he supplied me with this rig-out, and undertook to bury himself out of sight of everybody, whilst he lent me his cart and nag.”
“But if Chauvelin had discovered you,” she gasped excitedly, “your disguise was good ... but he is so sharp.”
“Odd’s fish!” he rejoined quietly, “then certainly the game would have been up. I could but take the risk. I know human nature pretty well by now,” he added, with a note of sadness in his cheery, young voice, “and I know these Frenchmen out and out. They so loathe a Jew, that they never come nearer than a couple of yards of him, and begad! I fancy that I contrived to make myself look about as loathsome an object as it is possible to conceive.”