Author: Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Country: United Kingdom
Genre: Historical fiction, adventure fiction
Publisher: G. P. Putnam and Sons
Publication date: 1905
This is another book I didn’t quite have the willpower to put down for long enough to be able to write an authentic ‘First Impressions’. I tried to stop 3/4th of the way to write my first impression, but it was honestly too late by then.
A famous classic, it’s a story of love, bravery and courage. Set during the tumultuous times of the French Revolution, the Marguerite St. Just, known as the smartest woman in all of Europe, marries Lord Percy Blakeney, known for his massive wealth and enviable fashion sense, but not so much for his intelligence. What started out as a marriage of passion and love soon turned to indifference and coldness as Marguerite shares her greatest mistake with Percy a little too late, and leaves Lady Marguerite pained and lonely.
Equally important to the story is the French Revolution, where the commonfolk have had enough of the overlords and their oppression, and have sent the higher caste to the guillotine. As the people gleefully gather round their aristocracy to Madame Guillotine, a band of Englishmen, led by their enigmatic leader the Scarlet Pimpernel, works to smuggle the nobility out of France and transport them to safety in England. To the frustration of the revolutionaries, no one is able to guess the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, much less nab him and punish him for his crimes, while the Scarlet Pimpernel enables the successful escape of the gentility.
Enter Citizen Chauvelin, the tale’s villain, the man sent to identify and apprehend the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Revolution’s greatest enemy after the Aristocracy. C. Chauvelin, on finding evidence against Marguerite’s brother and only family, Armand, decides to hold it over Marguerite, and forces her to work for him to find out the real identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. But as Margot, as she’s fondly called, gets deeper and and deeper into the sticky web of espionage and lies, realises that the person she was being forced to find had been by her side all along.
Classics like this were a part of my staple diet growing up, and reading a classic comforts me like a lullaby would a baby. Classics like this shine the spotlight on love, bravery, passion, daring and courage, and the lengths one dares to go for the ones they love. Stories where the stakes are high, and the love triumphs all.
The book starts off with the description of the scenes before the guillotine. It goes into great depth about the boiling, bubbling rage that decades of oppression had generated, and how the fury of the common folk had shaken up the very foundation of French Society. The fury brought along with it a peculiar brand of madness, that allowed men to gleefully massacre men, women and children who had previously benefitted off of them, that made the guillotine a temple and death a game. The further you read, the deeper you go into the Reign of Terror, until you find yourself standing before the guillotine, watching as the head rolls off the body of another previously elite member of the society. Then the reader is taken to England, to an inn in Dover, where the rest of the characters are introduced, their circumstances explained, and the stage slowly set over the next few chapters.
Personally, after reading and enjoying books that took me through mental hoops, a story like this was a breath of fresh air. It is exactly what is says it is, but at the same time, it does not lose the reader’s attention or interest. I particularly enjoyed Marguerite’s and Percy’s love story, and the experience of their love was heightened by the situations they found themselves in. But what really stood out for me was the richness of the descriptions in the book.
I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel – I felt like I was standing before the guillotine, partially terrified, partially curious; I could feel the bloodlust of the revolutionaries heighten as the heads dropped. I could feel Marguerite’s frustration towards her marital relations, her love for her brother, the yearning for a place, or a person, called home. I could feel the sparks crackle in the air between Percy and Marguerite as her love and his pride fought it out. The words on the pages do not merely narrate a story – they draw the reader in, and keep you there much after you’ve turned the last page.
I do know how it ends, and I don’t intend to spoil it. But regardless, this is a beautiful story, and one that is definitely deserving of the title ‘Eternal Classic.’
First Impressions: Rich and dramatic. First few chapters drags out a little, but does a good job of setting the scene for the rest of the story. Beautiful and vivid descriptions.
My recommendation: Go for it. Excellent and satisfying. It is much shorter than most classics, and makes for a good read.