The Scarlet Pimpernel—An Early Batman?

The Scarlet Pimpernel

By Baroness Orczy

Published 1905

Read Nov 2018

Using the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, when any French aristocrat could be accused and sent to the guillotine in a matter of hours, Baroness Orczy crafts a tale of romance, intrigue, and adventure.  She creates a character that is a major irritant to the French police as he routinely rescues French nobility from their death sentences and lands them safely on British soil.  His true identity is known to only his few co-conspirators and even his beautiful French-born wife is unaware that her foppish husband is actually capable of repeatedly tricking the French police.

Orczy provides the reader much adventure, which we conveniently experience through the eyes of the wife who races after her husband.  She seeks to somehow save him after she mistakenly revealed to Citizen Chauvelin the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel who Chauvelin seeks to arrest and behead.   Orczy exposes the wife as a self-absorbed and actually cruel woman who feels she is trapped in a loveless marriage to a dolt she expected to adore her forever as he did before their marriage.  She eventually realizes her short-sightedness and seeks to be redeemed by preventing Chauvelin from succeeding to arrest her husband.  In contrast to her husband, she has no plan of any merit but the reader is glad she pursues this lack of plan so that we can follow Chauvelin’s hunt with a first row seat.

Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel is a forerunner of the Batman/Bruce Wayne and Superman/Clark Kent.  The allure of a person who can successfully battle “the bad guy” who is actually a “regular guy” in real life remains popular.  The format for this new (?) type of story in 1905 was live theater (The Scarlet Pimpernel was first a play written by Orczy and her husband) which was then turned into a published book.  Orczy provided her adoring public with a series of books about the Scarlet Pimpernel and his troop.   Various film, stage, and television adaptations followed.  Currently the format for this type of story is comics/graphic novels that get turned into cartoons, television shows, and “block-buster” movies.  Zooks!  (a word first used in about 1600!) What will the format be in the future?  Stay tuned….

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