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Baroness Orczy - Meet The Scarlet Pimpernel

A fascinating insight into the character written by the author

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Is it really you—my gallant Scarlet Pimpernel? I can hardly believe it. I suppose I was dreaming and am seeing you just as I did the first time all those years ago. Thirty, isn't it? Do you remember? 7 certainly do. I had gone to interview the editor of a new daily paper about to be launched in London. This editor, who knew something of the short-story work I had done for magazines, suggested that I should write a romantic story which he could run as a serial in his paper. I was immensely flattered by the suggestion, but—there was a very great "but" —I had practically no experience in the writing of a novel, let alone a romantic one. What was to be done? Where was inspiration to come from?

    More despondent than flattered, I made my way back towards home—which was in Kensington. It was a dreary foggy day in November—in fact, a typically London day. My way was by underground and presently I found myself on the platform of the Temple Station, waiting for my west-bound train. Now, I ask you, my dear Scarlet Pimpernel, can you tell me of a more dismal, more uninspiring, more unromantic spot in all the world than the platform of a London underground railway station on a foggy afternoon? And yet. . . and yet ... it all seems like yesterday. Dozing and dreaming I see it all again. And I see you, the inimitable, the exquisite, the dashing and gallant Scarlet Pimpernel. You came to me on that dreary, dismal afternoon in November, out of the London fog and the fumes of the underground railway. You walked along the platform, looking about you through your quizzing glass. You had on your magnificent coat of many capes, and billows of exquisite Mechlin lace showed at your throat and wrists. And I heard your voice, the voice that once called to nineteen English gentlemen to risk their lives at a word from you to save the weak and innocent from persecution and from death, and I heard your funny, inane laugh which, more than a hundred years ago, was the clarion call to heroism and self-sacrifice.

    "Zounds! It was the finest sport in the world! Why, I even gave up hunting foxes!"

    Of course, there will be many who won't believe this story of the underground and of my vision of you. And there will be countless others who will want some sort of explanation of it. Well! there is no explanation of it. It happened, that is all I know. Let those who understand psychic phenomena explain if they choose. I have to deal with you, the favourite child of my brain, conceived on that dull November day in the most prosy atmosphere in the world.

    And I often see you nowadays; for sometimes you barge in when I am writing on quite different subjects, subjects that have nothing to do with you at all. Sometimes I look up and see you sitting against the angle of my desk, looking at me and smiling, and if I am busy with other things at the time, I feel perhaps exasperated with you, and say rather tartly: "I don't want you just now, my dear man, I am not writing about you." And then you just laugh and say: "Oh ! you think not . . . Egad! but I am not so demmed sure about that."

    I try to dismiss you from my thoughts . . . perhaps at the moment I am writing a modern romance or one dealing with the wars in the Low Countries, but you are so persistent that I can't shut out your voice from my ears. There you go:

    "Now, m'dear, I really must tell you what happened on the 3rd Brumaire in 1794. ... I was in Paris, you know, by the Seine, and it was a demmed disagreeable sort of day . . ."

    And off you go spinning one of those wonderful yarns, a record of deeds of quiet heroism and self-sacrifice accomplished by you and your gallant League, deeds which make young and old to this day thrill with pride in you. and admiration for your bravery.

    And don't let anyone doubt the fact that you are real, very real, even though it is I and not history who have put your life on record. I am only the medium which you happened to choose to make your personality known to the world. You were so determined to keep your identity a secret! As a matter of fact, with the exception of the members of your League, no one but your devoted wife and your arch-enemy Chauvelin ever did know who the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel really was. For obvious reasons neither of those two ever let the secret out. And the members of the League were sworn to secrecy on their honour. So the mystery of your identity went down with you to your grave. Imagine how I glory in the fact that you revealed it to me.

    Strangely enough, it was only by the merest chance that I was able to communicate my knowledge of you to the world. But for that chance, no one would ever have heard about you. It came about like this. I wrote my first book about you, I called it the Scarlet Pimpernel, and in my folly thought that it was a very good book and that the very first publisher I sent it to would acclaim it and want to publish it. But not a bit of it! I gaily posted my MS. to one of the foremost publishers in London. It came back within a few days with the usual rejection slip: "The publisher regrets . . ." Every young writer knows what those rejection slips look like. A man I know whose hopes always triumphed over experience papered his study with, those slips. Well! I could have done the same: for after that first disappointment I had a round dozen more. There was not a single publisher in London who wanted you, rny dear Scarlet Pimpernel. One and all told me, politely but firmly, that your adventures would not interest the reading public. No one, they told me, cared to-day about the French Revolution, about the tumbrils and the guillotine, or about a heroic English gentleman who sacrificed life and fortune to rescue the weak and innocent from cruel persecution. And my poor MS. came back and back, always with those heart-breaking rejection slips, and getting more and more battered and dilapidated and sorry for itself after each journeying. What could I do?

    All I knew was that somehow or other you must be brought out of the realm of shadows, and somehow or other the world must be made aware of your existence and how real you were. And so I thought of making you live on the stage, hoping against hope that some great actor would portray you, and make you live in such a way that you could never be forgotten.

     I made a play of my book; and here luck did favour me, for the late Fred Terry, one of the finest romantic actors that ever trod the boards, took an immediate fancy to you. The role of the mysterious and dashing hero appealed to his sense of the dramatic. He accepted the play, and produced it first in Nottingham and Newcastle, and ultimately in London.

    In the meanwhile, encouraged by the play's initial success, I offered the MS. of my book once more to a London publisher. This time it was to a man in quite a small way, as the book had been rejected by practically every other publisher in England. The head of the firm told me that it was his practice, when a book by an unknown author was submitted to him, to let his old mother read it first. If she liked the book, he would publish it, not otherwise. For him she represented the big reading public. Well! the old mother who lived in a cottage in Cornwall did read about you and she was interested in you, and because an old Cornishwoman took a fancy to you, you, my gallant Scarlet Pimpernel, came out of the land of shadows and demonstrated to the world how real, how alive you were.

    The book was published the same day that the play was produced in London. Those of us who remember the theatre of thirty years ago will recall how magnificently Fred Terry represented you, my dear Scarlet Pimpernel. Your talk, your clothes, your gestures, your laugh, he had them all.

    But here again you had a curious set-back in your career, for though the public thrilled at sight of you on the stage, though they laughed with you and trembled for your safety when Chauvelin was on the point of bringing you down, the gentlemen of the Press would not have you at any price. According to almost every professional critic in London, you were not worthy of serious consideration: and all the highbrows decided that the only good thing about the play was its title, as the Scarlet Pimpernel was the name of a wild flower that blossomed and died in one night, and this would obviously be the fate of this romantic drama which Mr. Fred Terry had been foolish enough to present before an enlightened public.

    Well, they were wrong. The drama has been played over four thousand times before English-speaking audiences, and you, my dear Scarlet Pimpernel, have made your bow across the footlights to French audiences and to German ones, to Italians and Spaniards and Poles, and once again you will appear before the public of the entire civilized world. This time it is on the screen—under different conditions perhaps than the theatre, but no less real in the person of your new impersonator.

    Besides, you weren't content to be presented to the world just in one episode of your eventful career. You let me tell the world about the sad misunderstanding between you and your charming wife, how she discovered that her husband was really the heroic Scarlet Pimpernel; how you were reconciled to her after she had unknowingly betrayed your secret to your enemy Chauvelin. All that part of your life I put on record in the original Scarlet Pimpernel, the book which has been sold by the million and is still sold by the thousand to-day. But there was still a great deal about you to tell those who love you. There was the unfortunate Juliette Marny and her devoted lover, with poor crippled little Anne Mie and her family, all of whom would have perished on the guillotine but for the daring way in which you snatched them out of the very tumbril in which they were being dragged to their doom. I had to put that marvellous and daring deed of yours on record, and I did it to the best of my ability in I Will Repay. And then there was that terrible episode at Boulogne when your own beloved wife was in peril of her life, and Chauvelin made the supreme effort to bring the gallant Scarlet Pimpernel not only to death but also to disgrace. How could I help writing about that terrible day when with a stroke of the pen you were to sign either your own dishonour or sacrifice the lives of a hundred innocents? And I did write it in the Elusive Pimpernel.

     Nor were you likely to forget that most pathetic figure in all history, the uncrowned child king of France, the son of the martyred King Louis XVI and the unfortunate Marie Antoinette. The fate of that child brought up in the midst of the luxury of Versailles, petted, fondled, adulated till the age of seven and then torn out of his mother's arms, thrown into a dank prison, placed under the care of a brutal and bullying warder, browbeaten, ill treated, his young spirit broken, his child-soul warped. His fate wrung the hearts of millions, and millions wept with pity for him. But you did more than weep. With marvellous courage and resourcefulness you rescued the royal child from prison and carried him, amidst untold dangers, to the safe haven of his mother's family in Austria. I remember your telling me all about that one day. And so Eldorado came to be written !

    And now I am left wondering how you would look at our world of to-day, if you came back from the land of shadows and had a look round. You would see our motor cars and hear our wireless; you would think no doubt how useful in some of your adventures our telephone would have been to you. As for our aeroplanes, you would sigh and think what rescues you could have effected with their help. But I know your incurable love of romance. You will see romance in our prosy lives to-day just as you did in your own times. And you would teach us to see the romance that is all round us but which so many of us cannot always see.

     Don't go yet, my dear Scarlet Pimpernel. I haven't half done with you yet. There are one or two more adventures of yours I would like to put on record. Don't go! I want to talk to you again. And if you go now I may not know where to find you, unless you tell me where I am to seek for you. There! I can hear your voice. What is it you are saying:

We seek him here . . .
We seek him there . . . Those Frenchies seek him . . . everywhere.
Is he in heaven?
Is he in he11
That demmed elusive Pimpernel?

Baroness Orczy bibliography

Text © 1935 Baroness Orczy-Allen & Unwin    Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins

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