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The Scarlet Pimpernel: Giving a voice to background characters

The Scarlet Pimpernel: Giving a voice to background characters

In popular fiction, it can be argued that the content is governed by two main factors: what the author wants to write, and what she thinks the audience will want to read. Most romances will include a “happy ever after” because that’s part of the unspoken agreement between writer and reader: a James Bond novel or movie will include Bond himself, a beautiful love interest (with varying degrees of capability), a villain who’s a credible threat, and (usually) an ending with victory for Bond and death for the villain. Moralistic Victorian stories for children resulted in virtue rewarded and vice punished. Classic school stories have the Good Pupils triumphing over adversity, and the Bad Pupils learning a lesson and becoming productive and happy members of the school.

When Orczy wrote the Scarlet Pimpernel stories, beginning in 1905, they were romances with heroic men and beautiful noble-hearted women. That was what she was writing, and that was what her audience wanted to read. But other works of hers included the Lady Molly of Scotland Yard short stories (an early female detective) or the Old Man in the Corner stories (an elderly armchair detective assisted by a young female journalist). She was quite capable of writing female protagonists – even ones who worked for a living.

While the book, the play and the run of Scarlet Pimpernel stories are named for Sir Percy Blakeney’s secret identity, it’s easy to forget that the protagonist of the first book is none other than his wife, Lady Marguerite Blakeney herself. We have occasional third person perspectives of other events where she isn’t present, but most of the narration is from her point of view and through her eyes. It may be a story about a man and his friends, but the author told it from the perspective of a woman – and an outsider to England, an immigrant by marriage, and someone who’s had to forge her own place in society.

Women were in the story right from the beginning. Orczy’s lens may focus on the “brave heroes” of the League, but it frequently does so through the eyes of the women in the stories. Women may be heroines, may set the plot in motion – and may even be villains like Gabrielle Damiens, also known as Mam’zelle Guillotine in Orczy’s book of that name.

But were women actually part of the League?

Looking at the background of the stories, we see that several men in the League (such as Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Sir Tony Dewhurst) marry beautiful French aristocrats whom they helped save from the guillotine, smuggling them out of France. While these women deny all knowledge of their rescuers in public, it stretches credulity to believe they were ignorant of their husbands’ identities, or that they couldn’t put two and two together when their husbands took leaves of absence to visit France with the League again. Orczy doesn’t discuss the matter, but I prefer to believe that even if these women didn’t trip daintily across to France with the men, then they formed a “support network” back in England, cooperating to assist the men and to quietly help new aristocratic emigrees – probably penniless and friendless – assimilate into English society. But they, of course, are of the upper classes, whether English or French.

Equally, common sense suggests that the League couldn’t possibly have operated without friends and allies who weren’t aristocrats. Who manned Sir Percy’s private yacht when he was sneaking across to France? Who maintained the “safe houses” which members of the League used in Paris and other cities? What about all the servants in the Blakeney household who closed their eyes to their master’s odd behaviour?

In her writing, Orczy seems to have regarded the unnamed members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel as convenient background structure, capable of showing up at necessary moments to provide backup or manpower, but otherwise undeserving of the author’s attention. Other characters – women, commoners, and even commoner women – were present in the Pimpernel stories: but they escape the focus of Orczy’s narrative, which drills down to the central figures and the surrounding gaudiness with which she described the French Revolution. {Given that she was unashamedly biased about whose side she was on, I’m not going to argue that she was correct to describe the Revolution that way – but it was her story and that was how she wanted to tell it.}

To be fair, Orczy doesn’t deny that other characters were present: she simply doesn’t focus on them. That is her privilege, but it’s also the opportunity of those of us who come after her, and who can look at her setting from a new perspective, and give a voice to the background voiceless characters.

Genevieve Cogman’s Scarlet is published in hardback by Tor on 11 May 2023

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