The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Scarlet Pimpernel  
Cover of the 1908 edition
1908 edition
Author(s) Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Adventure, Historical novel
Publisher Hutchinson
Publication date 1905
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 319 pp
Preceded by The First Sir Percy
Followed by Sir Percy Leads the Band

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a play and adventure novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. The story is a precursor to the "disguised superhero" tales such as Zorro and Batman.

The play was produced and adapted by Julia Neilson and Fred Terry. It first opened on 15 October 1903 at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal; it was not a success. Terry, however, had confidence in the play and, with a rewritten last act, took it to London where it opened at the New Theatre on 5 January 1905. The premiere of the London production was enthusiastically received by the audience, but critics considered the play 'old-fashioned.' In spite of negative reviews, the play became a popular success, running 122 performances and enjoying numerous revivals. The Scarlet Pimpernel became a favourite of London audiences, playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in England to that date.[citation needed]

The novel was published soon after the play's opening and was an immediate success. Orczy gained a following of readers in Britain and throughout the world. The popularity of the novel encouraged her to write a number of sequels for her "reckless daredevil" over the next 35 years. The play was performed to great acclaim in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, while the novel was translated into 16 languages. Subsequently, the story has been adapted for television, film, a musical and other media.

The international success of The Scarlet Pimpernel allowed Orczy and her husband to live out their lives in luxury. Over the years, they lived on an estate in Kent, a bustling London home and an opulent villa in Monte Carlo. Orczy wrote in her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life:

I have so often been asked the question: "But how did you come to think of The Scarlet Pimpernel?" And my answer has always been: "It was God's will that I should." And to you moderns, who perhaps do not believe as I do, I will say, "In the chain of my life, there were so many links, all of which tended towards bringing me to the fulfillment of my destiny."



Fred Terry in The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in 1792, during the early stages of the French Revolution. Marguerite St. Just, a beautiful Frenchwoman, is the wife of wealthy English fop Sir Percy Blakeney, a baronet. Before their marriage, Marguerite took revenge upon the Marquis de St. Cyr, who had ordered her brother to be beaten for his romantic interest in the Marquis' daughter, with the unintended consequence of the Marquis and his sons being sent to the guillotine. When Percy found out, he became estranged from his wife. Marguerite, for her part, became disillusioned with Percy's shallow, dandyish lifestyle.

Meanwhile, the "League of the Scarlet Pimpernel", a secret society of 20 English aristocrats, "one to command, and nineteen to obey", is engaged in rescuing their French counterparts from the daily executions. Their leader, the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, takes his nickname from the drawing of a small red flower with which he signs his messages. Despite being the talk of London society, only his followers and possibly the Prince of Wales know the Pimpernel's true identity. Like many others, Marguerite is entranced by the Pimpernel's daring exploits.

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

At a ball attended by the Blakeneys, Percy's verse about the "elusive Pimpernel" makes the rounds and amuses the other guests. Meanwhile, Marguerite is blackmailed by the wily new French envoy to England, Citizen Chauvelin. Chauvelin's agents have stolen a letter incriminating her beloved brother Armand, proving that he is in league with the Pimpernel. Chauvelin offers to trade Armand's life for her help against the Pimpernel. Contemptuous of her seemingly witless and unloving husband, Marguerite does not go to him for help or advice. Instead, she passes along information which enables Chauvelin to learn the Pimpernel's true identity.

Later that night, Marguerite finally tells her husband of the terrible danger threatening her brother and pleads for his assistance. Percy promises to save him. After Percy unexpectedly leaves for France, Marguerite discovers to her horror that he is the Pimpernel. He had hidden behind the persona of a dull, slow-witted fop in order to deceive the world. He had not told Marguerite because of his worry that she might betray him, as she had the Marquis de St. Cyr. Desperate to save her husband, she pursues Percy to France to warn him that Chauvelin knows his identity and his purpose.

Percy openly approaches Chauvelin in a decrepit inn, but despite Chauvelin's best efforts, the Englishman manages to escape. Through a bold plan executed right under Chauvelin's nose, Percy rescues Marguerite's brother Armand and the Comte de Tournay, the father of a schoolfriend of Marguerite's. Marguerite pursues Percy right to the very end, resolute that she must either warn him or share his fate.

With Marguerite's love and courage amply proven, Percy's ardour is rekindled. Safely back on board their schooner, the Day Dream, the happily reconciled couple returns to England.


Baroness Orczy wrote numerous sequels, none of which became as famous as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Many of the sequels revolve around French characters whom Sir Percy has met and is attempting to rescue. His followers, such as Lord Tony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Hastings and Armand St. Just (Marguerite's brother), also take their turn in major roles.

In addition to the direct sequels about Sir Percy and his league, Orczy's related books include The Laughing Cavalier (1914) and The First Sir Percy (1921), about an ancestor of the Pimpernel's; Pimpernel and Rosemary (1924), about a descendant; and The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World (1933), a depiction of the 1930s world from the point of view of Sir Percy.

Some of her non-related Revolutionary-period novels reference the Scarlet Pimpernel or the League, most notably The Bronze Eagle (1915).

Members of the League

  • The original nine League or founder members who formed the party on August 2, 1792: Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (second in command), Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Lord Edward Hastings, Lord John Bathurst, Lord Stowmarries, Sir Edward Mackenzie, Sir Philip Glynde, Lord Saint Denys, Sir Richard Galveston
  • Ten members enrolled on January, 1793: Sir Jeremiah Wallescourt, Lord Kulmstead, Lord George Fanshawe, Anthony Holte, John Hastings (Lord Edward's cousin), Lord Everingham, Sir George Vigor, Bart., The Hon. St. John Devinne, Michael Barstow of York, Armand St. Just (Marguerite's brother)
  • Marguerite, Lady Blakeney, is also named as a member of the League in the book Mam'zelle Guillotine, but it is not known when she was formally enrolled.

Historical accuracy

The Baroness's sympathies were plainly with the aristocracy and in truth, she was more interested in telling a good tale than in strict historical accuracy. To this end, Orczy frequently distorted real historical figures and events so they could be woven into the storylines of the books, placing the Scarlet Pimpernel and his league in the middle of the action.

In particular, the career of Chauvelin, the recurring villain of the series, is much altered; named Citizen Chauvelin in the books, in fact, Bernard-François, marquis de Chauvelin, survived the Revolutionary period to become an official under Napoleon I of France and a noted liberal Deputy under the Bourbon Restoration.

Other real life historical figures who crop up in the series include:

Scarlet Pimpernel publications


Anagallis arvensis, the Scarlet Pimpernel flower

Collections of short stories

Omnibus editions

Related books

  • The Laughing Cavalier (1913) (about an ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel)
  • The First Sir Percy (1920) (about an ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel)
  • Pimpernel and Rosemary (1924) (about a relation of the Scarlet Pimpernel)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World (1933)
  • A Gay Adventurer A biography of Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart. (1935) (written by 'John Blakeney' pseud. (John Montagu Orczy Barstow))
  • The Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1938) (written by 'John Blakeney' pseud. (John Montagu Orczy Barstow) ) n.b. re-release of 'A Gay Adventurer'
  • The Secret History of the Pink Carnation series (2005–present) (written by Lauren Willig)


Baroness Orczy did not publish her Pimpernel stories as a strict chronological series, and in fact, the settings of the books in their publication sequence can vary forward or backward in time by months or centuries. While some readers enjoy following the author's development of the Pimpernel character as it was realized, others prefer to read the stories in historical sequence. Taking into account occasional discrepancies in the dates of events (real and fictional) referred to in the stories, the following is an approximate chronological listing of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel novels and short stories:

Book Title Setting Notes
The Laughing Cavalier January 1623
The First Sir Percy March 1624
The Scarlet Pimpernel September–October 1792
Sir Percy Leads the Band January 1793
The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel July 1793
I Will Repay August–September 1793
The Elusive Pimpernel September–October 1793
Lord Tony's Wife November–December 1793
The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel late 1793 concurrent with preceding 2 or 3 novels
Eldorado January 1794 unclear whether before, after, or concurrent with Mam'zelle Guillotine
Mam'zelle Guillotine January 1794 unclear whether before, after, or concurrent with Eldorado
Sir Percy Hits Back May–June 1794
Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel 1794? exact dates unclear
The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel April 1794 seems to have happened later than dates indicate
A Child of the Revolution July 1794
Pimpernel and Rosemary 1917–1924


Hollywood took to the Pimpernel early and often, though most of the Pimpernel movies have been based on a melange of the original book and another Orczy novel, Eldorado. The most well-known of the Pimpernel movies is the 1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard, considered the definitive adaptation.

  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1917)
  • The Laughing Cavalier (1917)
  • The Elusive Pimpernel (1919)
  • The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1928)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
  • Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937)
  • Pimpernel Smith (1941)
  • Pimpernel Svensson (1950)
  • The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) aka The Fighting Pimpernel — USA
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1955-1956 British television series)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1960) (TV)
  • Don't Lose Your Head (1966) aka Carry on Pimpernel — USA
  • The Elusive Pimpernel (1969)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) (TV)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1987) (TV)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997), a 1997 Broadway musical composed by Frank Wildhorn and written by Nan Knighton. The production starred Douglas Sills as Sir Percy Blakeney, Christine Andreas as Marguerite Blakeney, and Terrence Mann as Citizen Chauvelin.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel, two TV series of three episodes each (1999, 2000): "The Scarlet Pimpernel", "Valentin Gautier" [UK title]/"The Scarlet Pimpernel Meets Madame Guillotine" [US title], "The King's Ransom" [UK title]/"The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Kidnapped King" [US title], "Ennui", "Friends and Enemies", "A Good Name"). The BBC production, with Richard E. Grant in the title role and Martin Shaw as Chauvelin, took many liberties with the characters and plot, and was not well received by fans of the books.
  • The Forecourt Pimpernel (2001) (TV)
  • The Black Pimpernel (2006)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (2010), a Broadway style Japanese adaptation, performed by the popular all-women's Takarazuka Revue in Osaka, Japan.

Parodies and media references

The novel has been parodied or used as source material in a variety of media, such as films, TV, stage works, literature and games. It was parodied as a 1950 Warner Bros. cartoon short featuring Daffy Duck: "The Scarlet Pumpernickel". An action figure of the Scarlet Pumpernickel was released by DC Direct in 2006, making it one of the few — if not the only — toys produced based on the Pimpernel. The Scarlet Pimpernel was parodied extensively in the Carry On film Don't Lose Your Head which featured Sid James as the Black Fingernail who helps French aristocrats escape the hangman while hiding behind the foppish exterior of British aristocrat Sir Rodney Ffing. It also features Jim Dale as his assistant, Lord Darcy. They must rescue preposterously effete aristocrat Charles Hawtrey from the clutches of Kenneth Williams' fiendish Citizen Camembert and his sidekick Citizen Bidet (Peter Butterworth).[1] In The Court Jester, the baby heir to the throne has a birthmark known as "the purple pimpernel".

In 1987, the BBC sitcom Blackadder the Third included an episode, "Nob and Nobility", in which the Scarlet Pimpernel is praised by everyone except Mr. E. Blackadder, who sees nothing admirable in "filling London with a load of garlic-chewing French toffs... looking for sympathy all the time simply because their fathers had their heads cut off". The episode ends with Blackadder killing two noblemen claiming to be the Pimpernel and his partner. Prince George was about to give some money to the Pimpernel just before he died, so Blackadder claims to be the real Pimpernel in order to get the money. Other TV references include the series Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, which had an episode entitled "The Scarlet Chimpernel". The title character has a fantasy where he is the Scarlet Pimpernel. The part of Marguerite is filled by Mata Hairi. The seventh episode of the 2007 season of the TV series Midsomer Murders, "They Seek Him Here", centers around a shooting of a remake of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Several episodes of the CBBC series ChuckleVision featured the Chuckle Brothers encountering the "Purple Pimple", aka Sir Percy, played by Barry Killerby.

In Moon Over Buffalo, the stage play by Ken Ludwig, the lead character, George, hoping to be cast by Frank Capra as the Scarlet Pimpernel. In The Desert Song, the heroic "Red Shadow" has a milquetoast alter ego modelled after The Scarlet Pimpernel.[2] The Canadian comedy team of Wayne and Shuster created a comedy sketch in 1957 based on the Scarlet Pimpernel called "The Brown Pumpernickel" in which, instead of a red flower as his calling card, the hero would leave behind a loaf of pumpernickel.[3][4]

Sir Percy and Marguerite are mentioned as members of an 18th century incarnation of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the graphic novels of that title by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill and make a more significant appearance in The Black Dossier, in the accounts of both Orlando and Fanny Hill, with whom Percy and Marguerite are revealed to have been romantically involved. In the third book in the TimeWars series, The Pimpernel Plot, Sir Percy is killed in an accident at the beginning of his career as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and a time traveler must act the part of Sir Percy to preserve history. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a member of the Wold Newton family, a concept created by Philip Jose Farmer. In addition, a series of novels by Lauren Willig, beginning with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (2005), chronicle the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel's associates, including the Purple Gentian (alias of Lord Richard Selwick), spies in the Napoleonic era.[5]

Steve Jackson Games published GURPS Scarlet Pimpernel, by Robert Traynor and Lisa Evans in 1991, a supplement for playing the milieu using the GURPS roleplaying game system.[6] In the 1998 Wizards of the Coast game Guillotine, there is an action card named The Scarlet Pimpernel, which instantly ends the day after the next noble is collected.

Real-life tie-ins

The Tartan Pimpernel

Inspired by the title Scarlet Pimpernel, the Tartan Pimpernel was a nickname given to the Reverend Donald Caskie (1902–1983), formerly minister of the Paris congregation of the Church of Scotland, for aiding over 2,000 Allied service personnel to escape from occupied France during World War II.

The American Pimpernel

Varian Fry was a 32-year-old Harvard-educated classicist and editor from New York City who helped save thousands of endangered refugees who were caught in Vichy France, helping them to escape from Nazi terror during World War II. His story is told in American Pimpernel — the Man Who Saved the Artists on Hitler's Death List.

The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican

Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was an Irish priest who saved thousands of people, British and American servicemen and Jews, during World War II while in the Vatican in Rome. His story is told in two books and a film:

  • J. P. Gallagher (1968), Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, New York: Coward-McCann
  • Brian Fleming (2008), The Vatican Pimpernel: The Wartime Exploits of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, Collins Press
  • The Scarlet and the Black, a 1983 made-for-TV movie starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer

The Black Pimpernel

Harald Edelstam (1913–1989) was a Swedish diplomat. During World War II, he earned the nickname Svarta nejlikan ("the Black Pimpernel") for helping Norwegian resistance fighters in Hjemmefronten escape from the Germans.[7] Stationed in Chile in the 1970s, he arranged for the escape of numerous refugees from the military junta of Augusto Pinochet; this brought him into conflict with the regime, and he was eventually forced to leave the country.

This name was also given to Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest and long incarceration for his anti-apartheid activities in South Africa due to his effective use of disguises when evading capture by the police.[8]

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was directly inspired by the film Pimpernel Smith to begin rescuing Hungarian Jews during World War II.[9] Wallenberg issued false passports identifying the Jews as Swedish nationals, and is credited with rescuing at least 15,000 Jews. He disappeared in Eastern Europe after the war, and is believed to have died in a Soviet prison camp.[10]


  1. ^ Hibbin, Sally and Nina Hibbin. What a Carry On — The Official History of the Carry On Film Series, Hamlyn, London, 1998, ISBN 0-600-55819-3, pp. 98-99
  2. ^ Everett, William A. and Geoffrey Holden Block. Sigmund Romberg, p. 160, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007 ISBN 0-300-11183-5
  3. ^ "The Archivist". (Library and Archives Canada). 10 April 2000. Retrieved 2007-10-29. 
  4. ^ "Episode Guide for the Wayne and Shuster Show" at TVArchive
  5. ^ Barnes, Tania. "Q&A: Lauren Willig", Library Journal, November 15, 2004
  6. ^ Steve Jackson Games
  7. ^ Joan Baez (6 November 1981). "Human Rights in the 80s: Seeing through both eyes". 
  8. ^ Time Magazine article The Black Pimpernel, Time Magazine, 17 August 1962
  9. ^ "Yad Vashem database". Yad Vashem. Archived from the original on February 7, 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-12. "who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest during World War II ... and put some 15,000 Jews into 32 safe houses." 
  10. ^ Linnéa, Sharon, Raoul Wallenberg: The Man Who Stopped Death, Jewish Publication Society of America, copyright 1993.

External links

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