who was he?
 


"They seek him here,
they seek him there,
those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel."

 

Who was the
Scarlet Pimpernel?

The above passage contains some of the most famous lines of verse in English literature and is found in the classic novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emma Orczy.

Who was this lterary character who has captured the imagination of generations of readers, has spawned movies and popular TV series, and even provided the inspiration for a hit Broadway musical?

The Pimpernel's character has his setting in the the streets of Paris, which are awash in blood as Robespierre and his henchmen send hundreds of French aristocrats to the guillotine. Against this backdrop one unknown Englishman and his brave band of followers leave their genteel lives behind to spirit the French royals to safety in England.

The question that France's new leaders demand to know is: who is the Scarlet Pimpernel? The question the reader asks is: why does Sir Percy risk life and honor for a land not his own?

Whatever the motivation, the story of the Pimpernel and his gallant crew as they outwit the Committee of Public Safety and its agent Chauvelin again and again, is absorbing reading.

Aristocrats, clergy, shopgirls, even the Dauphin himself - no one is beyond the Pimpernel's aid.

So who was he, this dashing character?

The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the most famous heroic characters in popular fiction of the past century. Because the adventures of the Pimpernel were set in immediate post-revolutionary France, people these days tend to think the story has been around since the end of the 1700s, but the novel was first published in London in 1905. It's all very French and very genteel English, but it was actually written by a Hungarian woman who was an aristocrat by birth, and actually became the template for a succession of Hollywood and comic-book heroes.

Baroness Emma Orczy (1865-1947), a "transplanted" Hungarian, wrote dozens of books but it is The Scarlet Pimpernel for which she is remembered.

The book tells the story of Sir Percy Blakeney, a late-Georgian British society fop who is known more for being a dandy than having an semblance to a swordsman and hero.

All is not as it seems, however, and Sir Percy leads a double life as "the Scarlet Pimpernel" -the rescuer of aristocrats and innocents during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. Sir Percy, feeling betrayed by his bride, French actress Marguerite St. Just, is pursued by his nemesis, the French Republican agent Citizen Chauvelin.

The central thrust of the Pimpernel - that of an unlikely everyman being capable of living a twin life, one of which is unbelievably heroic - has been copied time and time again since Baroness Orczy put pen to paper. How? Think about Zorro, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Clark Kent/Superman. The list goes on.

The story has been dramatised on television and on the big screen several times (most notably in 1935 with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey). In the '50s Marius Goring portayed what was arguably the best TV Pimpernel, after starring in a Scarlet Pimpernel radio series broadcast across the US. The 1982 TV series starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen was hugely popular. The BBC made a six-part film in 1998 and 2000 starring Richard E. Grant, Elizabeth McGovern and Martin Shaw. The Scarlet Pimpernel's more recent popularity and notoriety is a result of the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical by Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton, which made its debut at New York's Minskoff Theatre in 1997.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is forever being reinvented and will live on for new generations.

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