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The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel
Cover of the 1908 edition
1908 edition
Author Emma Orczy
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Adventure, Historical novel
Publisher Hutchinson
Publication date
Pages 319
Preceded by The First Sir Percy
Followed by Sir Percy Leads the Band

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a play and adventure novel by Emma Orczy set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. The title character, Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy English fop who transforms into a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist, represents the original "hero with a secret identity" that was a precursor to subsequent literary creations such as Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro) and Bruce Wayne (Batman).

Opening at the New Theatre in London's West End on 5 January 1905, the play became a favourite of British audiences, eventually playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in Britain.


  • Character 1
  • Initial publication 2
  • Plot 3
  • Sequels 4
  • Members of the League 5
  • Historical allusions 6
  • Scarlet Pimpernel publications 7
    • Novels 7.1
    • Collections of short stories 7.2
    • Omnibus editions 7.3
    • Related books 7.4
  • Chronology 8
  • Adaptations 9
    • Movies 9.1
    • Stage 9.2
    • TV 9.3
    • Radio 9.4
  • Parodies and media references 10
  • Real-life tie-ins 11
    • The Tartan Pimpernel 11.1
    • The American Pimpernel 11.2
    • The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican 11.3
    • The Black Pimpernel 11.4
    • Raoul Wallenberg 11.5
  • References 12
  • External links 13


Anagallis arvensis, the scarlet pimpernel flower

Sir Percy is a wealthy English baron who rescues individuals sentenced to death by the guillotine. He soon reveals himself to be a master of disguise, an imaginative planner, a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist. With each rescue he taunts his enemies by leaving behind a card showing a small flower—a scarlet pimpernel. The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel thus becomes a topic of widespread popular interest and the hero himself becomes the subject of an international manhunt by the French revolutionary authorities. To hide his true identity, Sir Percy presents himself in everyday life as a dim-witted, foppish playboy. His secret is kept by a band of friends known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The league operates as an undercover team in enacting Sir Percy's rescue plans.

Orczy's general sympathy with aristocrats is evident in her stories, where nobility of birth and nobility of character easily correspond. Even so, her tales present commoners as capable of selfless and heroic actions. Marguerite St. Just and her brother Armand, both commoners who initially help bring about the French Revolution, work closely with Sir Percy as members of the League.

Initial publication

Orczy's original play, The Scarlet Pimpernel, was produced and adapted by Julia Neilson and Fred Terry. It opened on 15 October 1903 at Nottingham's Theatre Royal and was not a success. Terry, however, had confidence in the play and, with a rewritten last act, took it to London's West End where it opened at the New Theatre on 5 January 1905. The premier 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 the United Kingdom.[1]

The novel The Scarlet Pimpernel was published soon after the play opened 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 French actress, 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 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.

Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet (ch.12)

At a ball attended by the Blakeneys, a verse by Percy 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 (and simultaneous delight) that he is the Pimpernel. He had hidden behind the persona of a dull, slow-witted fop 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 decides to pursue Percy to France to warn him that Chauvelin knows his identity and his purpose. She persuades Sir Andrew Ffoulkes to accompany her, but because of the tide and the weather, neither they nor Chauvelin can leave immediately.

At Calais, Percy openly approaches Chauvelin in a decrepit inn (the Chat gris), whose owner is in Percy's pay. Despite Chauvelin's best efforts, the Englishman manages to escape by offering Chauvelin a pinch of snuff, which turned out to be pure pepper. When Chauvelin took this pinch, he effectively incapacitated himself. 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. Percy, heavily disguised, is captured by Chauvelin, who does not recognise him, so he is able to escape.

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. Sir Andrew marries the Count's daughter, Suzanne.


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 Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a fictional biography of Percy Blakeney published in 1938, named the nineteen members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.[2]

  • The original nine League or founder members who formed the party on 2 August 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, and Sir Richard Galveston.
  • Ten members enrolled in 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, and 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 allusions

As a writer, Orczy often alluded to historical events and figures but adapted these freely in creating her tales.

Citizen Chauvelin, the recurring villain of the Scarlet Pimpernel series, is based to some extent on the real-life Bernard-François, marquis de Chauvelin, who survived the Revolutionary period to serve as an official under Napoleon I of France. He was a noted liberal Deputy under the Bourbon Restoration.

Other real life historical figures who appear in Orczy's Pimpernel series include:

Scarlet Pimpernel publications


Collections of short stories

Omnibus editions

Related books


Orczy did not publish her Pimpernel stories as a strict chronological series, and in fact, the settings of the books in their publication sequence may 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 realised, 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 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, although 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, which is considered the definitive adaptation by some.




  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1955–1956 British television series)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1960) (TV)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) (TV), starring Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy, Jane Seymour as Marguerite, and Ian McKellen (then known primarily as a stage actor) as 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)


  • A radio adaptation of the original novel was produced and syndicated sometime in the 1950s under direction of Harry Allen Towers through his Towers of London production company.

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.
  • In 1953, following Jack Kyle's performance for the Ireland national rugby union team against France in that year's Five Nations Championship, sportswriter Paul MacWeeney adapted lines from the work to salute Kyle.[3]
  • 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 guillotine 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).[4]
  • The Kinks 1966 single "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" contain two lines from the book; "they seek him here, they seek him there"; these lyrics also appear in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father when Gerry Conlon (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) returns home to Belfast in hippy style clothing that he got from London's Carnaby Street.[5]
  • In the third series of Blackadder, Blackadder the Third, the episode "Nob and Nobility" revolves around Blackadder's disgust with the English nobility's fascination for the Pimpernel. Tim McInnerny reprises a version of his "Sir Percy" character from the previous two series, who is the alter-ego of the Pimpernel.
  • In The Desert Song, the heroic "Red Shadow" has a milquetoast alter ego modelled after The Scarlet Pimpernel.[6]
  • The character was parodied in a lengthy comedy sketch on Benny Hill's programme. Portrayed by Hill himself, the "Scarlet Pimple" spent just as much of his time unsuccessfully pursuing women as he did rescuing people. When one woman repeatedly shuns his advances, he leaves in a huff and actually refuses to rescue the next woman being sent to the guillotine.
  • 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.[7][8]
  • 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.
  • 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.[9]
  • 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.[10]
  • Writer Geoffrey Trease wrote his adventure novel, Thunder of Valmy (1960; US title Victory at Valmy) partly as a response to Orczy's Pimpernel novels, which he argued were giving children a misleading image of the French Revolution.[11] Thunder of Valmy revolves around the adventures of a peasant boy, Pierre Mercier, during the start of the Revolution, and his persection by a tyrannical Marquis.[11]
  • Famed British barrister Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, QC is often referred to by Fleet Street papers as "the Scarlet Pimpernel", because of his uncanny penchant for getting off clients facing the death penalty outside the UK.[12]
  • American band Tenacious D referenced it in their song, "Beelzeboss", sung by the devil.

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.[13] 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 eventually was 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.[14][15][16]

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was directly inspired by the film Pimpernel Smith to begin rescuing Hungarian Jews during World War II.[17] 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.[18]


  1. ^ Amnon Kabatchnik (2008). "Blood on the Stage: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection : an Annotated Repertoire, 1900–1925". p. 28. Scarecrow Press, 2008
  2. ^ Blakeney, John (1938). The Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Appendix I. Retrieved 7 November 2012. 
  3. ^ "Ireland great Jack Kyle passes away". ESPN Scrum. 28 November 2014. Retrieved 28 November 2014. 
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Professor Derek B Scott (2013). "The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology". p. 35. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
  6. ^ Everett, William A. and Geoffrey Holden Block. Sigmund Romberg, p. 160, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007 ISBN 0-300-11183-5
  7. ^ "The Archivist". (Library and Archives Canada). 10 April 2000. Retrieved 29 October 2007. 
  8. ^ "Episode Guide for the Wayne and Shuster Show" at TVArchive
  9. ^ Barnes, Tania. "Q&A: Lauren Willig", Library Journal, 15 November 2004
  10. ^ "Steve Jackson Games". Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  11. ^ a b "Writers for Children XIII: Geoffrey Trease", in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Volume 13, 1965, (p. 134).
  12. ^
  13. ^  
  14. ^ Time Magazine article The Black Pimpernel, Time Magazine, 17 August 1962
  15. ^ The New York Times obituary Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95, The New York Times, 6 December 2013
  16. ^ Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting blog post NYT Takes Mandela's Death as a Chance to Mock His Fight to Free His Country, FAIR Blog, 6 December 2013
  17. ^ "Yad Vashem database".  
  18. ^ Linnéa, Sharon, Raoul Wallenberg: The Man Who Stopped Death, Jewish Publication Society of America, copyright 1993.

External links

  • Blakeney Manor, additional information and digital copies of all books.
  • Public Domain Reading (audio rendition) in MP3 format (based on Project Gutenberg text)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel at Project Gutenberg
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