Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review : "The Scarlet Pimpernel"

I read this concurrently with Victoria Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway". Mrs D. has no plot to speak of -- its virtues are in the characterization and the writing. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is the direct opposite - its whole point is the plot. The characters are more or less your generic swashbuckling regulars, and the writing ranges from tolerable to truly atrocious.

But perhaps it's a little unfair to burden "The Scarlet Pimpernel" with exalted literary expectations. First and foremost, it's an adventure story. And a damned good one. The Baroness can't be faulted for her handling of the plot - it's hard to see how it could be improved. Great setup, excellent pacing, satisfying ending.

Now, a picky, caviling person might be tempted to find fault with certain aspects of the telling of the story - the unremitting evil of the satanic bad guy, the unbridled nobility of all those British gents, all those revolutionary froggies spouting "Sacres aristos!", with their British counterparts expostulating "Zounds!" and "Odd's life!" in every other line of dialog. Others might complain about this, but I don't. See, for this kind of story, I like my villains villainy. I lap up the cliched historical detail. If there hadn't been a scene with coarse Parisian proles knitting at the guillotine, I'd have felt cheated. And any swashbuckling aristocrat story worth its salt had better have some nobleman whose last name begins with ff. So I enjoyed these aspects of the book just fine.

I'd only have two gentle criticisms for the Baroness:
1. Was it absolutely necessary to name the doddering Jewish character Reuben Goldstein? The word "overkill" didn't cross your mind at all?
2. Why did you make Marguerite such a half-wit? A woman that slow on the uptake wouldn't be able to dress herself in the morning. Though I could imagine her being played by Anne Heche.

But, all things considered, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is a fine book, well worth giving a whirl. I can see no particular reason to read any of its many sequels, however.

1 comment:

Pb said...

"We seek him here, we seek him there, that damned elusive Pimpernel" became a family saying when Katie was little. We saw the 1934 film w/ Leslie Howard on tv and were entranced. He was much better cast for this role than for Ashley Wilkes in GWTW. Whenever we were looking for something or someone, we'd start our quest w/ our Pimpernel quote.