Historical Accuracy of The Scarlet Pimpernel
Lesley Howard, Merle Oberon 1938
1789, one of the most pivotal events in history took place in the kingdom of France. The French Revolution
affected many aspects of political and social life throughout all of western Europe, and its repercussions
would be felt for generations to come. Several British authors in the nineteenth century wrote fictional works
with the revolution as a setting. One of the most prolific writers of the period, Baroness Emmuska Orczy,
wrote a series of books about the revolution, the most popular of which was The Scarlet Pimpernel. Many
authors in the nineteenth century wrote books dealing with this historical event, but Baroness Orczy's
novels are the most historically accurate.
All of the Pimpernel novels have a characteristic beginning. Each starts with a summary of the events that
have so far taken place in the revolution, and the current events which will have some impact on the plot of
the novel. These introductions contain many historical facts. And, appropriately, the main villains in her
novels are the main leaders of the Revolution, especially Maximillian Robespierre, Collot d'Herbois, and
The Scarlet Pimpernel, written in 1905, is the story of a young French actress, Marguerite St. Just, who
marries a wealthy English nobleman, Sir Percival Blakeney. She becomes quickly estranged from her
husband, as he begins to appear more and more foppish and distant. An agent of the French Revolutionary
government, Chauvelin, comes to England to enlist Marguerite's aid in helping him find the Scarlet
Pimpernel, an unidentified Englishman who rescues condemned French aristocrats from the guillotine.
Unsuspected by Marguerite, the elusive hero turns out to be her husband, Sir Percy. After several
adventures in France to rescue Marguerite's brother, Armand St. Just, the Blakeneys return safely to
England and are reconciled.
This novel, originally written as a play, was so successful that a series of books based on the adventures of
Sir Percy followed. The stories take place between 1792 and 1795, and include many historical events and
people. One of the most interesting aspects of all the Pimpernel books is the accuracy of the characters
portrayed. Unlike Charles Dicken's Tale of Two Cities which does not use any historical people as main
characters, the majority of characters in the Pimpernel books are recorded in history. In particular, the
relationship of the main character, Marguerite, to the real revolutionary, Louis-Antoine St. Just is
fascinating. Throughout the novels, Baroness Orczy depicts Marguerite as the cousin of Louis-Antoine. In
fact, Louis-Antoine St. Just was a young lawyer, only twenty-six, and a close adherent of Maximillian
Robespierre (Rudé 97). A fanatical Jacobin, he believed in punishing not only "traitors" but also those who
were "indifferent" and not enthusiastic revolutionaries (Hibbert 225). In The Triumph of the Scarlet
Pimpernel, Orczy depicts a scene in which St. Just, Robespierre, and other revolutionary leaders meet. St.
Just is depicted as young, enthusiastic, and eloquent in speech, all virtues which the real St. Just is recorded
to have had. He was considered to be the most effective orator in the revolutionary party (Popkin 67).
Also depicted in this novel was Jean Lambert Tallien, a revolutionary leader who did not support
Robespierre. While commissioned in Bordeaux, he fell in love with Theresa Cabbarrus, formerly the
Comtesse de Fontenay, who was a prisoner. He was accused of having come under her influences, and
losing his zeal for the revolution (Hibbert 260). At this time, Robespierre and St. Just had been writing up a
list of other revolutionary leaders who were to be condemned as traitors. In August of 1794, as St. Just was
preparing to speak to the Convention about the list of condemned traitors, Tallien interrupted him and
placed the blame of all the nation's problems on Robespierre and St. Just (Hibbert 262). Many joined him in
this, and Robespierre was outnumbered and forced to surrender his power. He, St. Just, and many other
important leaders were sent to a violent death on the guillotine (Hibbert 262).
Baroness Orczy, in The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel, uses these facts about Tallien and the Comtesse
de Fontenay in her plot. She introduces the Comtesse de Fontenay as Tallien's fiancee. By having the
Comtesse arrested, the Scarlet Pimpernel was able to urge Tallien to rise against Robespierre, whom
everyone feared, in order to save her life. This inevitably led to the execution of the main enemies in the
story. And history records that the Comtesse de Fontenay, after marrying Tallien, later divorced him and
remarried two more times (Hibbert 317).
Eldorado, written in 1906, relates to many historical personages and events. In this novel, the Scarlet
Pimpernel attempts a daring rescue of the Dauphin of France. Baroness Orczy describes a gruesome scene in
the Temple Prison, in which the young prince is given spirits to drink, is forced to wear the revolutionary
cap, sing the revolutionary "Ca Ira!" and trample the royal flag. He was then taught by Simon, the
shoemaker who was put in charge of him, to curse his parents and accuse them of many atrocities (Ocrzy,
Eldorado 46-47). This scene, however, is very accurate to recorded history. The Dauphin's older sister, who
had been incarcerated with him, later wrote:
...and her [Marie Antoinette] misery was increased when she knew that
the shoemaker Simon was in charge of him...We often went up into the
tower. My brother went by every day and the only pleasure my mother
had was to watch him pass by through a little window. Sometimes she
waited there for hours to get a glimpse of her beloved child. . . Every
day we heard him and Simon singing the Carmagnole, the Marseillaise
and many other horrid songs. Simon made him wear a red bonnet and a
carmagnole jacket and forced him to sing at the windows so as to be
heard by the guard and to blaspheme God and curse his family and the
aristocrats (Hibbert 221).
It was also recorded that after the Terror, the "Ca Ira!" was sung by revolutionaries (Hibbert 320). Also in
this novel, a main character is the Baron de Batz, who works for the Austrian government, and is involved
with many plots to save the royal family and other aristocrats. These schemes have also been recorded as
historical fact (Doyle 267). But, as in the novel, most of his plots failed and only helped to irritate the
revolutionary leaders and to bring about the arrest of many royalist supporters (Doyle 277). Also, Hébert, a
known revolutionary Jacobin, was suspected by Robespierre of supporting de Batz and possibly the Prime
Minister of England, Pitt (Doyle 267). Baroness Orczy includes this idea, and depicts a sort of cooperation
between de Batz and Hébert.
One of the most memorable events of the Revolution occurred on July 13, 1793 when Charlotte Corday
assassinated the infamous Marat (Popkin 71). Jean-Paul Marat was a journalist who founded the paper
known as L'Ami du peuple. Often in trouble with the authorities, he hid for some time in the cellars and
sewers of Paris, where he contracted prurigo, a painful and gruesome looking skin disease (Hibbert 142).
Charlotte Corday, after several attempts to hold audience with Marat, was finally admitted under the
pretense that she had a list of traitors who needed to be dealt with. She proceeded to reveal the names of the
traitors to him, which he began to take down in order to have them executed. She then pulled a sharpened
dinner knife from her bodice and punctured his left lung (Hibbert 213). And this is the setting for the short
story "Sir Percy Explains" in The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The Elusive Pimpernel is also an excellent example of Baroness Orczy's accurate depiction of historical
events. On June 8, 1794 Robespierre conducted in Boulogne a festival in worship of a Supreme Being.
Earlier, the revolutionaries had tried to dechristianize France by forbidding any sort of worship. This failed,
and the festival of the Supreme Being was a means of trying to reverse the damage. Robespierre declared
their belief in immorality and the existence of some superior being (Doyle 276). In the novel, Désirée
Candeille, a young French actress, is commissioned by the revolutionary leaders to help them lure the
Scarlet Pimpernel over to France. Later in Boulogne, she is made the "Goddess of Reason" in a festival
issued by Robespierre, very like the Supreme Being of history.
Also, besides the French characters which really existed, many of the characters from England are recorded
in history. The most relevant of these is George IV, Prince of Wales at this time. He is supposedly a very
good friend of Sir Percy's in the novels. Also, many government officials such as the Prime Minister, William
Pitt "The Younger" and Lord William Grenville are included in the novels.
In France during the eighteenth century, many liberal revolutionary ideas began to filter into politics and
other aspects of society. The revolution was driven by these violent radical ideas. Baroness Orczy
portrayed just this atmosphere in her books. The revolutionaries always went to the greatest extremes to
accomplish their goals. Therefore, no one in France was safe from arrest or death. And the accounts of the
real revolution prove that the atmosphere in France was bleak, as shown in her novels.
There was much sympathy in Europe for the French during the Reign of Terror, but very little was done to
help. While the revolution was going on, the French also had to fight a war with other European countries
including England. This war was about the only thing done to help the innocent French people during this
Baroness Orczy, who lived from 1865 to 1947, wrote fifteen Scarlet Pimpernel books altogether. They all
clearly show her vast knowledge of the events and society of Revolutionary France and much information
and understanding of the French Revolution can be gained from Baroness Orczy's books.
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. London: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: Morrow Quill, 1981.
Orczy, Baroness Emmuska. Eldorado. New York: Buccaneer Books, Inc., 1985.
----- The Elusive Pimpernel. New York: Buccaneer Books, Inc., 1984.
----- The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. New York: Buccaneer Books,Inc., 1983.
----- The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel. New York: Buccaneer Books, Inc., 1984.
Popkin, Jeremy D. A Short History of the French Revolution. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.
Rudé, George. The French Revolution. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
© Blakeney Manor, 2007