The French Revolution
Within the greater setting of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place beginning in September 1792, a month marked by what became known as the September Massacres, in which raging mobs murdered more than a thousand suspected criminals—many of whom were innocent—held at five different prisons. Orczy establishes the horrors of this period of time in the opening chapter, the only one that takes place in Paris, the heart of the nation’s violence. Every day, condemned aristocrats—men, women, and children alike— would be wheeled to the guillotine and executed, before enthusiastic audiences of commoners. Renowned were the tricoteuses, old ladies who passed the time knitting just beneath the platform where victims were beheaded; the Scarlet Pimpernel successfully poses as one of these chilling women.
Thus, Orczy plunges the reader into the most sickening violence of the period leading up to the Reign of Terror, which began in September 1793 (when official decree allowed the Republican government to convict and execute, with much greater ease, those suspected of treasonous acts). As such, the reader is left largely uninformed regarding the foundations and initial phases of the French Revolution. The peasant class had been oppressed by the aristocracy and the government for centuries, and conditions had worsened substantially in recent years. Famine was widespread, and with the added burden of heavy taxes (which were levied to account for the various wars fought by Louis XV and the grand consumption of the court of Louis XVI) on top of rent owed to noble lords and tithes owed to the Catholic Church, many of the poorest people were left to starve. Under the royal government, the common people were simply not represented. The spark for revolution came on July 14, 1789, when a mob stormed and seized the Bastille, an infamous prison. In the ensuing months, unrest spread through the country, as mobs seized aristocrats’ castles and sometimes murdered the inhabitants. Peasants pressured the king, and in July 1791 some fifty protesters were slain by royal troops; the next year, a peasant force overran the royal palace, killing some six hundred royal guards and then imprisoning the king. By this time, politicians representing France’s commoners had established governmental authority through various legislative maneuvers, and in the next few years, power would fall into the hands of ever more ruthless and even bloodthirsty governors, such as Maximilien Robespierre, of the Committee of Public Safety, who spearheaded the Reign of Terror.
What little attention Orczy pays to these greater events relates primarily to how they were understood from Great Britain, where her sympathies naturally lay (being a longtime resident). By and large, her novel’s citizens of England, from the ale drinkers at the Fisherman’s Rest to the uppermost echelons of high society at Lord Grenville’s ball, express horror at the extreme violence that the revolution has brought. At that time, under the influence of the hesitant Prime Minister William Pitt, the British government had no intention of intervening with military force, even though the legislator Edmund Burke argued convincingly for action. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, then, on the tip of everyone’s tongue is the name of the dashing rescuer of the imperiled French aristocrats. However they managed to escape, the aristocratic French emigrants were welcomed warmly—and in the course of the revolution some 120,000 people fled France, with many crossing the English Channel. Orczy’s portrayal of this era focuses on the indisputable notion that innocent people, including women and children, were being murdered by a vindictive government; the author thus ensures that virtually all sensible readers will find themselves sympathetically allied with the cause of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Perhaps the most unfortunate feature of Orczy’s novel is the vein of anti-Semitism that characterizes the portrayal of Sir Percy disguised as Benjamin Rosenbaum. On the one hand, the fact that Percy casts himself as an especially despicable person arguably serves his purpose; he asserts in the end that Frenchmen are so prejudiced against Jews that such a disguise ensured that they would give him as little direct attention as possible. Indeed, in terms of the greater narrative, in which all agents of the Republican French cause are portrayed negatively, whether as foolhardy braggarts, loathsome witches, vile oafs, or amoral predators, the portrayal of the French as prejudiced against Jews can be understood as a condemnation of such anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, rather than acting merely as a Jewish person with a loathsome appearance, Percy as Rosenbaum acts in ways that are without doubt offensively stereotypical of Jews. Orczy’s narrator, in turn, gives an egregious verbal flourish to certain descriptions of Rosenbaum’s actions and character, such as when he is first introduced to Chauvelin. Unfortunately, negative feelings toward Jews were common in parts of Europe, including France, throughout recent centuries, especially among those dogmatically religious Christians who held Jews accountable for the death of Jesus, and among lower-class citizens and ethnic nationalists who resented Jewish immigrants who happened to be financially successful. Most of Orczy’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century readers (excluding Jews, of course) would have been unlikely to object to her disguising Sir Percy as a pathetic older Jewish man. Readers may choose, then, whether to hold Orczy only to the lower moral standards of her own era and not let their appreciation for the book be compromised, or whether to let the stereotypical depiction cloud their perception of Orczy as an artist.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Baroness Emmuska Orczy, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.