Baroness Orczy is generally credited with creating the literary figure of the disguised superhero in 1905 with The Scarlet Pimpernel. The character of Zorro was created some fourteen years later, Superman was introduced in 1938, and before long an entire genre was flourishing. The comic book proved the favored medium for superhero stories, which mostly featured impressively masculine figures and so were naturally enjoyed in particular by boys, who would be drawn to the fantastic action and, perhaps less consciously, the dramatic depictions of how to be a man. In his introduction to Orczy’s novel, Gary Hoppenstand notes that the heroic qualities of the Scarlet Pimpernel can be traced to a variety of later fictional figures. For example, the ‘‘hedonistic protagonist who knows his wine and clothes’’ can be found reincarnated in Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who debuted in the novel Casino Royale in 1953. The ‘‘trickster hero who is able to readily escape any life-and-death trap’’ can be found in the adventure fiction of Edgar Rice Burrroughs. And ‘‘the wealthy do-gooder who uses his riches to help those less fortunate than himself’’ can be seen in pulp-fiction characters such as the Shadow and Doc Savage.
However, although the Scarlet Pimpernel was a forerunner to these heroic do-gooders, he should be recognized as distinct from most of them by virtue of certain qualities. To begin with, the orientation between his ordinary self and his secret identity is less strictly defined than is the case with most other dual-identity heroes. That is, he does not put on a recognizable costume and then, upon meeting a villain, interact in that guise, as do figures such as Batman and Captain Marvel. In Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman, Peter Coogan observes that such heroes benefit from their costumes because the distinct garb communicates to any onlookers that, even if engaged in destructive behavior, they are acting in the name of good to defeat some evil. The Scarlet Pimpernel, on the other hand, benefits from having no recognizable costume; rather, he successfully uses unlimited alternate identities to smuggle aristocrats out of France. Coogan also notes that whereas most superheroes have adopted a name and appearance that reflect their identity and powers—Spider-Man shoots webs from his wrists and wears a webbed costume—the Scarlet Pimpernel’s name reflects no more than the symbol he uses on his calling cards.
Whereas these differences relate mostly to the mechanics of being a superhero, other differences can be seen as intrinsic to the character of the man who is that hero, Sir Percy Blakeney. The typical male superhero, whether disguised or not, has a definitively masculine bearing, if perhaps a self-effacing one, so as not to draw excessive attention to himself. This bearing often reflects the physical prowess of the character; Clark Kent can hide his superior physique beneath a business suit, but to go so far as to be unmasculine would not befit the man who is Superman. In Action Figures: Men, Action Films, and Contemporary Adventure Narratives, Mark Gallagher observes that iconic constructions of masculinity serve psychological purposes for the modern male: ‘‘Cinematic and literary representations of male action compensate for threats to stable, traditional masculinity, threats posed by economic and cultural changes affecting men’s roles in the workplace and in the domestic space.’’ In other words, as men (especially middle- and upper-class men) have lost opportunities to engage in physical work that is done more efficiently by machines, instead sitting before computers in offices, and as women have gradually assumed the roles of co-breadwinners, rather than being constricted domestic figures, men have found themselves more and more drawn to and comforted by portrayals of ultramasculinity that connote ultimate control. The muscle-bound heroes played by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis may or may not succeed in their ventures, but whether they are soldiers, police officers, or men on the street, their physical engagement with their surroundings is exemplary (inevitably provoking adrenaline rushes in viewers) and their masculine honor is rarely, if ever, compromised. Divergence from this formula is typically associated with comedy or farce, as with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop, where the hero’s actions are dictated not by his macho self but by five-year-olds.
Sir Percy Blakeney, on the other hand, is perhaps less masculine than any male superhero who has succeeded him in literature or in films. In Heroes, Antiheroes, and Dolts: Portrayals of Masculinity in American Popular Films, 1921–1999, Ashton Trice and Samuel Holland describe Leslie Howard’s Scarlet Pimpernel, of the 1934 film, as being an ‘‘alternatively virile/effete hero.’’ Indeed, Orczy presents a character who is decidedly unmasculine in a number of respects. On the one hand, he is introduced as ‘‘massively built,’’ tall with broad shoulders. On the other hand, he pays exquisite attention to fashion; despite arriving in poor weather, ‘‘his hands looked almost femininely white, as they emerged through billowy frills of finest Mechlin lace.’’ Gallagher points out that James Bond exhibits fashion sense without sacrificing masculinity: ‘‘Bond’s concern with personal grooming and luxuries recuperates fashion and consumerism from the realm of the feminine, promoting the ideology of male style’’; Sir Percy, on the other hand, pairs his fashion sense with daintiness. He greets the vicomte’s invitation to duel, which would at least rouse the dignity of most men, with clear distaste and indifference. This unmasculine laziness is targeted by Marguerite when she pokes fun at her husband. In turn, Percy generally subjugates himself before his exceedingly clever wife. While his character through most of the novel is understood to be a self-effacing act of sorts, he does not suddenly become more masculine even when alone with Marguerite at the Pere Blan- ` chard’s hut. He rests his head on her shoulder, rather than vice versa, speaks but ‘‘tenderly,’’ and still laughs ‘‘that funny, half-shy, half-inane laugh of his.’’ Even after his beating, he is not bristling with manly anger but has a ‘‘good-humoured twinkle in his blue eyes’’ as he envisions exacting revenge. And yet, still a masculine hero, as he carries his beloved the few miles to safety, ‘‘his muscles seemed made of steel, and his energy was almost supernatural.’’
The most apparent reason for Sir Percy’s characterization as both masculine and feminine may be that, unlike most literary and motionpicture superheroes, the Scarlet Pimpernel was created by a woman. Interestingly, Orczy claimed not to have consciously designed Sir Percy; rather, standing on a platform waiting for an underground train, she found herself suddenly envisioning him. As she states in her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life (quoted by Hoppenstand), ‘‘I saw him in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands holding up his spy-glass: I heard his lazy drawling speech, his quaint laugh.’’ Thus, rather than directly creating the character to appeal to the public, she simply derived the image of this idealized gentleman from her own preconceived notions about who such a gentleman would be. As such, he is a character who perhaps appeals, on the surface, more to female readers or viewers than to males. And for this very reason, aspiring gentlemen would perhaps be wise to learn from Sir Percy—from his gallantry, devotion, and humanitarianism, as well as from his poise, strength, and bravery. For while the ultramasculine hero may serve as inspiration to other men, the hero who successfully unites masculine and feminine qualities in himself is perhaps more likely to be the one carrying in his arms the cleverest woman in all of Europe.
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.
Michael Allen Holmes, Critical Essay on The Scarlet Pimpernel, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.