January 22, 2010


THE classic romance
by Baroness Orczy
first published 1905

Review by Maria Bustillos

The Long Beach library fire was a huge boon to me, I am ashamed to admit. You will be wondering why a booklover should say such a thing, but the answer is quite simple; after the fire, the whole huge Long Beach Public Library was temporarily housed in an annex maybe a mile or two from my house near the Traffic Circle, until they managed to build the new library, which took ages. So I could bike to the big library in a matter of minutes, on my red-white-and-blue Bicentennial Edition Free Spirit 10-speed bicycle from Sears; a hideous contraption, but absolutely the best bike I ever had. I’ve never really gotten over the theft of that bike. Anyway, I believe I spent more time in that cold, pale, zero-amenity, fluorescent-lit barracks among the bazillion books than I did in my own house, ca. 1976.

I developed a game with myself there that I still play, once in a while. In order to play the Library Game, you must first make sure there’s nobody else around. Then position yourself safely at the beginning of an aisle. Now close your eyes, and walk slowly and carefully down the aisle, and when the mood strikes, reach out, or up, or down, and take hold of a book. You’ll have to read it, according to the rules of the game. Being a scofflaw myself, I cheat like crazy, but I know a number of readers will find themselves unable to do so; I suspect they will not enjoy the game as much as I do. If I wind up with what looks like a clunker, I just pop it back on the shelf, with a very slight twinge of guilt, which adds an extra little frisson to the whole proceedings, and start over.

I have no hesitation in saying that the subject volume is the very best book I ever chose while playing the Library Game. I remember the book very well; it was small and thick, in a glazed-cloth library binding, dark green, with largish print in an old-fashioned font, and very wide margins. The book block was very, very well worn by the time it came so fortuitously to me. The pages were heavy, grown soft and flexible with age and wear, and the corners had been read clean away so that they were evenly rounded, top and bottom. The tipped-in sheet at the back boasted a profusion of due dates, stamped in each time the book had been checked out—starting, if I recall correctly, in the 1930s. Long Beach has always had a huge retirement community, so the library was very popular. A lot of the books there—particularly the classic literature that I have always favored—had been read many times, but even so, I could tell straightaway that this book had been unusually popular. The title already sounded so exotic, so promising. I had no idea what a “Pimpernel” was, but it was very obviously something fabulous and strange, and who doesn’t love the word “Scarlet”? And the author!! My god, she literally called herself Baroness Orczy. Well, her real name was Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orczi, and she really did start life as an impoverished, exiled Hungarian baroness in London, but that is by the bye.

The book exceeded my wildest conjectures. It became evident at once that the Baroness was possessed of an inexhaustible fountain of the most exquisite melodrama ever devised, plus a total lack of shame. There is not the slightest scintilla of a curb on the romance, the passion, or the total ridiculousness of this wonderful love/adventure story, set during the French Revolution. Every page glitters with gloriously excessive prose that is not so much purple as amaranthine, amethyst, violet, pomegranate. “The fond embrace of Madame la Guillotine,” “priceless lace at his neck and wrists,” “Aye! I, whom that same popular rumour had endowed with the sharpest wits in France!”

The Scarlet Pimpernel may also be the sexiest, most exciting romance novel of all time. My pulse still literally quickens when I think of certain moments in this book (oh god, the staircase scene ... !) Men will like it too, though, because the hero is absolutely awash in brains, dash and heroism. And humor. Barbara Cartland made an enormous fortune by making inferior copies of this one book, over and over! Come on! It’s got audacious rescues, clever disguises, hair’s-breadth escapes, gorgeous clothes, secret identities! Please believe me when I say that this book is about one hundred times better than any of the (many) movie versions.* All of which, I believe, I have seen. Oh, gosh. Look! You just have to read it, if you haven’t.

*Matthew Macfadyen is the first actor I’ve ever seen who could possibly do the part justice, and I have been considering the matter for literally decades. Get on it, Beeb.

1 comment:

  1. There's also a little silliness around some of the plot points and the heroine is, at turns, wonderfully modern and near feminist and exasperatingly old-fashioned and needlessly weak. But, that being said, this is one of those classics that I almost felt guilty reading. It was too fun. It was too exciting. No way could this be a classic! I remember the same feeling of having expectations exceeded.

    I LOVE this book. Damn you, Maria, for making me want to reread it! My bookpile is already too big!