A well-read friend of mine told me I had to read The Scarlet Pimpernel (first published by Baroness Emmuska Orczy in 1905) because it held the adventure of the first “masked hero,” the prototype of superheroes with secret identities. I looked it up in my university library and found myself in the old books section, wandering through shelves of cloth-bound volumes with few external markings. After a somewhat lengthy search, my friend spotted it: a thin little book, a bit tattered along the spine and yellowed on every page. But the near-frail covers held something epic beyond everything I’d hoped.
Reading The Scarlet Pimpernel for the first time sparked a warm fuzzy love for its hero, Sir Percy Blakeney, deep within my heart. Discovering there are seventeen sequels gave me something akin to a panic attack of joy.
At present, I’ve gotten through eight of the Pimpernel books. I’ve sat up reading them in the middle of the night. I’ve read them out loud near a waterfall halfway up a small mountain. I’ve listened to them on audiobook while running…and stretching…and stretching some more. I’ve seen four of the film and TV adaptations and listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical so many times my roommate made me stop.
I try to make Scarlet Pimpernel converts out of as many people as possible. We could all do with a bit of good swashbuckling fun, but The Scarlet Pimpernel is not simply empty panache. It holds significance in literary history as the forerunner of an entire genre. Percy Blakeney is the Bruce Wayne of eighteenth century Paris—wealthy, skilled, and harboring an idiot-by-day, vigilante-by-night dual personality. Would there be a Batman without the Scarlet Pimpernel?
Furthermore, Pimpernel shows us something you don’t see much anymore: the interaction between honor and love. Percy and his dedicated wife Marguerite share enough sap to satisfy any romance novel addict, but they both understand the importance of his mission and the way that and his boundless care for others only strengthens the love they share. You won’t find any unhealthy codependency here, just a lot of passion and life-saving action.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a timeless story. We might reshape it, replacing the White Cliffs of Dover with the skyscrapers of New York or moving the drama to Gotham City instead of Paris, but the original hero with many faces never loses his charm.
Elizabeth Kobayashi spends her weekdays editing educational videos, her evenings writing a novel and catching up on years and years of television, and her weekends training to be a ninja. She’s motivated by food and likes Star Wars.