The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy

Argued to be the grandfather of the masked superhero, The Scarlet Pimpernel not only succeeds as a swashbuckling adventure at the time of the French Revolution, but it is a cleverly disguised “woman’s story”. Masks abound in the story written by Baroness Orczy, who writes about a masked hero, but through the emotional context of a female author. The Pimpernel is a clever hero who manages several disguises throughout the novel to fool his enemies, and several of the moments are full of comedy and heroic triumph. Orczy wrote her novel during an era where female writers were first starting to become more common, and the result is a hero that has stood the test of time, many film adaptations, sequels, plays, a musical (!), and finally influencing popular culture.

Batman is a variation of the Pimpernel, a hero that hides behind a mask, but which is his true mask? Bruce Wayne and Percy Blakeney are both showing themselves to the public world as wealthy, upper class, and silly men. Secretly, Wayne and Blakeney are in their hearts, heroes that fight the forces of evil in order help the helpless, but it’s when doing their acts for good that they literally wear the mask. Then there is our heroine, Marguerite Blakeney, an actress from the Paris stage, who must use her acting talents as a mask to discover the mystery of the Pimpernel, and continue to lie about her actions to her husband.

It is with Marguerite, that Orczy tells her story, and the point of view from her female character happens rather seductively, and in such a way, that even a male reader won’t notice until the novel is almost over that all the events are dispelled with a feminine touch. Indeed, from the minute Marguerite makes her appearance in chapter five, the novel becomes hers, and it is important to note that she even makes her grand entrance before that of her husband in the moment. There are so many masks worn by our two main characters, that the best moment in the novel comes in a rare moment of truth and vulnerability between them. The scene on the staircase after the King’s ball reveals Percy’s true love for Marguerite, that he’s purposefully restrained, and her moment of revealing the truth of her dubious actions, along with the danger that actually surrounds her, and her loved ones as the motivation for it. Orczy’s main characters are at their most beautiful here, perhaps rivaled by events at the end of the novel, but the description that is created here by the author is incredible.

The Scarlet Pimpernel will continue to influence storytelling for many centuries to come, even if it disappears into history, as that long forgotten ancestor, who started the entire superhero genre. The man in the mask (Percy vs Superman), the love of the heroine (Marguerite vs Lois Lane), and the arch enemy (Chauvelin vs Lex Luther) are all themes that audiences today still love to read about and line up at the movie theaters for. All stemming from the Baroness Orczy’s fantasy of a heroic man in a mask, saving the innocent, and keeping his loved ones safe behind a secret identity

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