Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Of Marguerite St Just, Sir Percy Blackeney and those golden days!

Disclaimer : For those who are uninitiated with "The Scarlet Pimpernel", here's where you can get your copy. The rest of you, here's a piece dedicated to that marvel.

And for those to whom, these names do ring a distant bell, welcome back to the age of English I (Prose) and English II (Non Detail). 'The Scarlet Pimpernal' was among the non detail books that we read during high school. It surely has been one of the best reads for me till date, though I have matured from the school book reader to the regular bed-time reader. I vividly remember the opening scene of the novel portraying the busy guillotine at its ghastly work. The carnage ceasing only at the late hour of the day, so that people could move on to spectating another amusing event of sorts..viz. the massacre and abuse of the aristocrats who have been exercising tyranny hitherto. The Calais to Dover ferry is another thing that comes to mind when one thinks of those 3rd period English classes, where people took turns to step onto the teacher's dais and read their assigned chapter out loud. The ones who gave a lyrical and musical touch to the narration were an instant hit among the girls and our beautiful English teacher who used to test those boys from the back bench frequently for their language skills. Of course, those lucky ones who stood out by way of narrating it musically, became articles of scorn from fellow last benchers. But it never stopped one from trying one's best to catch the eye.

My personal favorite from that beautiful novel has always been this prose that repeatedly appears through the narration.

"We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel."

I still remember the way I used to finish that paragraph stressing the "demmed elusive" with all the fervour and respect for the guy in command of the 20 member secret committee. The war between the secret society of English aristocrats and the conspirators at the guillotine was an enthralling one and the narrative of the spy novel was too good to resist for any high school guy. The eloquent blend of espionage and romance between the Scarlet and his wife makes for a wonderful ending. Chauvelin was probably one of the most successful villain characters of that era and his portrayal brings to mind Col. Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds fame. Still, the literary character (Scarlet himself) who captured the imagination of many generations of readers from around the world was definitely the hero for many boys in my class and I remember how we used to steal scenes from the novel and enact it with modifications during those interval recesses in between classes. In fact, theories suggest that the twin lives of Zorro, Batman, Superman and the like have been copied from this one time and again since Orczy put pen on paper. Though the celluloid adaptations of the book didn't bring home the bacon, they become known names in the period drama genre as the movies and series captured something as sensitive as the French Revolution and espionage during that period.

All said and done, this one has been and will always be the most convincing book I have ever read and I would do injustice if I write a punch line to finish my lengthy acclaim of this novel.

Baroness Orczy, apparently wrote sequels to this masterpiece later on. But none of them made such an impact as this one. Here we are, talking about it 6 years later, on a fine monsoon afternoon, just because of the impact it has made in the minds of readers. I am sure those who have read the novel aloud in class, along with me, will second my opinion on this stunning book.


Hari said...

I think our non-detailed book was retold by E.F.Dodd - aptly reworded for us 10th standard kids :)

But yes, I remember it like I read it yesterday - it becomes a racy read after the chapter where Marguerite finds out about Percy. I also remember mugging all chapter titles in sequence and reciting Percy's punchlines in my head - one of which I was particularly fond of - "Those demmed Frenchies have tied me up like a chicken ready for the oven!" (talking to Marguerite towards the end of the story).


Pradeep Sekhar said...

Yea Hari, it was simplified for 10th standard kids. I read the original version after we came to college :-). So fond of that book!!! And yea..how vividly we remember things from this one!