Will the Real Scarlet Pimpernel Please Stand Up?
The Pimpernel may not be real, but if we seek him here and seek him there, one can find a few historical progenitors. In stark contrast to our fictional image of the veddy, veddy British fop, drawling his way through the drawing rooms of Paris, only one of those proto-Pimpernels, Sir Sidney Smith, was actually English.
A naval man (and first cousin of William Pitt), Sir Sidney Smith originally covered himself in glory in 1793 when, in a move of which Sir Francis Drake would have approved, he burnt the larger part of the French fleet as it sat at dock in Toulon. Armed with his own floating squadron of eighteen boats, some manned by French Royalists, Smith hovered along the French coast, smuggling messages to and from Royalists in France. Incarcerated in the Temple Prison, he continued his clandestine correspondence. After his escape from the Temple, he sailed his way to Constantinople with a picked crew of Royalist officers, where he was on hand to scuttle Napoleon’s Egyptian escapade, romantically attired in Turkish dress and enormous mustachios. According to Elizabeth Sparrow’s Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1813, Napoleon blamed Smith for his defeat, writing later in life, “That man [Smith] made me miss my destiny.” Heady stuff. Smith, however, was no Sir Percy Blakeney. Arrogant and much disliked, he loses points in the swashbuckling stakes by having conducted a well-publicized affair with none other than the Princess of Wales, who wins the Least Likely Heroine Award, partly due to her disinclination to change her linen (cleanliness is a must in a heroine).
Sparrow also puts forward Richard Cadman Etches as another candidate for Pimpernel, citing “his skill in flitting unnoticed from country to country, entering and leaving the Temple prison in Paris at will, and all without leaving any trace of a nom de guerre”. In fact, it was Etches who was instrumental in effecting Smith’s escape from the Temple in 1798. His handicap? He was Danish. He might also have been a double agent in the pay of Catherine of Russia, who provided him with funds and a rank in the Russian navy, although he later turned against his Russian patroness, recommending an invasion of Russia.
There were characters who did exactly what legend would require, scattering behind them little cards emblazoned with the crimson petals of a flower—but they weren’t English either. It does stand to reason that the most effective agents in France (and the ones with the most romantic code names) would be, well, French. The Poix family, four brothers and a sister, all used the codename La Rose, along with the corresponding illustration, although the primary Poix, Pierre Marie Poix, had fifteen additional aliases, many non-horticultural. Others of his gang, however, did use flower names, including an unidentified individual who was referred to in the group as Le Mouron, the Pimpernel. La Rose also teamed up with a female agent, Mlle Nymph Roussel de Preville, who worked under the nickname La Prime-rose, a pun on primrose.
Personally, I prefer to think of the Scarlet Pimpernel as none of these, but simply as Baroness Orczy herself described him: a character created whole and entire rather than a fictional screen for an actual individual.
Do any of your favorite characters bend that line between history and fiction?