History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 September 2008

Will the Real Scarlet Pimpernel Please Stand Up?

That demmed elusive Pimpernel has been part of the literary landscape for so long that he has attained a status that few fictional characters can hope for, that of being popularly taken for a genuine historical personage. I’ve heard numerous people make the casual claim, “Well, the Pimpernel was a real person, of course—wasn’t he?”

He wasn’t.

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?


Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great post on a wonderful topic, Lauren! I've been fascinated by "The Scarlet Pimpernel" books and characters ever since my parents took me to see the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon movie when I was a child. I loved the adventure and Percy's disguises, but I think what intrigued me most was that the heroine was a sophisticated married woman rather than an ingenue.

Years later, watching the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour version (yes, I have read the books too :-), I thought "what if Marguerite really was a spy." That was one of my early inspirations for "Secrets of a Lady" and the Charles & Mélanie books, though I didn't consciously realize it at the time. What has always fascinated me about “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is its examination of a marriage that begins with deception, of the toll that deception takes, of the fear that one doesn’t know the truth about the person one loves most in the world, of the risk of trusting. The different masks and disguises people wear, even in their most intimate relationships.

I've blogged about the Scarlet Pimpernel books on my own website, and inevitably those are the posts that get the most comments. People love to talk about them.

Like you, I tend to think of Percy Blakeney as a character who has become "real" in his own right (rather like Sherlock Holmes). Speaking of which, I love the Scarlet Pimpernel feel to your Pink Carnation books, and the way Percy Blakeney is part of the world of your books!

12:14 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Lauren. I confess that I've never really thought of the Scarlet Pimpernel as a real person but as just the Baroness's creation or an amalgamation of lots of different spys plus a dash of her own imagination. I love Baroness Orzy's comment that "It was God's Will that I should," when people asked her how she came to create him.

Although I did read as a child about Dr. Joseph Bell who was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. I'm sure readers must write to you all the time wondering if there are real life inspirations for the Pink Carnation or wondering if the Pink Carnation is actually real.

Did anyone watch the Richard Grant/Elizabeth McGovern Pimpernel series? I confess I had a hard time believing Richard Grant as either Sir Percy or the Pimpernel. Perhaps I've been spoiled by Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews!

5:09 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

I watched the Richard Grant/Elizabeth McGovern "Pimpernel", and I didn't like it as well as the others, either. It didn't strike me as very romantic, and the other two did. I especially disliked the ones without Elizabeth McGovern. For whatever reason, they killed her off, so the Pimpernel could cut a swath through the ladies, which I didn't like.

Part of the reason I liked Percy was because he adored Marguerite. One of the most romantic passages I ever read was after they'd had a conversation, which ended in a quarrel as it usually did, since he couldn't reveal his identity. He watched as she ran back to the house in tears. But when she was out of sight, he desperately kissed the ground where she had stood. What a hero.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Marvelous post, Lauren. The Scarlet Pimpernel has always been a favorite novel of mine (and not even the Antony Andrews screen version, which I think is the best of them) comes close to the novel itself. I even wrote a stage adaptation of it, but when the godawful splashy musical (that was thrice reworked to the distaste of the paying public) hit the Broadway boards with a resounding flop, no one was interested in any other adaptation, even one that -- ahem -- actually stuck to the original story.

Marguerite is supposed to be the wittiest and most beautiful woman in Paris (and gives the ladies in England a run for their pounds as well). Elizabeth McGovern was SO laughingly miscast in that role that I found that version to be utterly unwatchable. And Richard E. Grant was both ugly and seemed genuinely fey, instead of feigning it. Add the sub-zero chemistry he had with McGovern and you don't have a sweeping, swashbucking romance; you have a disaster.

When I was doing my research for TOO GREAT A LADY and discovered that Nelson absolutely abhorred Sir Sidney Smith (whom he referred to as SSS all the time) because he thought Smith was treading on his toes in Egypt, I admit to forming an anti-Smith predisposition.

Sir Percy is one of the most romantic heroes in literature, and I love the idea that he was created by an immigrant who came to England not even knowing the language and, because the British were so kind to her and her family, ended up creating one of the noblest Britons of them all, if only on the page.

In my recent research on Marie Antoinette I was reading about the French nobleman who managed to smuggle a message to the fallen queen at the Conciergerie. It concerned plans for a daring rescue/escape, and I thought about you specifically, Lauren, because (you must know this already), the slip of paper was concealed within the petals of ... a pink carnation.

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've discovered another 'local' real-life Pimpernel, too: William Wickham, of Yorkshire, England! This is from my Livejournal page:


I think the inspiration was out there for the Baroness, but I, too, like to believe her story of divine inspiration on the London tube!

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pardon the broken link. I was struggling with HTML and failed:


9:40 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great, though-provoking post, Lauren. Which makes me wonder about the literary provenance of the fop-by-day-hero-in-disguise archetype (and the woman who learns to love him in both his guises -- or maybe not).

Ancestor of Lord Peter Wimsey? Of Bruce Wayne/Batman? Inspiration of one of my all-time favorite movie clips (from Kill Bill II)?

But who's the Pimpernel's literary ancestor?

9:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Well, Zorro is a direct descendent of the Scarlet Pimpernel, but as to antecedents ... there are elements of some of the Robin Hood versions (it was the 18th and 19th century incarcations that made him a disaffected noble rather than a yeoman) that can be applied to a Pimpernel "formula." Although in most ways a far cry from the Pimpernel, Robin Hood is arguably the first "superhero" of British legend.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Of course, for English superheroes, there's also King Arthur, who gets in there even before Robin Hood-- and we get to play the "was he? wasn't he?" game with him as well. One could also argue that there are some of the antecedents of the masked man trope there as well, in that Arthur is hidden away, concealed, emerging to unmask and save England.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thanks for the link, Madeleine! Wickham makes a cameo appearance in my second book, "Masque of the Black Tulip," handing out instructions to a rather blundering agent. By then, he's already older and getting weary, but it sounds like he was quite a dashing character back in the 1790's (the picture of him in Sparrow's book is quite fetching!).

11:24 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Elizabeth, did you see that Mystery series about Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Bell? It was a cute idea, but it didn't quite work for me-- I think for the same reasons that I'm not all that keen on finding a real Pimpernel. I'd much rather read about Sherlock Holmes than watch something about his prototype, reimagined through the lens of Holmes.

And that opens up a whole other topic-- life inspiring art which then reflects back on our interpretation of a historical character, like Vlad Tepes being constantly viewed through the lens of Stoker's Dracula or the historical D'Artagnan being muddled with Dumas's reinvention, and so on.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

YoI think you can defintiely see echoes of the Scarlet Pimpernel in Peter Wimsey, Zorro, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Clark Kent/Superman, Bruce Wayne/Batman, and lots of others. It's interesting that there aren't as many similar heroes earlier in history. Though there's Prince Hal who plays at being a wastrel so his sun will shine al the brighter (the difference being that he stops being a wastrel and become a king instead of going back and forth between the two identities). And Edgar in "King Lear" masquerades as a madman.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Good point, Tracy. Do you think that has something to do with changing notions of what it means to be heroic? In the earlier literature, you do get a sense that there's something dishonorable about going masked-- especially in Prince Hal's disreputable early career.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great point about the changing notions of what's heroic, Lauren. The masked heroes of the Scarlet Pimpernel type chronologically seem to go with the rise of mystery and spy fiction. On the other hand, as Amanda pointed out, there's a tradition of Robin Hood as a nobleman masquerading as a peasant outlaw that goes back to the 18th century. The nobelman/lady/prince/princess masquerading as a commoner is a fairly old literary trope (in a lot fairytales). But often the person is ignorant of his or her own origins. There's an element of game playing in the Scarlet Pimpernel type of hero that sets that character apart. Even Robin Hood is living the life of an outlaw, not being a nobleman by day, an outlaw by night.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, I watched one of the episodes. I agree with you that it is an interesting idea, but I wasn't too keen on it. It seemed to take Bell and try to turn him into a real life detective which I didn't find nearly as intersting. Holmes stands on his own as character in his own right. I'm actually much interested in how a man like Doyle who became so involved in the spiritualist movement could create such a rational character like Holmes.

As for Vlad the impaler, I had the feeling that Coppola was more interested in that interpretation of Dracula than in Bram Stoker's creation.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Fascinating stuff, Tracy. I've never read a greater short on the Scarlet Pimpernel--got me up to speed on a character I never really knew much about!


6:37 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Huge Pimpernel fan, myself and have watched the Howard Oberon movie more than once though nothing can beat the book itself.

Thanks for the post Lauren, the fact that there may have been a real life inspiration never occurred to me. I am much more informed now.

In my October book, TRAITOR'S KISS which begins in France with a prison escape, my heroine is Charlotte Parnell, my homage to the Scarlet Pimpernel who was, of course my inspiration.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

Raffles is my man. He's the inspiration for two different heroes I've written.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

And then there's Scaramouche, thanks to good old Rafael Sabatini.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

How interesting La Belle that Raffles was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I found it interesting as well Elizabeth! More interesting is the fact that even though Raffles could be considered the anti-Sherlock Holmes because of his "profession," they are rather similar.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jess Nevins points out that some of Burrage's Spring-Heeled Jack stories may serve as an antecedent to the Scarlet Pimpernel or at least Zorro.

5:33 AM  

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