Last Saturday, I was reading a book. (Surprise? No?) Just after Louis Capet's head fell at the guillotine, I looked at the date. And looked again. I was reading on January 21st, 2011, about what had happened on January 21st, 1793. And I thought "Oh, if I had only known on Friday." Obviously, Tuesday's post went a different direction, but today being book review day, I would like to spend the next three posts on part of a series that takes the prize for amazing historical fiction.
I was reading Sir Percy Leads the Band, by Baroness Orczy; the second in the series about the enigmatic Scarlet Pimpernel. You might be interested to know, as a side note, that Baroness Orczy's real name was Baroness Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy, but she commonly went by Emmunska Orczy. And, no, it isn't pronounced how it's spelled. The proper pronunciation is "em-moosh-ka or-tsy". I didn't know either. :) But I digress.
The Scarlet Pimpernel Series:
These stories which you may have heard me mention in a previous post, will inculcate a passion for the oppressed (and one long-legged mysterious hero) that you will never be able to shake. Beware, for once you read one, you will never rest until you have read them all. The series spans probably about 1789 to 1795; basically the Reign of Terror.
The fashionable world of London is agog with the tales of cruelty that cross the channel daily from France. Taverns and ballrooms alike lament the new French government, but what better can you expect? One man, however, does more than discuss the problem: he combats it. The dandies of London seem to know who he is, but the rest of fashionable society simply calls him "The Scarlet Pimpernel" due to the small red flower he signs each of his anonymous notes with. After you've discovered his identity in the first book, the rest of the series continues with his countless exploits to rescue captured aristos and common innocents from the clutches of the Committee of Public Safety.
Below is a list of the complete series, in which I have italicized the titles I have read:
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Sir Percy Leads the Band
I Will Repay
The Elusive Pimpernel
Lord Tony's Wife
Sir Percy Hits Back
The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel
If you like the above, you might enjoy the companion volumes of short stories:
The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel
The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel
(I've read one of these, but I can't remember which)
Two volumes about the Scarlet Pimpernel's ancestor:
The Laughing Cavalier
The First Sir Percy
And one volume about the Scarlet Pimpernel's descendant:
Pimpernel and Rosemary
In the next three posts I'll review the first three books individually. I'll wait on the others until I refresh my memory; I haven't read them in a while. But this post is simply a series overview, and a short look at the history of the French Revolution. Suffice it to say that the elusive hero and his fellow dandies could use a bit of refinement in their choice of words. That is certainly something to consider, read The Beau Ideal to find how I deal with that. The recurring qualities you'll find in the series are sacrifice, love, forgiveness, and dominion. Which means (oh joy!) he has to fight against selfishness, hate, betrayal, and tyranny. Classic good does battle with classic evil in every single story as time runs short for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue the victims of Madame Guillotine. With himself and his nineteen (mostly) faithful followers, he dares to live out the commitment that no one is left behind, and the conviction that the life of a poor woman is just as valuable as that of a marchioness.
Which brings me to the French Revolution itself.
The French Revolution
You'll really get to know your history in these books; Orczy includes it as a matter of course. But it might help to brush up on a few basic facts for ultimate enjoyment.
The French Revolution extended from 1789 to 1799, beginning when the populace crowned reason as divine and 'removed' God from His place in the heavens. The people, or rather the Estates-General, proclaimed France a republic in September of 1792, and executed their sovereign Louis XVI the following January. With the rise of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Committee of Public Safety condemned thousands of innocents because of their social standing, and the tumbrels carried some 16,000 prisoners to the guillotine.
What confuses some is that while Robespierre fell in 1794, Napoleon didn't take up rule as emperor until 1804. Did the blood-bath continue during that time? No, it didn't; while the Committee of Public Safety was abolished and Robespierre and his compatriots summarily executed, the Constitutional Republic took over from 1795-1799. This government was made up of a parliament and five directors, who, fearing the distrust of the people and divided by distrust among the houses, used military force to keep the peace until the rise of Napoleon crumbled their shaky republic.
The French Revolution certainly leaves a blot on history that illustrates the futility of a 'religion-less' society. The countless murdered innocents, the stories of the cruelly hardened dictators, and the reign of terror that held neither government nor justice, is definitely necessary to study. But for the grace of God, that would have been America. And but for the grace of God, that could be any nation trying to carve for itself a new place in the political world.
And since it's so important to learn about, it's good to have an enjoyable source. (i.e. the Scarlet Pimpernel series) :)
Next time, I'll take an individual look at The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the leaders of the French Revolution: the Robespierre brothers, Marat, Danton, Les Bas, St. Just...the tyrants that sent armies of fellow citizens to Madame Guillotine.