The Scarlet Pimpernel: Chapter 11,12
Chapter XI: Lord Grenville’s Ball
Summary: At the glittering ball hosted by Lord Grenville, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Chauvelin finds a cordial but distinctly chilly reception. He cares little: he remains focused on his objective of identifying the troublesome Scarlet Pimpernel, and seeing the scoundrel transported to France for execution on the same guillotine from which he has saved so many “aristos.” When the Prince of Wales arrives at the function, Chauvelin suggests, indirectly, that the Prince should know the Pimpernel’s identity. The Prince denies any such knowledge, while Sir Percy loudly complains about the way all noble wives adore the mysterious man they regard as a national hero.
Analysis: This chapter continues to peer behind external facades in order to see a person’s real character and motives as it spends a great deal of time unveiling Chauvelin to the readers. As the text says, “Chauvelin was not the man to trouble himself about these social amenities” (p. 91), and, to some extent, neither is the reader supposed to trouble him- or herself with them. Rather, the focus remains on Chauvelin’s internal world: his steadfast conviction “that the French aristocrat was the most bitter enemy of France” (p. 91—a conviction Orczy no doubt writes of with irony, given her own aristocratic background), and his equally strong resolve to stop the derring-do of the Scarlet Pimpernel, “a source of bitter hatred” (p. 91).
Chapter XII: The Scrap of Paper
Summary: Still fixated on the idea of discovering the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity, Marguerite (who feels she is getting no support from Sir Percy regarding her agitation at Armand’s fate and Chauvelin’s pressure on her) seizes an opportunity to steal a glimpse at a secret note that has been passed to Ffoulkes. She enters the otherwise empty budoir where Ffoulkes is reading the note and simulates fainting. Ffoulkes moves to catch her and lowers her into a chair; from this position, Marguerite is able to snatch the note from Ffoulkes just as he begins to burn it in a candle’s flame. She pretends she is following an old folk remedy against “giddiness” (i.e., light-headedness). Ffoulkes tries to snatch the note back, but is unable to do so, as Marguerite knocks over the table with the candles. While Ffoulkes is preoccupied with putting out the small fire, Marguerite steals a glimpse at the note’s contents, seeing that it bears “distorted handwriting” and the Pimpernel’s symbol. Having achieved her goal, she returns the note to Ffoulkes and asks him to ask her to dance.
Analysis: Marguerite demonstrates her determination and cunning in this chapter, as she shows she is more than capable of using her femininity to her advantage: not in that she behaves without decorum, but she plays on Ffoulkes’ sense of chivalry by staging the fainting attack so that she can see what she correctly surmises to be the Pimpernel’s next instructions to his aide. She is motivated by her concern for her brother, Armand; she regards the note as “the talisman which would save her brother’s life” (p. 99) because it represents a chance at getting the information that Chauvelin wants in exchange for Armand’s safety. Marguerite’s overwhelming worry for Armand gives her, as the narrator explains in a psychologically insightful aside: “a sense which has absolutely nothing to do with the other five: it is not that we see, it is not that we hear or touch, yet we seem to do all three at once… Before [Marguerite’s] mental vision there was absolutely nothing but Armand’s face” (p. 100). And so, even with her eyes closed, she is able to grasp the Pimpernel’s note away from Ffoulkes. The narrator does not yet reveal how the note reads (that information will come in the following chapter), but Marguerite’s sighting of “the same distorted handwriting she had seen before” (p. 102—a significant clue, in retrospect, as it presents the idea that the Pimpernel must disguise his script so that anyone who knows him in his true identity will not recognize it) as well as his floral device let us know that her ingenious plan was rewarded. She no doubt feels that she is one step closer to unraveling the identity of which of the “worldly men” at the ball “was the mysterious ‘Scarlet Pimpernel,’ who held the threads of such daring plots, and the fate of valuable lives in his hands” (p. 98). Marguerite is the prototype of such characters familiar from pop culture as Lois Lane, always scheming to unveil Superman’s true identity, all the while not knowing that the answer to her questions is closer than she realizes; for Marguerite does not regard her husband as a possibility, but only with the “good-humoured contempt which one feels for an animal or a faithful servant” (p. 96). Sir Percy, of course, goes to great lengths to keep his wife, and everyone else, in the dark, by such activities as composing his inane doggerel about the secretive hero: “Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell? / That demmed, elusive Pimpernel” (p. 97).