The Scarlet Pimpernel: Chapter 18,19,20

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Chapter XVIII: The Mysterious Device


Summary: The next morning, as she awaits the visit from her school friend Suzanne (which Marguerite cunningly made the Comtesse promise the previous evening, in front of the Prince of Wales, who has also agreed to visit Richmond that day), Marguerite discovers the “inner sanctum,” the inmost office, of her husband’s chamber uncharacteristically unlocked, his valet elsewhere. Curious, she enters. She discovers, contrary to her expectations, that the room is neat and uncluttered, dominated by a portrait of Sir Percy’s mother, a clean and orderly desk, and two maps of France (one of the northern coast and one of Paris and its surroundings). As Marguerite leaves, her foot knocks against something: a solid gold signet ring, bearing the device of the Scarlet Pimpernel.


Analysis: This brief but pivotal chapter explicitly invokes twice the legend of Blue Beard. One of Charles Perrault’s collected “Mother Goose” fairy tales (in Contes de la Mere l’Oye, 1697), “Blue Beard” is the story of a man who tells his wife never to unlock a certain closet in the manor house. Ultimately, of course, Blue Beard’s curious wife disobeys this order, and discovers within the closet the corpses of all his previous wives, their throats slit. “It has not been printed in collections for children as often as have Perrault’s other stories, for obvious reasons” (Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Oxford, 1987, p. 67). Although Orczy may allude to the Blue Beard tale to elicit suspense from readers, they are relieved, as no doubt is Marguerite, to discover nothing gruesome within Sir Percy’s “inner sanctum.” “At once she was struck by the severe simplicity of everything around her…” (p. 142). The austerity of the room and the modest nature of its appurtenances, as well as the presence of the French maps, are still, however, a shock to Marguerite’s system—if not on the level of what shocked Blue Beard’s bride, still cause for a re-evaluation of the man to whom she is married. She realizes that in “his worldly inanities, his foppish ways, and foolish talk, he was not only wearing a mask, but was playing a deliberate and studied part”—and, she correctly concludes, not all for the benefit of hiding his pain from her, as he had protested the previous night (p. 143). The chapter ends on a “cliffhanger,” as Marguerite discovers the Pimpernel’s signet ring. (Readers may well wonder, of course, why Sir Percy, whose private rooms bespeak his diligence and prudence, has either forgotten or deliberately left this ring behind, in an unlocked chamber, where the possibility of its discovery exists! Is it not the equivalent of Bruce Wayne leaving behind a key to the Batcave?)


Boucher, the artist who painted the portrait of Sir Percy’s mother, is a historical figure. François Boucher (1703-1770) worked in the elaborate Rococo art style, and is perhaps best known for his portraits of Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s mistress.


Chapter XIX: The Scarlet Pimpernel


Summary: Suzanne arrives at Richmond for her visit with Marguerite, but Marguerite is distracted: not only by her realization that her husband is, in fact, the Scarlet Pimpernel, but also by the sudden force of the knowledge that, in betraying (as she believes she has) the Pimpernel to Chauvelin in exchange for Armand’s safety, Marguerite has now directly endangerd the life of Suzanne’s father, the Comte de Tournay, whom she knew the Pimpernel had promised to deliver safely to England. A messenger arrives with Armand’s compromising letter, unopened, returned to Marguerite by Chauvelin, as the French agent had promised he would; Marguerite interprets the letter’s return to mean that Chauvelin, true to his word, has abandoned his pursuit of Armand for that of the Pimpernel. Resolving to warn Sir Percy and to assist him in his mission in any way that she can, Marguerite bids farewell to her friend and prepares to go and find Ffoulkes and follow the Pimpernel to Calais.


Analysis: The chapter marks, arguably, the first climax in the narrative. Having discovered Sir Percy’s distinctive signet ring, and having decided that he has not simply adopted the Pimpernel’s device as others have in the fashion of the time, Marguerite makes a determination that will drive much of the rest of the novel’s plot, resolving to warn her husband about Chauvelin’s plans: “This she meant to do, if God gave her wits and strength” (p. 152). The moment is also important because it marks Marguerite viewing herself as an active agent, rather than a passive victim, of Fate’s designs: although her initial reaction to the possibility that she had unwittingly sent the Comte de Tournay to his death (just as she had St. Cyr, all those years before), is to rail inwardly against Fate—“No! no! no! a thousand times no! Surely Fate could not deal a blow like that: Nature itself would rise in revolt…,” p. 149), she finally sets herself to do what she can, even if it is not all that she proposes: “if indeed Fate, and Chauvelin, with all the resources at his command, proved too strong for the daring plotter [i.e., the Pimpernel] after all—then at least she would be there by his side, to comfort, love, and cherish, to cheat death perhaps at the last by making it seem sweet, if they died both together, locked in each other’s arms, with the supreme happiness of knowing that passion had responded to passion, and that all misunderstandings were at an end” (p. 152). The chapter continues the mask imagery of the previous ones, only now the metaphor refers not to Sir Percy, but to Marguerite: “She, too, had worn a mask in assuming a contempt for him whilst, as a matter of fact, she completely misunderstood him” (p. 151). Now, fully in touch with her love for her husband and possessed of the knowledge of his secret, Marguerite resolves to atone for the past by acting decisively in the present. The chapter is thus climactic not only for the novel’s plot but also for the growth of Marguerite as a character.


Chapter XX: The Friend


Summary: Marguerite visits Sir Anthony Ffoulkes and tells him that she knows her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel. She shares with Ffoulkes both her betrayal of the Pimpernel’s plans to Chauvelin for the sake of her brother Armand, and her resolve now to save Sir Percy from Chauvelin’s trap. She pleads with Ffoulkes to tell her where to find her husband. Reluctant at seeing Marguerite jeopardize herself, Ffoulkes does so, agreeing to meet her at The Fisherman’s Rest that night, from where they will leave for Calais, disguised so as to avoid detection.


Analysis: This chapter further develops the thematic motif of the mask, not only by alluding to Sir Percy’s ruse (“You must confess the bandage which he put over my eyes was a very thick one. Is it small wonder that I did not see through it?,” p. 159) but also by connecting it to other people as they move in the society presented in the novel. Sir Anthony Ffoulkes looks “anxiously—even suspiciously—at Marguerite, whilst performing the elaborate bows before her, which the rigid etiquette of the time demanded” (p. 155). Here we see that conventional social protocols can “mask” people’s real thoughts and feelings, thus setting up, in this case, a potential barrier to meaningful action. Marguerite, in contrast, violates social norms: “I have no desire to waste valuable time in much talk,” she tells Ffoulkes (p. 155), thus eschewing the “small talk” usually expected in polite society, particularly between men and women (the kind of banter we witnessed at the ball, for example). And in her passionate urgency to enlist Ffoulkes as “companion and ally” (p. 160), she transgresses normally observed boundaries of personal space: “with her tiny hands she seized the young man suddenly by the shoulders, forcing him to look straight at her” (p. 158). Finally, the chapter even (albeit gently) challenges accepted notions of male and female roles, as Ffoulkes chides Marguerite that what she proposes “is man’s work” (p. 159). But what is man or woman’s work when lives are at stake? It is as though the chapter suggests that social norms can, in certain circumstances, be dangerous and detrimental, and “looking straight” at ourselves and others is to be preferred—an intriguing sentiment from this author of the aristocratic class. 

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