The Scarlet Pimpernel: Chapter 5,6
Chapter V: Marguerite
Summary: Sir Percy and Lady Marguerite Blakeney arrive. Marguerite enters the coffee room first, and a tense reunion with the refugees of the St. Cyr family ensues. The Comtesse forbids Suzanne from greeting her old schoolmate with any affection; however, as she and Suzanne are leaving the room, Suzanne runs back to Marguerite to embrace her. The Vicomte stays behind, about to protest Marguerite’s mockery of his mother when Sir Percy
Analysis: This chapter begins with the meeting promised at the end of the previous: an awkward confrontation between Lady Blakeney (the former Marguerite St. Just) and the Comtesse. Marguerite is described as a “dazzling” beauty (p. 40), in exquisite detail—perhaps further evidence of Orczy’s sympathy for the upper classes, as we hear much about Marguerite’s dress and manner. She is, as an immediate counterweight to the Comtesse’s poor opinion of her, shown to be a sympathetic character as she instructs a poor beggar at the inn’s outer door be given supper at her expense. And, perhaps most telling, she is unequivocally identified in the minds of Jellyband’s patrons as one of them, despite her foreign birth: When the Comtesse forbids Suzanne to greet Marguerite, Jellyband, his daughter and their patrons all gasp at “this impudence before her ladyship—who was English, now that she was Sir Percy’s wife, and a friend of the Princess of Wales to boot” (p. 42). Sir Percy will not make his entrance until the last sentence of this chapter, but he is “present” nonetheless as his wife’s English bona fide. The old national divisions rear their heads, as marriage has made Marguerite, for all her history in France, an Englishwoman. Her origins are not completely forgotten, of course; indeed, the narrator seems to speak with mild, associative scorn at one point of Marguerite as “a fair scion of those same republican families which had hurled down a throne, and uprooted an aristocracy whose origin was lost in the dim and distant vista of bygone centuries” (p. 41)—as though the disestablishment of such an ancient institution were inherently criminal. Nor is Marguerite portrayed as completely flawless: she does mock the Comtesse once she has left the room, and from that mockery readers might infer an insensitivity to the matter that so troubles the Comtesse (of course, we might equally infer that the Comtesse’s hatred for Marguerite is baseless, as Jellyband’s patrons seem to assume). The chapter is a brief one, but it serves to establish Marguerite as a memorable character to whom readers will enjoy paying attention as the novel progresses. It ends as the last chapter did, with the sudden entrance of a new character—this time, Marguerite’s husband, Sir Percy.
Chapter VI: An Exquisite of ‘92
Summary: Sir Percy Blakeney, the foppish and seemingly foolish husband of Marguerite, enters the Fisherman’s Rest, where he is quickly confronted by the Vicomte, who offers to duel Sir Percy in satisfaction of his mother’s remarks against Sir Percy’s wife. Sir Percy good-naturedly refuses to duel, either not understanding or not sympathizing with the young Frenchman’s adherence to an ancient code of honor. While Sir Percy calls for a bowl of drink, Marguerite exits to see off her brother, Armand, before he returns to France.
Analysis: This chapter offers Orczy’s masterfully drawn characterization of Sir Percy, “the sleepiest, dullest, most British Britisher that had ever set a pretty woman yawning” (p. 44). Like his ancestors, in fact, he is “notoriously dull” (p. 46). Everything we see and hear about him in these pages appears to confirm general society’s opinion of him as a “demmed idiot” (p. 45). He trades in self-disparaging humor, he is elaborately overdressed in “exaggerated ‘Incroyable’ fashions” (p. 47)—“young dandies of the [French] revolutionary era who transformed fashion into a political statement” (Barnes & Noble Classics edition, p. 255, n12)—and the attribute mentioned most is his sheer laziness. Words like “lazy,” “bored,” and “inane” litter the chapter, all creating a most unflattering picture of this wealthy but seemingly witless nobleman. Indeed, the Vicomte can hardly comprehend that he and Sir Percy belong to the same general social stratum: “the spectacle of a gentleman actually refusing to fight a duel was a little short of an enormity” (p. 50), and yet Sir Percy claims, “I never fight duels… Demmed uncomfortable things” (p. 49). Not only is he unruffled by insults directed toward his wife, he seems remarkably disinterested in the affairs of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men: in fact, he advises Ffoulkes, “Faith… if [the Vicomte is] a specimen of the goods [i.e., the condemned French nobility] you and your friends bring over from France… drop ‘em ‘mid Channel…” (p. 51). And the contrast between Sir Percy and his wife, whom even he acknowledges to be “the cleverest woman in Europe” (p. 51), could not be more striking; like the social observers in the text, readers may well wonder why Marguerite St. Just, well-known for her love of intellectual matters and her fashionable Paris salon—“reserved for originality and intellect, for brilliance and wit” (p. 45), qualities Sir Percy seems to lack in abundance—would ever have married him. Some speculate she only married him for his money, but many more know this not to be the case, as other cosmopolitan, well-to-do men would have been happy to have married her. The narrator refers to Sir Percy’s and Marguerite’s match as a “climax” in her public life (a sexual double entendre is perhaps implied), “but to all, the real motive of that climax remained a puzzle and a mystery” (p. 45). She, like others, regards her husband with “good-natured contempt” (p. 47)—an oxymoronic but apt phrase. While his wife leaves the room clearly distraught at the thought of her brother’s impending return to France, Sir Percy jovially and obliviously calls for more alcohol to be served by Jellyband. He thus emerges from this chapter as a vivid but unappealing character in readers’ eyes. (Those not reading the novel for the first time, however, are aware that more of Sir Percy’s character remains to be revealed!)