Book of the Week

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Title: The Scarlet Pimpernel
Author: Baroness Orczy

The Scarlet Pimpernel appeared at the turn of the century. It is a lucid, well written, fictitious adventure set in the course of the French revolution, 1792 to be exact…when Robespierre reigned and the guillotine ruled.

It is the story of a brave, debonair Briton and his friends who rescued French aristocrats hounded out of their lives by their countrymen if they remained where they were born. The leader of the group is nicknamed Scarlet Pimpernel as he always signs his notes with the red star shaped flower. He himself composes a funny doggerel  on his elusiveness, which he recites to the amusement of his countrymen.

“We seek him here, we seek him there,

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in heaven?–Is he in hell?

The demmed, elusive Pimpernel?”

The hero poses as an empty-headed fop and eludes the French spies in pursuit of him with his quick wit. It is a novel filled with suspense,  romance and adventure. Set between France and England, it tells of a group of brave men who out of humanitarian concerns rescued the innocent from the guillotine.

What makes the novel remarkable in today’s context is that countries collaborate to find homes for refugees driven out by mob violence. In the book, help and shelter was given freely to the emigres, individuals displaced from their country, home and hearth and driven to extremes by violence and hatred of others. Orczy makes us think…could masses driven by envy, greed, hunger, outrage and anger ever mete out justice to anyone? Could the uneducated who just wanted a good life and more wealth even understand the concept of Liberte- Egalite-Fraternite the famous motto of the revolution? Here is how Orczy describes France when her French heroine, the actress Marguerite, lands on the shores of her country.

She was back in that country where at this very moment men slaughtered their fellow-creatures by the hundreds, and sent innocent women and children in thousands to the block…The men all wore red caps–in various stages of cleanliness–but all with the tricolor cockade pinned on the left-hand side. Marguerite noticed with a shudder that, instead of laughing, merry countenance habitual to her own countrymen,their faces invariably wore a look of sly distrust.
Every man nowadays was a spy on fellows…

Has this not been the story of revolutions and freedom movements worldwide? Do common people really profit by changes in the form of governance ? I remember reading similar things in Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre famed Freedom at Midnight. Neighbours and friends fought for differences they had lived with amicably for hundreds of years for satisfying the political need of having borders. Every person is depicted as interpreting Indian independence in their own terms, the beggar dreams of food and home and politicians dream of a socialist democracy…were any of them fully satisfied? Can the millions killed in the name of borders of religion and countries ever be justified? Or, in China, could the Red Army violence against a social system (as depicted in Ping Pong Diplomacy) be justified? Similarly, could the hate-filled mobs during the reign of terror be condoned as decent, educated perpetrators of justice?

I absolutely think reading this book is a must in context of the world developments of today. Perhaps, we need a number of Scarlet Pimpernels to rescue those in need and to instill a feeling of bon homie among the different races created by borders drawn by mankind.

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