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C. P. Lesley

Bookworm, writer, radio host—I blog about history, fiction, and publishing in the Internet Age. You can find the full blog on my website. This space is for books.

The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel - C.P. Lesley

As the author, I’m sure you can guess that I like the book, so instead here is some information about how I came to write it that you won’t find elsewhere.

Baroness Orczy’s classic historical adventure romance The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) is not as well known these days as it deserves to be. Some people still remember the 1934 film with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, but it’s more than thirty years since the wonderful (if not word-for-word accurate) BBC version starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour and more than twenty years since the much less satisfactory A&E version. Plans for a new film have been derailed by the European Union’s recent change in its copyright laws, which mean that copyright on the 1934 film will not expire for another five years.

Even so, The Scarlet Pimpernel has many fans. And here you have my tribute to the original, which raises the question: why mess with a classic?

Well, it happened something like this. I had been checking a bunch of ISBNs on Amazon.com for nonfiction books that happened to be about the French Revolution; and the Amazon.com computers, ever eager to persuade visitors to buy more, threw up Baroness Orczy’s novel as a recommendation. I had read it as a teenager and loved it, then put it away and not thought about it for years. But the book cost $5 and I had enough other items on my wish list to wangle free shipping, so I ordered it. When it arrived, I re-read it with interest, then re-read it again.

I found myself fascinated—not so much by the basic story of a wealthy titled Englishman who regularly risks his life and those of colleagues to save French victims from the guillotine, although that’s a wonderful story of its own, as by the conflict that separates the heroine, Marguerite, and her husband. As a teenager I took their relationship at face value, but a long and successful marriage gave me a different perspective on their strife. I began rewriting the story in my head, looking for the crucial moment when an apology or some other change of attitude would send the plot in a different direction. Eventually, I began to write my version down.

Of course, however damaging to a marriage, unresolved conflict is the driver of fiction. Within fifty pages I had run out of story. But I was having far too much fun to quit, so I created a whole new plot of my own. Eventually I had two characters—one modern, one eighteenth-century—in constant conversation about love and life and changing views of women. The result is The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. Relatively little of the story draws on Baroness Orczy’s public domain text, and you need not have read the original to enjoy my version. Nonetheless, she gets full credit for its inspiration. That’s why I dedicated the book to her.