17 April 2015


Character Connection 49

Hosted @ The Introverted Reader

Maybe I should do Locus Focus the way I do Character Connection: that is, only when something inspires me to blog about it. =P In my experience, however, settings don't provide the same sort of inspiration that characters do. In any case, I'll have to figure something out for when I finally finish my Return to Faerie Land challenge. And I will have to do that before June, for reasons that I hope long-time readers are already excited about! ;-)

The Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive
The Scarlet Pimpernel
by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

"Ah, yes," added the Comtesse, while a look of haughty disdain and intense bitterness shot through her melancholy eyes. "There was that woman, Marguerite St. Just for instance. She denounced the Marquis de St. Cyr and all his family to the awful tribunal of Terror." . . .

. . . "Faith, Madame, I did hear some vague rumours of it, but in England, no one would credit it. Sir Percy Blakeney, her husband, is a very wealthy man, of high social position, the intimate friend of the Prince of Wales . . . and Lady Blakeney leads both fashion and society in London."

"That may be, Monsieur, and we shall, of course, lead a very quiet life in England, but I pray God that while I remain in this beautiful country, I may never meet Marguerite St. Just."

Put yourself on the Comtesse de Tournay's high horse for a minute, and make sure you slide your plebeian feet into the snobby stirrups. Imagine being a refugee from a country where you and your entire family were in constant danger of being murdered by a mob. People of your class have been massacred in the streets, their bodies mutilated and the grisly trophies left on full display. Many of your own friends and relatives, including children and the elderly, have already been guillotined. You, your son, and your daughter, with no possessions but the clothes on your backs, have been smuggled to safety in a neighbouring country, but your husband's fate is still uncertain. You are desperate to reunite the family and you long for peace, justice and freedom to return to your country . . . but hardly anyone else in Europe seems to care.

On the contrary, everyone is more likely to celebrate someone like Marguerite St. Just Blakeney, whose blabbing of the Marquis St. Cyr's secret conspiracy to end that Reign of Terror got him, his wife, and their sons beheaded. Since that grisly day, she has become the wife of one of the wealthiest men in England, and despite having supported the overthrow of the French monarchy, now gets to rub elbows with the Prince of Wales himself. And she's so pretty and stylish that everyone just loves her and can't believe she would do such a thing. Even those who are sympathetic to you insist that you are wrong--or at the very least, politically unwise--to despise her, while she publicly makes fun of you for holding her to a strict moral standard.

It's really insupportable. I can't blame the Comtesse for trying to get some sort of justice for the wronged Marquis, or even for taking Marguerite's actions personally. It's bad enough when people who have done monstrous things don't get what's coming to them; it's practically purgatorial when they can make everyone believe that they're only being slandered by envious meanies like you. Then while the guilty go unpunished, the innocent look bad. =(

The French Revolution hasn't seeped into popular consciousness the way other great atrocities have, so I'm going to play a card that I don't usually take out of the deck. The World War II card. For if this novel were set in the late 1930s, the Comtesse would be a Jew smuggled out of Germany and Marguerite would be a Nazi informant whose actions sent an entire Jewish family to a concentration camp. And you and I already know which of the two ladies would get all the readers rallying to her corner . . . which is why I'm so over Holocaust novels and movies these days. *

Yet it was still surprising to me that Baroness Orczy, herself a displaced aristocrat from Hungary, isn't more sympathetic to the Comtesse. Although, as the omniscient narrator, Orczy is privy to some things that prove that Marguerite isn't as hypocritical as she seems, surely Orczy also understands that the Comtesse's reactions are justified.

Or are they? For all my empathy with the Comtesse, I grudgingly admit that turning Marguerite into a social pariah would just be another form of that human sacrifice that we saw in the Reign of Terror (and in the Holocaust). It's one thing to hold people accountable for their actions; it's another thing to pile the sins of an entire nation on their head. And isn't the latter what people who never even experienced WWII do with the Nazis these days? We've turned them into the brand that is cool to reject. For many of us, it's a good thing the Holocaust happened, because without self-consciously distancing ourselves from it now and then, how would we ever claim that we are decent people?

The Scarlet Pimpernel has a modest suggestion. It argues that goodness can only come from the hard work of repentance, confession, and atonement . . . and from the even harder work of letting others be free to do their own repentance, confession, and atonement, even if they don't hop to it in a way that we find fitting. The Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive has truly been wronged, but that doesn't mean that she will always be in the right. Orczy doesn't go for the easy scapegoat and neither should we.

* Yes, I am aware of the movie Pimpernel Smith, directed by and starring Leslie Howard, who apparently loved playing the Scarlet Pimpernel so much in 1934 that he adapted the story into war propaganda in 1941. I haven't seen it yet, but from what I've read of it (and from what I know of WWII Hollywood), the story itself is such a Comtesse de Tournay that Baroness Orczy's beautiful moral is totally lost. 

Image Source: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy


Jenny said...

Honestly I hated Maurgerite so much in the book that I could totally take The Comtesse de Tournay's side. Still, You make a good point.

Enbrethiliel said...


Marguerite rubbed me the wrong way at the start, too. She had so many good things that she didn't deserve! But I had to wonder how much of my reaction to her was the sort of high-school-level response to the pretty, popular mean girl: yeah, we hate her . . . but wouldn't we also like to be her?

Sheila said...

I liked Marguerite. First off, I was sure the bad news about her just *had* to be slander, and by the time I learned it was true, I felt too sorry for her to be mad. It can't be fun for her, living with her cold husband and her regrets.

Enbrethiliel said...


It took me a long while to feel sorry for Marguerite. Maybe what happened with the Marquis was an accident, but all the problems in her own marriage were her own creation.

But when I weigh her case and think about what is reasonable for one spouse to expect from another, Percy's own secret keeps messing with the scales. For him, keeping an uncertain wife at arm's length was a matter of life and death . . . but how could she have known that???