There are books stacked left, books stacked right
Their covers gleaming in the light
I scan through their pages, trying to tell
Which book report will be less like Hell
I find a book with the French Revolution
A mysterious figure at its core
Who’d spoil every gruesome execution
Sold! Do tell me more…
To the Estimable Baroness Orczy,
I was going to try and just keep going with that bit of silliness, playing upon the delightful poem you gave to Sir Percy Blakeney in your classic adventure novel. But it does set the stage: I was in eighth grade and had been assigned my first ever book report project. My English teacher had said it would take up the entirety of our final quarter of the school year and that we would work in groups although, if we wanted, we could opt to work alone at her approval. The kicker of it all was that she had a selection of books already laid out upon a table, so we were not only limited to her selection, but she was going to limit how many people could work on each book. I suspect this is because the majority of my class wanted to read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.
I, on the other hand, made a point to pick up each book and flip through the first few pages. It’s like going on a first date with the book: you’re getting to know the writing style, pacing, and tonal gist of the whole thing. Near the end of the line I picked up a book with a cover I already knew I liked: A man, half-hidden in shadows, with a piece of paper bearing a seal that looked like some kind of red flower. He was clearly in France, given the decor of the soldiers who also graced the cover, and it was clearly sometime in the late 1700’s, one of my favourite eras of history. But then I quickly scan the back and it mentions something about a rogue character, known only as The Scarlet Pimpernel, snatching aristos from the fate of the guillotine.
Well colour me intrigued.
I opened your book and by the very first sentence I was completely hooked — I remember that sentence even now because the dark, mellifluous cadence of the words rings in my head like music:
“A surging, seething, mumuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.”
The effect those words had upon me was instantaneous: chills, inexplicable glee, and a physical need to know more. I took that book home and read it in one sitting which, while not wholly unusual for me, had never really happened a “school book” before. But your story transported me, and that was something I desperately needed in that moment. Thirteen wasn’t a great year for me: I had a bully, I was lonely and angry and had developed bad behaviours as coping mechanism (hello, Dad’s liquor cabinet)…and I was thirteen, full of all those hormonal changes, physical developments, and general state of confusion that comes with being thirteen. Yeah, it just wasn’t a great year.
But it was also the year I discovered your book; it was the year I first met Sir Percy and Lady Marguerite Blakeney. The first year that I got swept away on a swashbuckling, high-stakes adventure of cat-and-mouse, with people’s necks quite literally hanging in the balance. I laughed, I cried, I held my breath, I fell in love, I shook my fist at Chauvelin, and when all was said and done, I started it all over again. Your book gave me my own private adventure, and also made me first think the thought “I’d love to make a movie version of this,” which, in retrospect, is a pretty big deal.
To some people it may seem funny that I say a classic adventure novel is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life, and that I make a point to re-read it every year without fail — especially when, if you really look at the novel, it’s not some milestone in literature. It’s considered a classic and it’s an adventure, but nobody hailed you as the successor to, oh I don’t know, Dickens or something. But I don’t think you get enough credit for the characters and story that you created. I don’t think enough people have had the chance to enjoy the ride you wrote down in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
But I did. And it’s one of those books that shines bright in my memory as a literary milestone: a place where I can mark my life as “before this book” and “after this book.”
So thank you, Baroness Orczy. Thank you.
Nota bene: The poem at this letter’s start was a pastiche of the musical number “They Seek Him Here” from the 1997 musical adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. The song itself is adapted from the poem included in the novel. Please forgive the author of this letter for her general silliness.