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15th May
2009
written by Tony
Shh! it's a secret!

Shh! it's a secret!

For most of my adult  life I’ve had a working knowledge of what (or perhaps, more accurately, who) the Scarlet Pimpernel is and how the whole story kind of goes. A dashing, secret, English aristocrat who saves French aristocrats from death at the hands of the over-eager, long oppressed French commoners. All you need to know, right? Actually, yes, it kind of is. But, in a flash of impulsiveness I purchased this volume from that crack-house called McKay’s Used Books. It looked short enough, I had always been a little curious about the actual plot of the story and the book was only $1.50. Win, win, win. It turns out that this particular edition was published at Dalmatian Press which is just down the road from Nashville and the cover was designed by someone I used to work with. Useless trivia over. Apparently there was a very successful play of the same name that preceded this novel by several years, and the Baroness took it and made it into a book that made her disgustingly wealthy. I say this, because this knowledge actually baffles me even more when it comes to the language used by essentially everyone in the book. The play was written by an Englishman and performed all over Europe, so I would assume the language there is fairly authentic. Orczy is originally from Hungary but settled in London at the age of 15, at time when her mind would have still been fairly plastic and her acquisition of native dialect should have been quite easy, given time. Enough digression: there are six, heavily used and inexplicable catch-all phrases used in this book. Suffice it to say that, after being used to no end, sometimes three or four times in one four line conversation, they began to drive me crazy. They are, in no particular order, “Odd’s Life!” “Odd’s Fish!” “Zooks!” “La!” “Zounds!” and “Lud!” “Odd’s life” and “odd’s fish” make absolutely no sense to me and after this little exchange, kind of make me want to kill myself:
"Zooks!" ejaculated Sir Andrew in boundless astonishment as he recognized his leader, "of all the. . ." The young man had seen Marguerite, and happily checked the forcible language that rose to his lips, at sight of the exquisite Sir Percy in this weird and dirty garb. "Yes!" said Blakeney, calmly, "of all the. . .hem!. . .My friend!--I have not yet had time to ask you what you were doing in France, when I ordered you to remain in London? Insubordination? What? Wait till my shoulders are less sore, and, by Gad, see the punishment you'll get." "Odd's fish! I'll bear it," said Sir Andrew with a merry laugh, "seeing that you are alive to give it. . . . Would you have had me allow Lady Blakeney to do the journey alone? But, in the name of heaven, man, where did you get these extraordinary clothes?" "Lud! they are a bit quaint, ain't they?" laughed Sir Percy, jovially, "But, odd's fish!" he added, with sudden earnestness and authority, "now you are here, Ffoulkes, we must lose no more time: that brute Chauvelin may send some one to look after us."
I get the usage, it’s just an exclaimation, like “jeeze” or “man” but what the hell does it refer to? Anyone? “Zooks” is clearly the shortened form of “gadzooks,” which is fine when you don’t use it six times in one paragraph and “zounds” is, as Steph tells me, shorthand for “God’s wounds.” “La” appears to be a flip dismissal, similar to “whatever” or “meh.” “Lud” is “lord” colloquially, and is usually accompanied by “demmed” (damned) somethingorother. So, what I’m getting at here is that the writing felt clichéd and inauthentic, and really came close to dragging the whole thing down the tubes. However. The action was really good, and engaging in a way that was almost unnerving, especially when I realized that I really wanted to see what would happen. Let me first say that I totally called it. All of it. This isn’t really a boast about my intellectual prowess, it’s just that Orczy is kind of clumsily heavy-handed in her deception, and the “secrets” that are supposed to shock and/or surprise when they are later revealed don’t do either. Spoiler (kind of)! Lord Blakeney is the Scarlet Pimpernel! Ayieeee! For the first two-hundred pages or so his identity is kept a secret from everyone, including his wife, but then she finds out and it’s supposed to be this huge reveal, only it isn’t. Orczy makes it obvious that Blakeney’s wife (who is known as “the most intelligent woman in Europe”) considers him inept, dull and generally boorish, while concurrently summarily praising his wonderful good taste, excellent humor and uncanny ability to gain the affinity of everyone he meets, including the Prince of Wales. After two hundred pages (or even 25) of this blatant posturing it becomes pretty clear that there really is no one else who could be the Pimpernel. Smartest woman in Europe indeed. Orczy does Lady Blakeney the further disservice of turning her into an irrational nit-wit who gets pretty dull and annoying by the end of things. I can’t even say that this is a huge spoiler. I was looking at the blurb for a movie version of this story and they tell you in the first line that Blakeney is the Pimpernel. So much for any mystery in the first half of the story. Ultimately this book is pretty badly written, at least technically speaking. Despite this flaw, the story is quite engaging and in the end that more than made up for the fact that most of the dialogue was pretty hard to swallow and the fact that the plot was about as subtle as a monkey with a flame thrower. 3 out of 5

6 Comments

  1. 05/16/2009

    I saw this and a couple of others in the series at the library, in mint condition, hardcover, on the donation/discard shelf and twice almost bought them. I really wanted to read about the Scarlet Pimpernel but what stopped me both times was the writing style. I admit to choosing books based on opening lines and the first couple of pages, only because if I don’t like the writing style I’m sure I won’t last more than a few pages of it. So I didn’t pick them up. I guess the success of most of my readings lie in this. I mean, the reason why I like most of what I read. I can immediately tell if the writing style will appeal to me in the beginning or not. If not, I just don’t read it. Thank you for affirming that I made the right choice in not purchasing these books. Lol.

  2. Laura
    05/16/2009

    I saw a musical version of The Scarlet Pimpernel in Takarazuka, Japan (google Takarazuka for some awesome photos and info). It was in Japanese and performed by an all female cast. They wore over the top costumes and at the end they did a can-can revue type dance. It was hilarious and really confusing.

    I probably should have read it before going…although after reading your review, I probably wouldn’t have gotten through it…La!

  3. Eva
    05/16/2009

    lol: I read this a couple of years ago, and even though the writing is ridiculous, I enjoyed it anyway. I guess I just like a good romp. 😀

  4. 05/17/2009

    Yes pretty badly written. I like the newest movie though! That is fun. I guess some books are better in movie format…

  5. zooks! i can’t believe you didn’t love it, with writing like that! ha. i was dragged to see it on broadway a few years back. i can’t remember much about it…lots of singing. some cannon and gunfire. that about covers it.

  6. 05/20/2009

    I don’t really think this is the book for me. The language would drive me completely crazy! The story does sound mildly entertaining, but diving through all that atrocious word usage would definitely get the better of me.

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