The French Revolution has for many years been a setting for retellings in many genres of fiction on the page and on screen. The chaos of the time provides many openings where a new story could be woven in and many writers have filled that space in the past. In our June GSFF book, Scarlet, Genevieve Cogman places vampires as some of the loathed and persecuted aristocracy all the while weaving in an age old war between them and long gone sorcerers that has reignited through an unsuspecting maiden supporting the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Very few things are as simple as they seem when we are children – and, of course, media is intended to convey a message, whether it’s films or books or other forms of presentation. I must have been eight or nine years old when I first saw the Leslie Howard Scarlet Pimpernel movie, in which Sir Percy and Lady Marguerite Blakeney were undoubtedly the good guys, and Chauvelin (and all fellow Revolutionaries) absolute villains. I then went out into the garden to help my mother pick the blackcurrants, and ended up imitating fencing moves with a stick and declaring, “The pleasure, my dear sir, is all mine!” (Yes, I absolutely was the Pimpernel rather than Lady Marguerite). Years have gone by, and I’ve read the original Orczy novels and short stories. Orczy wrote her stories about the League over a period from 1903 to 1940, and some of them have aged better than others. I’ve also educated myself a bit better on the actual history of the period, rather than just fictional portrayals. (Not that fictional portrayals are bad – I have a shelf full of Georgette Heyer’s historical romances, though they are set a few decades later).
The basic fact of social classes is baked into the very fabric of the stories about the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, just as it’s part of the French Revolution – either as a fact to be accepted, or a fact to be changed. While there are some “poor but honest” heroic types, and some corrupt and cruel members of the upper classes, for the most part our protagonists are noblemen. The heroes are frequently noblewomen, though exceptions can be made for virtuous pure-hearted beautiful maidens of lower birth. Even Chauvelin himself can and does pass as a gentleman. (In fact, Orczy is thought to have loosely based him on Bernard-François, marquis de Chauvelin, who served with Rochambeau in the American Revolution. Now there’s a story waiting to be told!)
The Revolution itself could not have existed without social classes – to oppress, to suppress, to rebel against, to take the place of, to rise, to fall, to redefine themselves. In the ideal world of the Revolution, everyone is “Citizen”. In the world of Orczy’s fiction, naturally it is members of the upper classes who do the “right thing” – in fact, the fact that it is them doing it makes it the “right thing” in the eyes of some of their followers. But it’s the structure of social classes – above and below – which creates the framework in which they all exist. It is a required part of the Orczy narrative. It’s internalised by the characters, and by my protagonist Eleanor. It’s given visible manifestation in the existence of vampires who have no intention of giving up their power, their wealth, their land, or their social position.
And an underdog like Eleanor, a woman and a maid, might have a very different view on everything from the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Thank you, Reader, for sharing her narrative.