I haven’t been very successful recently at finishing the books chosen for me by the Classics Club Spins, so I decided to make an early start on my current Spin book, I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy – and have finished it three weeks before the 22nd August deadline! It helped that it was a relatively short book, as well as a light and entertaining one that I found easy to read.
First published in 1906, this was the first sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel to be published, but if you’re reading the series in chronological order, as I am, it’s the fourth. I have previously read Sir Percy Leads the Band and The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and found them both disappointing in comparison to the original book, but I’m pleased to say that this one was more enjoyable. Not everyone will agree, as we do see very little of the Scarlet Pimpernel and nothing at all of his wife Marguerite, but I thought it was quite an exciting and gripping story in its own right.
The novel opens in 1783 with Paul Déroulède and the young Vicomte de Marny fighting a duel in a Paris tavern. When the Vicomte is accidentally killed, his father, devastated at losing his son and heir, forces his other child, fourteen-year-old Juliette, to swear an oath promising to avenge her brother’s death: “May my brother’s soul remain in torment until the final Judgment Day if I should break my oath, but may it rest in eternal peace the day on which his death is fitly avenged.”
Ten years later, the Revolution is underway and Paris has become a dangerous place for a young noblewoman like Juliette:
And the afternoons were very lively. There was always plenty to see: first and foremost, the long procession of tumbrils, winding its way from the prisons to the Place de la Révolution. The forty-four thousand sections of the Committee of Public Safety sent their quota, each in their turn, to the guillotine. At one time these tumbrils contained royal ladies and gentlemen, ci-devant dukes and princesses, aristocrats from every county in France, but now this stock was becoming exhausted…
Walking through the streets one day, Juliette’s expensive lace-trimmed clothes draw the attention of a mob and she escapes from them by hammering on the door of the nearest house, which happens to be the home of Paul Déroulède. Paul, who has made himself popular with the citizens of Paris despite his own royalist sympathies, protects her from the mob and takes her into his household. As Juliette gets to know her brother’s enemy, she finds herself falling in love – so when a chance comes to send Paul Déroulède to the guillotine, she faces a very difficult decision.
You’re probably wondering where Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, comes into the story; as I’ve said, we don’t see very much of him, but he does have an important role to play towards the end. However, the absence of Sir Percy for most of the novel probably explains why this book was not more popular on its publication as people who were expecting a Scarlet Pimpernel book would have been disappointed. Personally, this didn’t really bother me as I was so caught up in the story of Juliette and Déroulède, and all the detail of this period of the French Revolution. The novel is set shortly after the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, during the ‘Reign of Terror’, and Orczy does a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere on the streets of Paris where anyone with a drop of noble blood risks being denounced and sent to their death. Orczy makes no secret of the fact that she is clearly on the side of the aristocrats, while the ordinary citizens of Paris are portrayed as brutal and bloodthirsty, but I suppose you would expect bias from someone who was a baroness!
Having enjoyed this one, I’m planning to continue with the next book in the series, The Elusive Pimpernel, which I’ve been told is one of the best.
This is book 21/50 from my second Classics Club list.
Book 33/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.