Saturday, August 20, 2005

Scarlet Pimpernel Centennial: 1905 – 2005

About a week ago I was at the Esplanade library, from which premium members of the library can borrow DVDs and other audiovisual goodies. Browsing the shelves, I came across a copy of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1982 version). I'd watched it before, on Malaysian television, and we still have a grotty version of it on two separate tapes somewhere (the tape ran out halfway and we had to scramble to find another one, losing about three minutes of one of the most romantic scenes).

Well, how could I resist borrowing my favourite representation of what is arguably my favourite book? (The paperback version, which my mother bought for a dollar among a bunch of other classics when I was about twelve, is the only book I can say that I've read to tatters.)

My long-suffering copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel

So home I went with it (the video), watching it thrice in a week, and of course setting myself off on a Scarlet Pimpernel binge, reading the tattered book again, as well as the approximately eight books I possess at full steam and then the e-texts of the rest of the books I don't have online at Blakeney Manor, arguably the best SP resource on the Internet.

I discovered a couple of interesting things: firstly, that Chauvelin in the 1982 movie is played by Ian McKellen, better known today as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. I don't think I would have noticed the connection if I hadn't recognised his name in the credits, but once I did know they were the same, the resemblance between his younger and older selves seemed obvious.

Ian McKellen as Chauvelin, at left (

Ian McKellen as Gandalf, at right (

Sir Ian also has some notes about the filming of the Scarlet Pimpernel, here.

The second thing was that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the publishing of the original Scarlet Pimpernel book by Baroness Orczy!

(Banner from

I well remember the odyssey that the Scarlet Pimpernel set me off on. Having read it, and somehow finding out that there were other books that I just could not wait to get my hands on, I set about finding them as best I could. The Internet was not all that useful yet, at the time, and so whenever my family went overseas to places like Australia, I would duck into bookshops to inquire about the other Scarlet Pimpernel books.

I remember especially one kindly gentleman who owned a bookshop near the Sydney Harbourfront saying in response to my timid query: “Ah! The Scarlet Pimpernel! They seek him here, they seek him there! Those two lines are the recognition signal of all Scarlet Pimpernel fans, it seems. He explained that he had another customer who had first dibs on all his Scarlet Pimpernel books, but that he had another book by Baroness Orczy, called Beau Brocade, which was very good too. So I bought it. It was a very old copy, very brittle, and if I wasn’t careful the corner of the pages would tear off as I turned them. I devoured it, and loved it, though not as much as the Scarlet Pimpernel itself.

At another Sydney bookshop, this time quite modern, I found a copy of the Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which was the last book in the series, set at the end of the French Revolution. I can remember reading the first, rather eerie, chapter while sitting in a darkened booth at some phone centre while my parents placed a call back home. The atmosphere was perfect for that first chapter.

A while after that, I discovered Amazon, and ordered all the books I could possibly afford. And then came Project Gutenberg, and e-texts in general, which saved me a lot of money. I would read them chapter by chapter as some fan on the other side of the globe painstakingly typed them out or scanned them and put them online. After a while, the plots became rather similar, the Scarlet Pimpernel unbelievably perfect, but I rather liked the irrealism. It was all just so deliciously romantic.


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5:19 PM  

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