First published in 1903. Approximately 86,000 words.. Available free at Project Gutenberg.
Perhaps the most famous alias of all time, The Scarlet Pimpernel hides the identity of a British nobleman who, masked by various disguises, leads a band of young men to undermine the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution.
The Scarlet Pimpernel makes daring raid after daring raid into the heart of France to save aristocrats condemned to the guillotine. At each rescue, he leaves his calling card: a small, blood-red flower - a pimpernel - mocking the power of Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety.
Having been told that his own wife was an informer who delivered an aristocrat into the hands of the Committee, the Scarlet Pimpernel must keep his identity and work a secret while he struggles against the love he feels for her. Until the day her own brother is taken prisoner...
Many classics claim the title of "first vampire novel" or "first science fiction novel" and so on, but The Scarlet Pimpernel may be the first superhero novel. There probably are earlier novels in which heroes go out and do heroic deeds in secret, but The Scarlet Pimpernel has all the trappings of the modern superhero genre: a rich playboy who maintains a shallow public persona to conceal his secret identity, that of a masked hero who leaves a calling card to mock his enemies. Sir Percy Blakeney, aka The Scarlet Pimpernel, has amazing skills of stealth, disguise, combat, gadgetry, quick wits and an iron physique, he's extraordinarily handsome, he's the richest man in England, and he's married to the cleverest and most beautiful woman in Europe. He leads a band of fellow adventurers who sneak into France to rescue French aristocrats who have been condemned to die by the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety.
Originally a play, the novel came afterwards. Baroness Orczy turned it into a series, with prequels, sequels, installments focusing on secondary characters, on Sir Percy's ancestors and descendants, and so on.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is great fun, in the tradition of the pulp novels that followed it, but it's not high literature. Orczy wrote a great adventure with almost-plausible twists and turns, and she relies less on coincidence and improbable deux ex machina than many later writers who followed in her footsteps. If Sir Percy is improbably noble and super-competent and lucky, he is no more so than Batman. The plotting is fast-paced and I genuinely found myself wondering "How is Sir Percy going to get out of this one?" more than once, and was always satisfied with the answer.
Also, it's not just a swashbuckling adventure. A major complication in the novel is Sir Percy's relationship with his French wife, Marguerite St. Just. A former actress with the Comedie Francaise, Marguerite married Sir Percy basically because he was rich and handsome and she thought he'd worship her -- which he did, initially, until he found out that she'd denounced one of her enemies to the Committee, causing the man and his entire family to be executed. Because of this, Marguerite Blakeney is widely mistrusted in England, and Sir Percy himself keeps her at a distance and does not reveal his secret identity to her.
It develops, of course, that Marguerite isn't quite the villainess she appears, and along with their final escape comes a reconciliation between the couple.
Really, The Scarlet Pimpernel has all the ingredients for a successful YA novel today: action, adventure, passion, romance, and a bunch of sequels to milk the franchise, and Baroness Orczy did it better over a hundred years ago.
That said, it is not without its flaws. The Scarlet Pimpernel is in no way comparable to, for example, A Tale of Two Cities. Orczy does not have Dickens's storytelling depth or mastery of prose. Her characters are as strong (and her dialog is snappier), but not as varied.
Dickens was much fairer to the multiple perspectives of the Terror; even the merciless Madame Defarge's bloodlust is understandable given the brutality that she and her fellow peasants suffered, which Dickens portrays in an unvarnished fashion. Orczy, on the other hand, is entirely on the side of the aristos, giving grudging acknowledgement that the French peasants might have been rightfully pissed off at their mistreatment, but subsequently they are portrayed as little more than bloodthirsty animals. England lionizes the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel for their heroism in rescuing "innocent" French nobles; no one ever asks if they rescue any French commoners also condemned to die, or if any of these sporting, heroic gentlemen cared about what the aristocrats were doing to peasants before the Revolution. Baroness Orczy's bias is perhaps understandable, but there is no deep reading of the Revolution to be had here.
Orczy is not a great writer. While she at least does not suffer from wordiness, she does suffer from repetitiveness and cliches. Marguerite Blakeney is "the cleverest woman in Europe." We are told this repeatedly. That exact phrase -- "the cleverest woman in Europe" -- is used no less than five times in the novel. Sir Percy is described as "inane" twenty times (nine of those instances being references to his "inane laugh"). And so on -- Orczy really needed an editor to point out all the words and phrases she overused.
There was also a rather annoying plot device in the second half of the book, where Orczy uses Marguerite as the POV witness to events, so she follows her husband to France and sneaks after him, and the reader begins to wonder if she has powers of invisibility, or if she's a better ninja than the Scarlet Pimpernel. She sits in an inn hidden only in a cloak, so she hears both public and whispered conversations because everyone just... ignores her. Then she sneaks after Chauvelin, the French agent who is in pursuit of Blakeney, and while he is running or riding in a cart across the French countryside, this pampered noblewoman manages to keep up with him and stay hidden behind the hedges that are always conveniently nearby so she can keep watching and eavesdropping on everything that happens.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a novel that could have used a better beta and some tighter editing, but it still deserves its reputation as a classic adventure novel, and it's a worthier read than much of what's on the shelves today (especially the YA shelves). I compare The Scarlet Pimpernel to a YA novel because while it certainly wasn't written for a juvenile audience, and its main characters are too old for it to be considered a YA novel, it has the right tone and style and amount of depth for that market and I think most young readers would really enjoy it.
The Scarlet Pimpernel on Film
A swashbuckling superhero rescuing beautiful French ladies from the guillotine is obvious material for Hollywood, so naturally there have been many movies and TV series. I Netflixed two of them.
The 1934 Film
The 1934 film is (according to Wikipedia) considered the "definitive" adaptation. Starring Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard, this classic is well-acted and faithful to the book except for ending, which skips the wild goose chase with Marguerite sneaking from hedge to hedge, and Sir Percy's disguise, for a more mundane game of switch-and-replace. It's one of the better old black-and-white adaptations of a novel I've seen, though sadly it cannot rise above the quality of its source material.
The 1982 Made-for-TV Movie
The 1982 TV production, starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, and Ian McKellen, combined the original novel with another of Orczy's Pimpernel novels, Eldorado, thus adding a plot to save the Dauphin of France.
About the only virtues this production has are Ian McKellen and Jane Seymour when she was still kind of hot. It's a dumbed down hackwork of the original novels, telegraphing all the twists and having the actors spell out every single nuance of the plot and character relationships. Considering that Orczy wasn't exactly a nuanced writer, this makes this movie something suitable for children or bored adults.
Verdict: A dashing 18th century superhero, lovers torn apart by misunderstanding and apparent betrayal, only to be reunited, and the peril of Madame Guillotine. The Scarlet Pimpernel is not deep or serious literature, but it's fun and nicely plotted and a quick read. I can easily see Orczy as a writer of steampunk paranormal romances if she were alive today, and doing them better than most.