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The Scarlet Pimpernel is the first novel in a series of historical fiction by Baroness Orczy, published in 1905. It was written after her stage play of the same title enjoyed a long run in London, having opened in Nottingham in 1903.
The novel is set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. The title is the nom de guerre of its hero and protagonist, a chivalrous Englishman who rescues aristocrats before they are sent to the guillotine. Sir Percy Blakeney leads a double life: apparently nothing more than a wealthy fop, but in reality a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist. The band of gentlemen who assist him are the only ones who know of his secret identity. He is known by his symbol, a simple flower, the scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis). Marguerite Blakeney, his French wife, does not share his secret. She is approached by the new French envoy to England, Chauvelin, with a threat to her brother's life if she does not aid in the search for the Pimpernel. She aids him, and then discovers that the Pimpernel is also very dear to her. She sails to France to stop the envoy.
Opening at the New Theatre in London's West End on January 5, 1905, the play became a favourite of British audiences, eventually playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in Britain.
Orczy's premise of a daring hero who cultivates a secret identity disguised by a meek or ineffectual manner proved enduring. Zorro, The Shadow, The Phantom, Superman and Batman followed within a few decades, and the trope remains a popular one in serial fiction today.
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