I've spent most of the day making marmalade, it stubbornly refused to set for a very long time (I hope it's done now, it was looking positive, but now it's in the jar it's still looking very liquid) which at least gave me time to gather my thoughts about 'The Scarlet Pimpernel'.
That introduction is excellent, I really didn't know anything about Baroness Orczy (I think I'd always rather assumed it was a pen name) but she sounds like a colourful personality, and this book made an unexpected fortune for her. It also sets the plot in the context of concerns about immigration both in the 1790's and in 1903 when it was written. Something else Nicholas Daly points out is how much of the book focuses on Marguerite, rather than the Pimpernel. Something adaptations have tended not to do, and which I had forgotten.
There are aspects of the book that feel a little clunky now (the slang, the merry England bits, the tone of some of the more romantic episodes) and there are some plot holes (the league could be rather more discreet; given some of their actions it's amazing they've escaped capture for so long) but it doesn't really matter - the essential charm and power of the story is still there.
What surprised me was the ambivalence Orczy shows towards her french aristocrats, again and again there are examples of disagreeable pride, abuse of power, selfish thoughtlessness, obstinacy, and rudeness. Orczy has even less sympathy for the fanatical revolutionaries she creates, and a deep rooted dislike of the mob, but it's a more complex picture than I had remembered. Her heroine, Marguerite, is a middle class girl with liberal tendencies who had earnt her own living as an actress before marrying her English husband.
And that's the other thing, whilst it might be the daring exploits of the Pimpernel (mostly as played by Anthony Andrews) that I recall, the book is really about the impossible choices that Marguerite has to make, and how she sets about dealing with the consequences of her actions - which is much more interesting.
Something else that's interesting is the ending where the disguised Pimpernel deliberately lets himself be humiliated in a decidedly un-heroic way. It's the intelligent and pragmatic thing to do, but how often does that happen in tales of daring-do? And that's why the book has retained its magic for me.
I can see it's faults now, but still, when I finished it I felt somewhat bereft, and tempted to turn straight back to page one, just as I did when I was 11. Orczy wrote several sequels, most of which I read back in the day (long enough ago that you still had a good chance of finding them in local libraries). None are anywhere near as good as 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', but 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' itself is worth a few hours of anyone's attention.