I Will Repay

I Will Repay - Emmuska Orczy

This third (chronological) Scarlet Pimpernel adventure was a re-read for me, having read it sixteen or seventeen years ago. Like in it's predecessors, the Pimpernel is only a peripheral character who steps in occasionally and mostly operates on the sidelines while the focus remains on those he'll have to save from the filthy, evil, bloodthirsty French Republic. (I get the sense Orczy wasn't overly fond of the French. Or Jews. Or republics.) In this story we follow Paul, who wants to smuggle Marie Antoinette out of prison despite impossible odds and the danger to himself, and Juliette, who is torn between her general goodness and her admiration of Paul and the oath she swore to bring about his downfall in revenge for killing her brother in a duel.

 

This is the stuff cheesy, romantic dreams are made of. 

 

I can't help but compare my current impressions to my first-read impressions, and wow. I'm a lot more jaded than I was in my late teens/early twenties. The first time around, the sixteen-year age difference between Paul and Juliette didn't bother me at all. One of my parents is more than a decade older than the other, so unless the younger party is underage I don't flinch at age gaps. This time around it did bother me, and it took me two-thirds of the book to figure out why. Juliette is twenty-four and Paul is forty when the romance buds. That in itself doesn't trip any alarm bells, but it got a little creepy after awhile because Orczy takes great pains to illustrate how childlike Juliette is -- that's childlike, folks, not childish. She harps on it so much that Paul's attraction to her starts to feel kind of creepy, even though Orczy also harps on how Paul worships her as some angelic being or child saint descended from the heavens. Actually, that might have added to the creep factor. Hmm.

 

There is something else I've noticed in regards to Orczy's female characters, and this persists through all the books I've read so far. I presume it's a reflection of the attitudes at the time Orczy was writing, and also of the periods she was depicting. In order to ensure they wouldn't be seen as unappealing, she had to over-emphasize her female characters' femininity to compensate for their intelligence, which was seen as a masculine trait. So they are perfectly formed paragons of beauty, delicate yet able to resist swooning at critical moments. In contrast to these smart yet womanly creatures (who all seem to have childlike faces and small hands) the women in her stories who are base, crass, howling for the blood of aristos, etc., are unsexed a la Lady Macbeth. They do and say these terrible, non-gentle things because sometime during the Revolution they forgot how to be women. Otherwise they'd be mending shirts and kissing booboos. At least, that's the impression given. I find it rather interesting.