Sarah recently made an interesting comment in reply to my post on the Scarlet Pimpernel. In the Baroness Orczy’s books and in the the 1934 Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon/Raymond Massey film, there is no suggestion of romantic involvement between Marguerite St. Just Blakeney (the French Republican actress turned aristocratic English wife) and Paul Chauvelin (an agent of the Committee of Public Safety). In the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour/Ian McKellen and Richard E. Grant/Elizabeth McGovern/Martin Shaw adaptations and in the Broadway musical, Marguerite and Chauvelin are former lovers. I commented that I thought this added an interesting layer to the story. Sarah countered that “The triangle is a useful dramatic device, but the books present two more layered and interesting characters.” Which made me decide it’s time for a reread of the book. It also made me think about what adding an additional romantic element does to this story and to stories in general.
I’ll confess that the romantic in me tends to enjoy the addition of romantic complications. But romance can easily become motivational shorthand–“she did it because she loves him”, “he wants revenge because he can’t forgive her for leaving him”, etc… I don’t think this is quite the case in adaptations of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” that include the romanitc triangle. In both film versions and in the musical (does anyone know of any other adaptations that include the triangle?), I had the sensee that Marguerite had revolutionary principles apart from her love for Chauvelin and that her feelings for both Chauvelin and the Revolution changed as the Revolution took a darker turn. I had the sense that Chauvelin had loved Marguerite but that he was a zealous and ambitious revolutionary whose first loyalty was to what he saw as the aim of the Revolution. I never thought that jealousy over losing Marguerite was his primary motivation (though it does tinge his actions, which creates nice ambiguity; and in the Grant/McGovern/Shaw version, I love the way Percy knows he can play on Chauvelin’s feelings for Marguerite). Is this more or less interesting than the non-romantic conflict of wills and ideas found in the original book? I’m off to re-read the book to decide for myself.
I also found myself thinking about the romantic triangle that figures prominently in “Secrets of a Lady”. At one point Mélanie says, “don’t you dare shrug off what I did as romantic infatuation. Call me whatever names you like, but at least credit me with the wit to make decisions fo rmyself. Do you think I’d have run the risks I’ve run and blackened my soul simply for the love of a man?” Mélanie recognizes the risk of reducing complex motivations to “all for love”. And yet in the case of “Secrets of a Lady”, I think the romantic triangle enriches the story, perhaps in part because much of the time all three characters are acting against their romantic inclinations.
Have you read the Scarlet Pimpernel books or seen adaptations with or without the Percy/Marguerite/Chauvelin triangle? Do you prefer the story with the triangle or without? Can you think of other adaptations of books that have added a romantic element? Did it add to or detract from the story?
Be sure to check out the Fraser Correspondence–I’ve just posted a new letter. And this week I’ll be on blogging twice on the fabulous History Hoydens website. Tuesday, August 28, Kalen Hughes is interviewing me about “Secrets of a Lady”. Kalen asked great questions–every time I do an interview, I feel like I learn more things about my own books. And Thursday, August 30, I’ll be guest blogging about the research behind “Secrets of a Lady.”