Orczy plunges us into the throes of the French revolution, as "a surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name," gathers at Paris' West Barricade. During the day, these masses watch hundreds of aristocrats lose their heads at the guillotine, condemned as 'traitors' to France. In the afternoon, they gather at the gates of the city to watch the daily attempts of the aristocrats to evade Sargent Bibot.
Though Bibot has had great success in preventing aristocrats from leaving the city, recently a large number have succeeded in escaping France and reaching England safely. The rumor is that a band of Englishmen have taken to helping the aristocrats escape -- leaving behind the sign of a star-shaped flower, the scarlet pimpernel, as a marker.
Bibot scrutinizes a passing cart for hidden aristocrats, but quickly lets them go when the old hag driver tells him that her grandson has small-pox. Soon enough, Bibot realizes his mistake when a captain comes bounding up -- for the old hag was the 'accursed Englishman himself -- the Scarlet Pimpernel.'
The setting moves to a small pub in Dover called The Fisherman's Rest. Here, English men and women await several French aristocrats who have managed to escape from Paris with the help of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Two of these Englishmen, Lord Antony Dewhurst and Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, close accomplices of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
The Comtesse de Tournay soon arrives with her daughter and son, lamenting that her husband remains in Paris while she has escaped with her children. She prays for his successful rescue and asks whether she can meet the Scarlet Pimpernel, the man who has saved her and her children's life. She is told it is impossible, for the Pimpernel's identity is strictly secret.
The Comtesse recounts her terrifying experience crossing through the barricades with the old hag in the driver's seat, expecting to be found out at any moment. She mentions that the women in France have been especially cooperative in executing aristocrats. The Comtesse specifically accuses Marguerite St. Just of denouncing a whole family to the tribunal. She mentions that she heard Marguerite St. Just married an Englishman and hopes aloud that she never sees her again.
But her hosts feel terribly awkward, for Marguerite St. Just, having married an Englishman, is now Lady Blakeney. At that precise moment, the Blakeneys arrive outside in their carriage.
From the outset, The Scarlet Pimpernel makes no secret of its genre -- it's a swashbuckling adventure devoid of subtlety. The book careens from location to location, telling a story of heroism and nobility, all while maintaining a tense plot. The wonder of Orczy's novel is its economy and pacing; no sooner is a character mentioned, such as the Comtesse de Tournay, than that character appears. This approach, though lacking in subtlety, maximizes plot twists and suspense. As we look at The Scarlet Pimpernel, its crucial that we consider structure as the most crucial element in the book; no matter how endearing the characters, if the plot couldn't sustain momentum and economy, the novel would collapse. The melodrama of the story only works when abetted by an unceasing storyline full of action and plot twists.
The opening resonates with myth -- it presents no characters that we'll see again, simply telling the legend of the Pimpernel who would free those aristocrats condemned to die. Orczy thus pulls off a nifty trick: the natural sympathies of the reader would be expected to be with the masses against the aristocrats, but by telling the legend of the Pimpernel, presenting him straightaway and unambiguously as the hero, Orczy encourages us to feel awe and admiration for the man who would rescue these doomed aristocrats. Though the reader is more likely to be a member of the "masses" than the nobility, the mythic presentation of the Pimpernel does not allow us to identify with the forces of democracy.
The Comtesse de Tournay's arrival is odd; though we certainly expect her to be a pivotal character, she soon falls away dramatically, not really to return again. Indeed, when she faces off against Lady Blakeney, we take the Comtesse's side -- believing her story that Marguerite St. Just had condemned the St. Cyr family to die. But slowly, as we're immersed into this world of nobility, we start to realize that the masses are not our protagonists at all, that "Orczy's sympathy with the deposed nobility and old order is evident" (Brantley, xi).
Moreover, Lady Blakeney's seeming haughtiness makes us wonder whether she is to be a villain. Orczy's descriptions of Lady Blakeney consistently mention her beauty, charm, wit, and other priceless virtues, but as the reader, we have a harder time seeing these positive qualities in action. The nature of sympathy for Lady Blakeney is a key analytical point we will continue to track as we continue, but for now, it's important to note that we do not necessarily see her as our novel's heroine.
For the most part, however, these opening chapters are principally about exposition - the nature of the conflict in the revolution between the masses and the 'traitorous' aristocrats, the rescue of the Comtesse but the remainder of her husband behind, the league of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his mysterious identity, and the seemingly duplicitous nature of Lady Blakeney. When the Blakeneys arrive, we are fully ready for the beginning of our adventure, but quite unsure as to who is our protagonist.