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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Baroness Emma Orczy on Knitting During the French Revolution

Due to personal interest raised by writing posts on my sister blog, Poirot and Friends, I decided to read The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy. So I found a free ebook version on, downloaded it to my kindle, and dived in. I found it a bracing novel packed with humor, interest, drama, and excitement. Unfortunately, any internet search of the novel immediately reveals the secret identity of the hero, which drains much of the suspense from the first half, during which the protagonist Marguerite neither respects nor loves her husband, and wonders at the identity of the daring, celebrated Scarlet Pimpernel. Still, Orczy's earthy and colorful prose flows well, and the first half helps us understand the characters, as well as the world in which they live. Once Orczy has made us care about Marguerite and her husband Lord Percy, the second half roars right along, with a daring venture across a storm-wracked sea to France, where Marguerite valiantly tries to save the Scarlet Pimpernel from capture.

Oops. By that last sentence, you've probably just guessed the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Sorry. Really though, the best part of the novel is Marguerite's backstory, the mistakes she makes in the first half of the novel, and her transformation into a valiant heroine. It'd be interesting to read more of the series, and see how she (and Percy) develop in later novels.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set during a particularly bloody period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror. During this time, anyone suspected of sympathizing with the aristocracy was put to death. Madame Guillotine embraced people from all walks of life, including the lowliest peasant. Ironically, this sometimes included people who believed in the ideals of their glorious new republic. The Executive branch of the France's revolutionary government (the equivalent of the President of the United States, or the Prime Minister in England), the so-called Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre, knew no mercy. If any French citizen allowed an aristocrat, any member of his family, or a sympathizer (such as a loyal servant) escape to another country, it didn't matter how vigilantly they tried to prevent their escape, or how faultless their lives were in other respects. They were simply dragged off to the loving arms (and blade) of Madame Guillotine.

Baroness Emma Orczy's novel also offered an insight into the popularity of knitting during the French Revolution.

The women who drove the carts usually spent their day on the Place de la Greve, beneath the platform of the guillotine, knitting and gossiping, whilst they watched the rows of tumbrils arriving with the victims the Reign of Terror claimed every day. It was great fun to see the aristos arriving for the reception of Madame la Guillotine, and the places close by the platform were very much sought after. Bibot, during the day, had been on duty on the Place. He recognized most of the old hats, "tricotteuses," as they were called, who sat there and knitted, whilst head after head fell beneath the knife, and they themselves got quite bespattered with the blood of those cursed aristos.

PinkyKeep on knitting, you two.
Oh, and Captain Scarlet, I want that guillotine built by sunset,
or it's off with your dome!

Perhaps I can be forgiven for pointing out that this passage from Baroness Emma Orczy's novel gives an entirely different definition to the knitting term dye lot. Perhaps not. (Perhaps I'm fortunate that France no longer enlists Madame Guillotine to secure Public Safety). Still, doesn't it makes you wonder what types of hats, scarves, gloves, or clothes the women were knitting, and how they got the bloodstains out of their projects?

Dragon Dave

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