8.25.2016

Review: The Last Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel, by Jack Caldwell

The Last Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel: 
Book Two of Jane Austen's Fighting Men,
By Jack Caldwell
2016  |  320 pp
Jack Caldwell's Austen-verse novels have been a pleasure to read over the last couple of years. Pemberley Ranch is a treat for any lover of Pride and Prejudice, but it's Caldwell's The Three Colonels that really stands out as a credit to not only his impressive grasp of history but his clear and apparent love for Austen's characters; and I'm happy to report that his latest novel, The Last Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel, continues in that vein and does not disappoint in the least.

Looking at the title, you probably aren't expecting this book to live in the same world as The Three Colonels, but that's precisely where it belongs. If you're trying to figure out what Baroness Orczy's preening Pimpernel has to do with Austen's characters, let me remind you that, in The Three Colonels, Caldwell tweaked Jane Austen's timelines just enough to throw the characters into wartime - to just about 25 years after the Reign of Terror ended in France.

Thus we find some (mostly) minor characters from Austen's Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park thrown together with Percy, Marguerite and their children. The timeline is a clever trick on Caldwell's part, giving our author a twofold advantage - for one, by focusing on Austen's minor characters he's allowed more freedom in their actions and, secondly, by setting his novel into a generation after the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel's activities he can still use Orczy's main characters and not upset their thru-line.

What results is a delightful and effective mash-up of the two styles; a drawing room romance and a heroic mannered melodrama. And, as in the other two Caldwell titles I've mentioned, he yet again shines a light in places Austen left practically unattended. In both Pemberley Ranch and The Three Colonels, Caroline Bingley became a character one could actually talk about; in the latter, Wickham became more developed and Lady Catherine turned out to be human. In this most recent novel, the focus (and, strange as it is to say, hero) is Frederick Tilney - Henry Tilney's profligate brother in Northanger Abbey, whom many consider to be a kind of pre-caricature of Mansfield Park's licentious Henry Crawford.

In Caldwell's hands, Frederick - who becomes perhaps a more rehabilitated character than even Caldwell's version of Caroline Bingley - happens to be friends with both Colonel Buford (of The Three Colonels) and George Blakeney - son and heir of one, Percy Blakeney, tying all the relevant threads together and making for a beautifully elaborate, satisfying read. The characters walk from one source to the other, mixing with Caldwell's original characters so effortlessly that one can easily believe that they were all birthed from the same mind.

The presence of the Blakeneys, their relationship with the Prince Regent, and the dichotomy of Percy's character heighten the social profile of the ensemble overall; the ton becomes almost a separate character - a barometer by which both Orczy's and Austen's characters at times measure their clout or worthiness. It's an effect that is present in the Pimpernel stories, but seeing it affect Austen's characters the way it does is rather new. Sure, we get a glimpse of it in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne shouts Willoughby's name across a crowded room, but this is on a grander scale.

On top of which, the reader is juggling not only London but Paris as well - it wouldn't truly be a adventure for the Pimpernel if France were not involved, no? And what awaits these characters in France is a story all its own, with twists and turns worthy of both the ladies who inspired it. 

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