(This is Part 3 of Jo Coleman's blog series on The Scarlet Pimpernel, relating to the original book by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, the 1934 film version and the 1982 film version. You can see part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and the original post on Jo's blog here.)
What is it about Chauvelin that interests me so, and has intrigued many for years?
Firstly, I believe, is his resolve. He has set out to accomplish something, and will achieve it at all costs. It is horribly fascinating to watch how coldly and cruelly he sets the trap for Marguerite, and how nonchalantly he quietly takes the knowledge of the demise of her entire world, and leaves.
He had received a rebuke and a snub, but his shrewd, fox-like face looked neither abashed nor disappointed; on the contrary, a curious smile, half sarcastic and wholly satisfied, played around the corners of his thin lips.
This man, this Pimpernel, who Marguerite has so idolized, is eventually known to him to be none other than her own husband. Yet Chauvelin had a purpose, something greater in his mind than the ties of an old friendship, or love, as was the case of the 1982 adaption.
But, above all, Chauvelin had a purpose at heart. He firmly believed that the French aristocrat was the most bitter enemy of France; he would have wished to see every one of them annihilated: he was one of those who, during this awful Reign of Terror, had been the first to utter the historic and ferocious desire “that aristocrats might have but one head between them, so that it might be cut off with a single stroke of the guillotine.” And thus he looked upon every French aristocrat, who had succeeded in escaping from France, as so much prey of which the guillotine had been unwarrantably cheated.
In fact, I think in the 1982 movie version, there was another current running in Chauvelin’s desire to kill The Scarlet Pimpernel once he finds out it is really Sir Percy Blakeney… it is, perhaps, a means to get back at Marguerite, for spurning him, for marrying a fool. She… she would never know anything different. In her eyes, he should die a fool.
She looked at [Chauvelin] as he turned to speak to Desgas; she could just see his face beneath the broad-brimmed, Cures’s hat. There was at that moment so much deadly hatred, such fiendish malice in the thin face and pale, small eyes, that Marguerite’s last hope died in her heart, for she felt that from this man she could expect no mercy.
He, above all, longed to have the cunning enemy, who had so long baffled him, helpless in his power; he wished to gloat over him, to enjoy his downfall, to inflict upon him what moral and mental torture a deadly hatred alone can devise. The brave eagle, captured, and with noble wings clipped, was doomed to endure the gnawing of the rat.
Or so Chauvelin thought. As he meets Sir Percy face to face, near the end of their journeys, we find he really is frightened of the man. He has met his match in wits, a man so clever and daring that he seemed almost able to accomplish the impossible.
He had no fear for his own person, although he certainly was alone in a lonely inn with a man who was powerfully built, and who was daring and reckless beyond the bounds of probability. Chauvelin would willingly have braved perilous encounters for the sake of the cause he had at heart, but what he did fear was that this impudent Englishman would, by knocking him down, double his own chances of escape; his underlings might not succeed so well in capturing the Scarlet Pimpernel, when not directed by the cunning and and the shrewd brain, which had deadly hate for an incentive.
Unfortunately, it is Chauvelin’s complete faith in his preparations that allows the Pimpernel to ultimately slip right out from under his nose.
He is a good villain, certainly, and even more so in the 1982 movie adaption. His love that eventually turns to hate makes him sympathetic to the reader, yet his heartless cruelty makes us root that much more for the Pimpernel and cheer at Chauvelin’s demise.