The novel is set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. The title is the nom de guerre of its hero and protagonist, a chivalrous Englishman who rescues aristocrats before they are sent to the guillotine. Sir Percy Blakeney leads a double life: apparently nothing more than a wealthy fop, but in reality a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking escape artist. The band of gentlemen who assist him are the only ones who know of his secret identity. He is known by his symbol, a simple flower, the scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis). Marguerite Blakeney, his French wife, does not share his secret. She is approached by the new French envoy to England, Chauvelin, with a threat to her brother's life if she does not aid in the search for the Pimpernel. She aids him, and then discovers that the Pimpernel is also very dear to her. She sails to France to stop the envoy.
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