Welcome to the eighteenth of our monthly audio adventures in Tales for Our Time. This latest radio serial, read by yours truly, is perhaps more pertinent than it ought to be at a time when the mob roams the streets demanding the heads of television hosts. As I discuss in tonight's introduction, two European powers saw revolution at the end of the eighteenth century - England in its American colonies and France in the heart of the metropolis. The latter set about destroying and remaking everything - which makes it more relevant to the spirit of our age, of statue-toppling and book-banning and renaming, than George Washington & Co. For our revolutionaries, too, wish to live in Year Zero:
A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant raised an undying monument to the nation's glory and his own vanity.
During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity. The carnage had only ceased at this late hour of the day because there were other more interesting sights for the people to witness, a little while before the final closing of the barricades for the night.
And so the crowd rushed away from the Place de la Grève and made for the various barricades in order to watch this interesting and amusing sight...
And so begins Baroness Orczy's tale of The Scarlet Pimpernel, first published in 1905 but set in the blood-drenched autumn of 1792, the dawn of France's Reign of Terror.
The guillotine had a long history in France, all the way up to 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi became the last man to be legally beheaded by a western government. Mr Djandoubi was a Tunisian convicted for the murder of 22-year-old Élisabeth Bousquet, and thus the guillotine spans the entire history of republican France, from the bloody extermination of the ancien régime to a more fitful resistance to the Islamization of Europe.
The guillotine was invented by Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who thought it was both more humane and, in the spirit of the French Revolution, more egalitarian. Previously, only the aristocracy were entitled to the swifter, less painful death of decapitation. The masses had to make do with hanging or, worse, the breaking wheel, in which your limbs got stretched like a starfish, or quartering, in which they're tied to four oxen pointing in different directions and you get ripped apart. The journalist Louis René de Champcenetz published an amusing rhyme on Docteur Guillotin in the journal Les Actes des Apôtres, which Chambers' Edinburgh Journal later rendered in English as:
Bethought himself, 'tis plain,
That hanging's not humane...
And straightaway showed
A clever mode
To kill - without a pang - men;
Which, void of rope or stakes,
And so it was decided that in the new republic, whatever the inequities of birth, men would meet execution as equals. On April 25th 1792 the highwayman Nicolas Pelletier became the first Frenchman to go to the guillotine at the Place de Grève referenced by Baroness Orczy above. The crowd weren't happy about it. It was all too swift and clinical, and, as live theatre, didn't afford the same pleasures as quartering. But the revolution grasped its advantages: For one thing, you could dispatch your enemies on an industrial scale in no time at all. Hence the events of some six months after Citoyen Pelletier's death, when one single executioner guillotined three hundred men, women and children in a mere three days.
But, from across the English Channel, one man determines to reduce the mountain of heads on the altar of republican fervor. If you've ever wondered why Batman is by day a playboy socialite and Superman a meek mild-mannered milksop, well, the contrasting duality of secret identity begins with this story: They seek him here, they seek him there, but no one seeking him ever suspects that an effete society fop is by night the Scarlet Pimpernel. To hear me read Part One of Baroness Orczy's rollicking adventure, prefaced by my own introduction to the story, please click here and log-in.
By the way, in that witty verse by the Chevalier de Champcenetz, three other members of France's National Assembly are referenced: All subsequently went to the guillotine. So did the Chevalier himself, executed for his journalism on July 23rd 1794.
As I've emphasized since we launched The Mark Steyn Club last year, our regular content - all my daily commentary, cultural and geopolitical essays, our weekend movie and music features, The Mark Steyn Show and On the Town and all the rest - will always be free to everyone around the planet. In fact, every week we now offer more free content than at any point in our fifteen-year history. But we have spent the last eighteen months letting Club members in on a few experimental features which we might eventually make more widely available. Tales for Our Time is one such experiment: If you're not a Club member (or you are but you've never partaken of this series) you can hear what you're missing in our first-birthday Tales for Our Times sampler, a 75-minute audio special hosted by me and including excerpts from some of our ripping yarns of the last year - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, H G Wells, John Buchan, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Louis Stevenson. And, if it whets your appetite, you can find the above authors and a half-dozen more collected here.
I'm truly thrilled to see that our nightly radio serials have proved one of the most popular of our Club extras this last year-and-a-half. I did do a little professional story-reading a zillion years ago, so, if these fancies tickle you, we may release them as audio books on CD or Audible a ways down the road. But for the moment it's an exclusive bonus for members. If you've enjoyed our monthly Steyn Club radio adventures and you're looking for a present for a fellow fan of classic fiction, I hope you'll consider our special Club Gift Membership. Aside from Tales for Our Time, The Mark Steyn Club does come with other benefits:
~Exclusive Steyn Store member pricing on over 40 books, mugs, T-shirts, and other products;
~The opportunity to engage in live Clubland Q&A sessions with yours truly;
~Transcript and audio versions of The Mark Steyn Show, SteynPosts, and our other video content;
~My video series of classic poetry (the latest airs on Sunday);
~Priority booking for the second Mark Steyn Club Cruise (following last month's sell-out inaugural cruise);
~Advance booking for my live appearances around the world, including my upcoming tour with Dennis Miller;
~Customized email alerts for new content in your areas of interest;
~and the opportunity to support our print, audio and video ventures as they wing their way around the planet.
To become a member of The Mark Steyn Club, please click here - and don't forget that special Gift Membership. As soon as you join, you'll get access not only to The Scarlet Pimpernel but to all the other audio adventures listed below.
One other benefit to membership is our Comment Club privileges. So, whether you like my reading of this eighteenth Tale for Our Time or are minded to send it to Madame La Guillotine, then feel free to comment away below. And do join us tomorrow for Part Two of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
For previous Tales for Our Time, click below:
#1: The Tragedy of the Korosko
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
#2: The Time Machine
by H G Wells
#3: The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad
#4: The Prisoner of Zenda
by Anthony Hope
#5: The Cat That Walked By Himself
by Rudyard Kipling
#6: The Diamond as Big as the Ritz
by F Scott Fitzgerald
#7: The Rubber Check
by F Scott Fitzgerald
#8: A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
#9: Plum Duff
by Mark Steyn
#10: To Build a Fire
by Jack London
#11: The Overcoat
by Nikolai Gogol
#12: The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan
#13: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson
#14: The Man Who Would Be King
by Rudyard Kipling
#15: His Last Bow
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
by John Buchan
by Franz Kafka