Percy’s Boys

Sir Percy Blakeney

In another post  I mentioned Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I think it serves as an example of a story that caught the imagination of the following century, even though the book itself these days is barely readable: dull plot, plodding prose that is occasionally risible, and an utterly unexamined racist, classist paradigm.

But in others’ hands, the story improved immensely, even leading to inspiration and heroism, as mentioned before, in the case of the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was inspired by Leslie Howard’s spinoff movie to rescue thousands and thousands of Jews in WW II.

I’d like to look more at how fiction and truth inspire and reflect each other, but today I’m staying with this storyline.

Specifically, a pattern that may only be perceivable in my head. This pattern has to do with ways in which stories (this includes plays, films, and comics) inspire further works by others. Not fan fiction, but taking characters, or elements of characters, perhaps certain tropes, and building a new story around them.

Percy Blakeney has inspired what I think are two distinct lines of descendants, one that seems endemic to female writers, and one to male writers. On to something? Pure hot air? Tell me what you think.

I think Percy’s first distinctive descendant is Lord Peter Wimsey, the erudite aristocratic amateur detective invented by Dorothy Sayers in 1921.

Lord Peter Wimsey


He does not have a named secret identity, but he hides his intelligence and athleticism behind an affable exterior; in a few of his tales, he does assume an identity, such as the mysterious Harlequin in Murder Must Advertise. He works to bring justice to victims of crimes, or those falsely accused.

Many believe that Margery Allingham’s elegant Albert Campion, gentleman detective, is inspired by Sherlock Holmes. I won’t argue against it—it’s obvious they have the detective thing going, and upper class behavior—but I think that Campion also owes a great deal to Percy Blakeney.


He’s an aristocrat who hides a keen mind behind a bland persona, his true identity is kept secret, and he works undercover to bring justice to those who cannot get it for themselves, one step over from rescuing victims from the guillotine.

The next generation after Sayers and Allingham  I think is Dorothy Dunnett, whose brilliant but emotionally difficult Francis Crawford of Lymond quotes his way from Ireland to Russia, leaving a trail of bodies and anguished lovers in the magnificent six volume Lymond Chronicles.

Lymond uses disguises when necessary, and appears to be a villain, but it becomes apparent that he is fighting for a higher cause.

There are a great many homages to Sayers in the books, which in their turn spawned an uncountable series of historical romances featuring handsome Scots during the brutal border era (for a readably written but unsentimental view of this period, I recommend George MacDonald Frasier’s The Steel Bonnets), and another strand: a lot of female written hurt/comfort stories featuring very handsome young men who go through unimaginable physical and mental stress, specifically graphically described floggings and male rape, but manage to hang onto their prettiness. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is the first of these, but as the years go by there have been Lymond descendants in fantasy lands and in space, such as Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow, to mention just one.

Jude Law as Lymond

So what about the male-author written descendants of Percy Blakeney? The first, I believe, is Zorro. Aristocratic background, affable, silly-ass exterior, fighting for justice when disguised as Zorro. He’s an interesting case, as he could have been written by a female with some of these tropes, except that the female characters are pretty much all trophies or fridge victims.

The generation after that, I believe, goes to comic books: a couple of high school students came up with Superman in 1933. Superman is a special guy born on another planet, who, disguised as mild-mannered Clark Kent, dons his costume and fights for justice. After him came Batman, and a host of other characters who disguise their identities, wear costumes, and work to protect the innocent and helpless.

I think it’s too general to be useful to claim that the female writers emphasize the wit over physical strength, because that’s not quite true. There are plenty of action sequences in them all, during which the Percy descendants demonstrate flair and panache, but I will say that the female-engendered descendants of Percy are first of all witty. Another aspect is their slim, elegant forms. Most are handsome; Lord Peter isn’t handsome, but he is attractive anyway.


The male descendants tend toward more toward brawn, and especially in the comics, there is less emphasis on wit, elegance, and far more on brutal slug-fests between hero and villain. Zorro, the first, is perhaps the closest to Percy, being handsome, silly-ass, upper-crust, witty as well as being a brilliant swordsman and acrobatic in maneuvering.

Anybody else seeing patterns, or am I adding two and two and getting twenty-two?




Percy’s Boys — 38 Comments

  1. Oh I do think you’re onto something! How interesting! Personally, I’m interested in what direction the mask takes, in all cases. I haven’t *read* The Scarlet Pimpernel, but in the original movie, the mask was definitely bubbleheaded vanity. I notice that in summing up the masks of the next few, you emphasize affability for Lord Peter Wimsey, blandness for Campion, villainy for Lymond. A mask can be designed to make you blend in and be unnoticed, or it can misdirect, or both.

    • Indeed. Masks are such a part of social interaction, and further, people knew it. It is laid out clear back in the 1500s, in the very first works about how to be a ‘gentleman.’

  2. This is fascinating, though I haven’t read some of the books you mention, including, shamefully, the Lymond. What about Chrestomanci and his misleading vague expression? He’s also got the aristocratic birth and style. If only I could remember well enough to claim there’s a scene with Percy in a dressing gown!

  3. Hm. Secret identity, disguised as a farm boy: Lord Krishna Govinda, Cowherder Krishna. (Like Superman or Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, as a baby he was sent away to obscurity to protect him.) Iirc young Krishna did a lot of super-pranks as rescue or protection for the village.

    I wonder if there’s a monomyth in there somewhere.

  4. I can’t say whether your pattern is on to something or not, but I can say these:

    1) If you want a feminist version of Zorro, try Isabel Allende’s retelling.

    2) Here’s an actual photo of the real Lord Peter Wimsey. (In truth, the man whose appearance and style inspired the character.)

    • From the photo, he might have inspired Fraser’s Captain Hastings, at least outwardly.

      I suppose it’s more likely that Fraser saw the photo than met the actual … Dr. Who in disguise?

    • Zenda is an example of a different type of identify fantasy…the existence of either a bastard double or a totally unrelated double of royalty amongst the lower classes. Besides Zenda, there’s The Prince and the Pauper, and The Great Impersonation. I’m sure there’s more.

    • It’s very possible–there is certainly no evidence in her other work that she had much in the way of original ideas. The masquerade aspect is certainly central.

  5. I’m not sure how this breaks on gender lines (no coffee yet; therefore brain not entirely engaged), but there’s also the question of why each of these characters assume a secret identity of sorts. For some (and I think mostly those written by women) it is to disguise their native ability so that they put people off their guard. It’s a tool of the trade, as it were. For others, it’s a way of protecting the people around them–in the superhero canon there are all sorts of stories where the Hero attempts to do without the secret identity and people around him pay the price. Having a secret identity is another tool to protect others.

    I wonder (again–not thought through, an not articulated clearly. See coffee, above) if women write the Underestimate Me sort of hero because so many of them know what it is to move just below the radar? Particularly in Sayers’s time?

    • If so, then the motivation is not so far removed from Rachel Brown’s theory (propounded over at LiveJournal) that Superman et al are another tradition, the masks representing Jews hiding among Americans.

      • Superman et al are another tradition, the masks representing Jews hiding among Americans.

        This is not the most coherent LJ-post (and it was written six years ago, which means I cringe at some of the style), but it contains the point I want to make every time I discuss Leslie Howard as Peter Wimsey; it seems germane here.

        “. . . Howard’s flawless upper-class Englishness was itself—like Wimsey’s silly-ass piffling or Percy Blakeney’s foppish inanity: the characters are on a direct continuum—a kind of impersonation. His parents were Jewish, at least one a Hungarian immigrant [his father; his mother was second-generation in London; the family actually moved to Vienna for several years of Howard’s early childhood]. His birth name was Steiner. He was a clerk before he enlisted in World War I; was badly shell-shocked and took up acting as therapy; became, after the outbreak of World War II, the on- and off-screen embodiment of all that was quintessentially English, slightly fey with unexpected reserves of passion and steel; and was shot down in 1943 while on a lecture tour of Spain and Portugal with intelligence-gathering on the side, not unlike his most famous character . . . I know that actors differ from their roles, but I still wonder if he gravitated toward those interplays of face and mask, person and persona; he lived one. And he seems to have made it real.”

        It’s almost a running joke in the Golden Age of Hollywood, looking at birth names and seeing which stars (David Daniel Kaminsky, László Löwenstein, Jacob Julius Garfinkle, Bernard Schwartz) were Jewish, or pick the non-WASP ethnicity of your choice. I didn’t expect Leslie Howard, partly because I identified him so strongly with his quintessential Englishmen, but it made perfect sense once I learned. Also, everything about his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the 1938 Pygmalion—triumphant cry of “Hungarian!” included—becomes about ten times more awesome in retrospect.

  6. Many believe that Margery Allingham’s elegant Albert Campion, gentleman detective, is inspired by Sherlock Holmes.

    He’s supposed to have started life as Peter Wimsey with the serial numbers filed off, actually; an article here slightly overstates the case, but I believe the fake biographical note is valid data. Otherwise, the vague fair aristocratic mask always convinced me.

    I loved Edward Petherbridge once I got to him, but my ideal Wimsey was always Leslie Howard. I don’t think that’s an accident.

    I’ve seen the Scarlet Pimpernel cited in discussions before as the first superhero, especially in the sense of a secret identity; I believe it.

    Thanks for this discussion!

      • Oh, my, that really does make sense. Maybe she saw him on stage, because his film career didn’t take off until Flying Down to Rio, which was 1929–and her first story came out in 1921, if I remember right.

      • I read somewhere recently that one of Sayers’s several sources for Wimsey was Fred Astaire. Which made all sorts of sense to me.

        All right, I hope that’s true. Beautifully talented, not conventionally handsome—he’s got a silly face, but he can’t help that. And it doesn’t matter at all.

  7. I’m not sure about your theory. It seems these are figures who are direct descendents of the ideal proposed in books like The Courtier, embodiments of sprezzatura. You find them throughout French popular literature of the later 19th century — as in Dumas.

    As for Zorro, his figure is based upon an actual person in Spain and Mexico of the 17th century, a migrated Spanish-Irishman (see: Stephen Maturin’s pedigree, in the O’Brian series — a lot of Irish found opportunities in the Spanish empire not available at home under British dominion), Don Guillén Lombardo de Guzmán, spying for the Spanish crown, born in Wexford, Ireland, as Richard Lamport, in 1610. He began working against the crown in favor of Mexican independence, was sentenced to death by both the Inquisition and the crown. His story is much more complicated and longer than that though — and his family was aristo, but due to the English, his father was executed after the late 16th C Irish Rebellions, and his son turned pirate. There’s a lot of Spanish and Mexican literature about him and his exploits, as well as a statue honoring him in Mexico City.

    Love, C.

    • I know about the honnete home (deriving from “The Courtier”) etc, but I mean Percy specifically inspiring these figures who followed.

      I’ve seen some writing about various Zorro figures in real history, but it seems to me that Johnston McCulley, who lived in the east, took Percy Blakeney, filed off the serial numbers, and stuck him “out west”. The man was a pulp author who made a living reanimating various popular pulp and dime novel figures. I don’t see any evidence that McCulley had any investment in the days of Spanish rule in California.

  8. McCulley had swallowed the myths about early California, not the real thing. (See Gertrude Atherton’s novel THOSE SPLENDID IDLE FORTIES for more myths.) The Franciscans were the oppressors of the Native Americans, just for starters, not their defenders.

    The best Zorro adaptation is still Douglas Fairbanks’ silent version, IMO. His Zorro’s “mask behavior” includes really dumb parlor tricks with handkerchiefs, which Fairbanks did himself as he did all his stunts.

  9. I’m astonished that no one has mentioned the most natural and popular successor in this long line: Batman. Son of a long line of American aristocrats, wears a mask to strike terror into the heart of evil doers, enormous wealth to fuel his crime-fighting.
    Batman is particularly interesting because he cuts both ways. Sometimes he’s a cerebral detective, the smartest man in the Justice League. And sometimes (alas, recently), he’s the fighter of ultraviolent nutbars, psychologically damaged and taking heavy hit points.

  10. Another hero in the Pimpernel’s male lineage is Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini. Again the secret identity and the focus on saving others.

    • Yes, his example is better than mine at the male descendant line. Leslie Whyte and a whole host of writers followed in this tradition, but I’ve forgotten a lot of them. (Most had very boring women, again, prizes, vixens, or fridge victims)

  11. Of Dorothy Dunnett’s characters, you included Lymond, but not Niccolo or Johnston Johnston. Was this deliberate or just an oversight? I think JJ certainly qualifies, but Niccolo is rather more complex in his motivations.

  12. One other difference occurs to me from the list of male vs. female Percy-tropes–the male authors’ character seems to be more likely to work alone, whereas the female authors like to give him a staff of people helping. At least the older works–Batman seems to have a lot of helpers even though they are quite subordinate and distant, and he ultimately works alone. Wonder what camp that puts him in?

    • Batman is an oddity in superhero-dom, in that he is a habitual mentor. He’s always acquiring sidekicks, hangers-on, assistants, and junior superheroes who move on to become crimefighters of their own. Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl — it’s an unusually long list. Superman, for instance, doesn’t do that. From the in-story point of view, it is as if having lost his father early in life he’s determined to be a father himself, engendering not physical offspring bit professional descendants. From the outside, it is clear that his first sidekick, Robin, was sufficiently popular that they just kept on creating more and more sidekicks. They also had other heroes pick up teen assistants — Green Arrow with Speedy, Aquaman with Aqualad and so forth. But none of these heroes ever accumulated a stable of assistants; Batman stands alone in this.

  13. Very interesting thoughts and good reading ideas! As a young reader, I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel, and still adore Peter Wimsey, though not so fond of the classist snobbery now. I do think you’re on to something with these threads of connection.