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Baroness Orczy

Baroness Orczy

The Hungarian-British novelist known as the Baroness Orczy (1865-1947) wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel, a fast-paced and well-plotted tale of heroism during the French Revolution.

Orczy's story was originally a successful stage play in London, and went on to several feature film versions in the first half of the twentieth century. The title refers to a mysterious savior who rescues innocent French nobles from the guillotine, and who is eventually unmasked as Sir Percy Blakeney, an English fop and the unlikeliest of heroes. Orczy's first Pimpernel tale and its sequels, wrote Times of London journalist Will Gatti, “have an archetypal quality that becomes the base for other stories. Percy, with his dual identity, is the direct forerunner of heroes such as Superman, driven to save the world without letting the world see who they really are.”

The Baroness Orczy was born Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Orczy on September 23, 1865, in Tarna-Ors, Hungary. Called “Emmuska” by her family and friends, she was born into the Hungarian aristocracy as the only child of Felix Orczy, Baron of Tarna-Ors, and Emma Wass, a countess. Felix was a gentleman farmer and music composer of minor renown who knew both Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883). In 1868, in response to a new agricultural policy on the lands he owned, Felix was the target of a tenant uprising in Tarna-Ors, and the family had to flee to the safety of the capital, Budapest. The fear of the wrath of peasants would become a key element in his daughter's later Pimpernel tales, which centered upon the rescue of innocent nobles from mob justice.

Married a Fellow Artist

The Orczys lived in Brussels, Belgium, and Paris, France, before settling in London, England, by 1880. It was at this point that the Baroness, now 15, began learning English, the language in which she would make her career. Initially, however, she was drawn to music, and dreamed of following in her father's footsteps as a composer. After realizing she lacked musical aptitude, she switched to art, taking painting classes at the West London School of Art and at Heatherly's School of Art. It was at the latter that she met a fellow student, Montagu Barstow, whom she wed in 1895. Their only son, John Montagu Orczy Barstow, was born four years later.

The Orczys were a titled family, but had little actual income, and Orczy and her husband were expected to support themselves financially. There were several lean years in which Barstow eked out a living as an illustrator and translator, and Orczy also ventured into publishing as the translator and illustrator for a volume of Hungarian fairy tales. For a time, the family lived as paying guests in a London home where the two daughters of the household earned a living by writing adventure tales for magazines. Orczy was fascinated that the young women churned out imaginative stories though they had barely ventured beyond the confines of their own home and native land, and decided that if they could pen such stories, then so could she. She completed a novel, The Emperor's Candlesticks, which centered around intrigue among Russian anarchists and aristocrats in Vienna, Austria, and St. Petersburg, Russia, but her 1899 literary debut attracted little notice and posted dismal sales figures.

A London Stage Hit

The story for The Scarlet Pimpernel came to Orczy while she was waiting at the London Underground subway station at Temple. When she finished the manuscript, she sent it to a dozen publishing houses, each of whom rejected it for publication. With help from her husband she rewrote it into a play, and The Scarlet Pimpernel made its theatrical debut at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham in 1903. A wellknown husband-and-wife acting team, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, decided to stage it in London at the New Theater. Terry, known for his roles in swashbuckling dramas, rewrote the final act, and that alteration helped make The Scarlet Pimpernel a terrific success from its opening night in London in January of 1905. It would also mire the literary property in years of lawsuits between Terry and the Orczy/ Barstows.

The Scarlet Pimpernel contained anti-French themes, which had always been popular with English audiences. The story is set during the French Revolution, specifically the ten-month period between 1793 and 1794 known as the Reign of Terror, when scores of French aristocrats were put to death by guillotine, a new invention that made death by beheading a dramatic public spectacle. The Pimpernel is a mysterious vigilante who saves blameless noble families from execution, and takes his moniker from a common English flowering plant that serves as his emblem. The Pimpernel's work is well-known on both sides of the English Channel, with much of London abuzz with speculation over his true identity. In Orczy's tale, the hero is actually Sir Percy Blakeney, an effete, rather shallow aristocrat whom no one would ever suspect of daring, altruistic deeds. The introduction to Orcyzy's book describes her hero: “Tall, above the average, even for an Englishman, broadshouldered and massively built, he would have been called unusually good-looking, but for a certain lazy expression in his deep-set blue eyes, and that perpetual inane laugh which seemed to disfigure his strong, clearly-cut mouth”.

As Orczy's tale relates, Percy has surprised many in his circle of friends—which included such prominent figures as the Prince of Wales—by marrying a lovely, spirited French actress, Marguerite St. Just, who has risen from a humble family to become the star of Paris's famed ComédieFranc¸aise. Lady Marguerite is unaware of her husband's secret identity and of the reasons behind his travels across the English Channel on his yacht, and the two have become estranged because Percy has learned that her humble family was responsible—although unintentionally—for the death of a family of nobles, the St. Cyr clan.

Wife Sets Off to Help

One of Percy's cohorts in the rescue missions is Marguerite's brother Armand, and when his role is discovered, his life is suddenly in grave danger. The French ambassador to England, Monsieur Chauvelin, blackmails Marguerite into providing information that leads to the discovery of the Pimpernel's real identity, though she still does not realize that she has just implicated her husband; like those who know Sir Percy, she believes he is too dim-witted to care about such matters. A series of events precipitating his departure for France finally leads Marguerite to realize that her husband is indeed the famous Pimpernel. According to the book, “She understood it all now—all at once … that part he played—the mask he wore … in order to throw dust in everybody's eyes. And all for the sheer sport and devilry of course!—saving men, women and children from death, as other men destroy and kill animals for the excitement, the love of the thing. The idle, rich man wanted some aim in life—he, and the few young bucks he enrolled under his banner, had amused themselves for months in risking their lives for the sake of an innocent few.”

To save her husband and her brother, Marguerite embarks upon her own secret mission to France. The couple, safely reunited on a ship bound for England, forgive one another. “The rest is silence!—silence and joy for those who had endured so much suffering, yet found at last a great and lasting happiness,” according to the final lines of Orczy's tale. The success of the stage version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which broke London theater records in its fouryear run, led to the publication of Orczy's written version later in 1905, and launched her career as an author. She wrote several sequels, including The Elusive Pimpernel, The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World, and Mam'zelle Guillotine: An Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel, between 1908 and 1940.

Wrote Detective Fiction

Orczy also penned detective stories modeled after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930)'s fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Hers was Bill Owen, the title figure in The Old Man in the Corner, the first volume of this series. In the 1908 collection and in subsequent stories, Owen solves notorious crimes with the help of budding journalist Polly Burton. Orczy's ill-tempered male protagonist, wrote Katherine Staples in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “compulsively knots and unravels a bit of string as he reveals the solutions to unsolved crimes publicized in newspaper accounts and spectacular trials. The Old Man's cases include the whole range of sensational and complex detective puzzles: grisly murder (‘The Tremarn Case’), fiendish blackmail (‘The Murder of Miss Pebmarsh’), perfect alibis (‘The Case of Miss Elliott’), masked motive and identity (‘The Regent's Park Murder’), and brilliantly planned thefts (‘The Affair at the Novelty Theatre’).”

Orczy penned seven collections of Old Man in the Corner tales, concluding with The Old Man in the Corner Unravels the Mystery of the White Carnation and the Montmartre Hat in 1925. The stories were not her only foray into crime fiction, however: Orczy also created one of the first woman sleuths in the genre, who appeared in a single 1910 volume, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. “The twelve tales narrated by Lady Molly's loyal maid praise her daring, intelligence, and savoir faire, but they do not develop a truly independent woman-detective character,” wrote Staples in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. “Lady Molly's cases all involve women and show her social insight into their sexually and socially motivated behavior. Lady Molly depends as much on her sensitivity and intuition as her brilliance and bravery. Her motivation as a crime solver lies in her wish to clear her falsely accused beloved.” Orczy also created one final amateur detective, the Irish attorney Patrick Mulligan, who appeared in Skin o' My Tooth in 1928.

Term Fell into Common Usage

The success resulting from The Scarlet Pimpernel gave Orczy and her family permanent financial freedom. They moved to a villa in Monte Carlo, in the Mediterranean principality of Monaco, following World War I, where she and Barstow defended their literary property in a series of lawsuits with the Terrys, primarily over film rights and compensation. There were actually several screen versions of the Pimpernel story, but the best known remains the 1934 production that starred British actor Leslie Howard (1893-1943) and Merle Oberon (1911-1979). The word “pimpernel” became synonymous with a person who is skilled in disguising his or her true identity. It was used in two famous instances during World War II, one involving an American man and the other a Scottish minister, each of whom saved civilians and military personnel from the threat posed by Nazi Germany and its anti-Semitic policies. Later, South African antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela (1918–) was dubbed the “Black Pimpernel” when he lived in hiding.

Orczy was widowed during the Second World War, and once its hostilities ended returned to England and a home in Henley-on-Thames. She died in London on November 12, 1947, at the age of 82.


Orczy, Baroness, The Scarlet Pimpernel, [London], 1905.

Staples, Katherine, “Emma Orczy,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 70: British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919, edited by Bernard Benstock, Gale, 1988.


Times (London, England), January 6, 1905; August 23, 1935; November 13, 1947; July 7, 2007.

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