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||Baroness Orczy (1865-1947) - Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy|
Hungarian-British novelist, best remembered as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). Baroness Orczy's sequels to the novel were less successful. A man with a double identity, the Scarlet Pimpernel can be regarded as one of the forefathers of Superman, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and other comic book superheroes. Besides being a prolific writer, Orczy was an artist, whose works were exhibited at the Royal Academy, London. Orczy's first venture into fiction was with crime stories. In this genre, her most popular characters was The Old Man in the Corner. He was featured in a series of twelve British movies from 1924, starring Rolf Leslie.
"They seek him here, they seek him there.
Emmuska Orczy (pronounced ORT-zee) was born in
Tarnaörs, Hungary, the
only daughter of Baron Felix Orczy, a noted composer and conductor, and
his wife, Countess Emma Wass. Her father was a friend of such composers
as Wagner, Liszt, and Gounod; the family was connected to Franz Josef
of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. After rebellious peasants had
destroyed their farm on the river Tarna, the young Emmuska moved with
her parents to Budapest, where her father was appointed Administrator
of the National Theatres. He resigned his post in 1873 and the family
moved to Brussels and then to London.
Orczy was educated in convent schools in Brussels
and Paris. Her older sister, Madeleine, died while
the two girls were at school in Brussels. At the age of fifteen, Orczy
learned to speak English, and adopted Britain as her home. For a period
in her youth she studied music, but her talent
did not lie in that direction. In London Orczy attended the West London
School of Art. In many paintings she portrayed animals, especially
While studying at the Heatherby School of Art, Orczy met
Montague MacLean Barstow, a young illustrator; they married in 1894.
Their marriage was a happy union of two two talented people. Together
the couple began to produce book and magazine illustrations and
published an edition of Hungarian folktales. Her first attempt at a novel, a spy thriller, was published under the title The Emperor's Candlesticks (1899). Orczy's early detective
stories appeared in The Royal Magazine and collected in The Case of Miss Elliot (1905).
Her interest in this kind of fiction was prompted by suspense dramas
real-life crime: the body of a dead woman was found in front of their
house. The victim was purpoted to have been killed by "Jack the
Ripper," who had terrorized London in the Whitechapel area in 1888. By the Gods Beloved (1905), which owed much to H. Rider Haggard, portrayed a femme fatale, Princess Neit-akrit, reminiscent of Ayesha in She (1886). This lost world tale was set in Egypt.
Orczy became famous in 1903 with the stage version of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which ran for four years. It was written with her husband – he co-authored two other plays, The Sin of William Jackson (1906), produced in London, and Beau Brocade (prod. in 1908), which was based on Orczy's novel. The dramatized version of Pimpernel, starring Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, premiered at Nottingham's Theatre Royal, and was given a London run in 1905 at the New Theatre.
More than a dozen publishers rejected the book adaptation of The
Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy's novel had as its background the French
Revolution, as in Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities. Sir
Percy Blakeney is a mysterious hero, who saves the lives the French
aristocrats and helps them to escape the guillotine. He falls in love
with a beautiful actress, Marguerite St Just. To conceal from
Marguerite and others his secret identity as the master of disguise,
Sir Percy assumes the role of a clumsy English aristocrat. As a spy
Percy can be seen as a forefather of James Bond and other espionage
The persecutor of the Scarlet Pimpernel is Citizen Chauvelin, an agent of Robespierre. Orczy's sympathies were shown clearly: she was suspicious of the "lower orders," especially revolutionaries, and their ideals, as exemplified in the famous phrase, "Liberté, Egalite, Fratenité". Pimpernel rescued the French nobility – sometimes others – only because he admired the nobility of all countries. Once Percy disguises himself as a Jew, thinking that the French despise Jews and do not ask questions. He also formed a band of helpers, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Lord Hastings, etc. Later Marguerite Blakeney and Lauren willing wrote the Pink Carnation series about the associates.
The bestselling book inspired several film versions, the best
of which was The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). It was
directed by the American Harold Young, starring Leslie Howard (Sir
Percy), and Merle Oberon (Marguerite), his wife. Raymond Massey played
the villainous Frenchman Chauvelin, who tries to trap Pimpernel. The
original director Roland V. Brown was fired on his first day at work,
for one of many times in his odd career. Howard and Oberon became
lovers while filming, causing her to break off her engagement to Joseph
Schenk, the head of United Artists. She was later to marry the
producer, Alexander Korda. Most probably both Korda and Howard saw the
film as a commentary on Nazi Germany. After directing this film, Young
went back to the United States and continued his career in B pictures.
Korda produced two further Scarlet Pimpernel features.
was ideally suited for the role, Orczy considred him too
short (height 5' 10½), and he did not look strong enough to stand
against Massey, who was a tall man (height 6' 1). "Leslie Howard was
certainly very attractive, very charming, he knew how to make love, but
he was not Fred Terry," Orczy said in her memoir. "Fred Terry
was the ideal Sir Percy and there cannot be two ideals in one's mind of
the one character."
Ideologically less committed, Orczy's mysteries attracted more critical interest in the United States than her historical adventures. Her best known detective character was the Old Man in the Corner, who solved crimes in thirty-eight stories, without leaving his chair, like professor Van Dusen or later Nero Wolfe. His name, Chris Owen, was suggested in 'The Mysterious Death in Percy Street', but in later stories his name is not mentioned. This armchair detective with a scarecrow appearance spends much of his life in the corner of a London teashop, drinking milk and eating cheesecake, never snooping around like Sherlock Holmes. Occiasionally he visits the crime scenes and takes photographs. A young reporter, Polly Burton, brings him details of crimes which baffle the police. Many of the stories were set in and around the West-End, in its "dark, drizzly, and foggy" streets and alleys.
Although The Old Man does not hide his upper class attitudes, he sometimes feels sympathy for the criminals, perhaps because in the final story of the first series he is revealed as a murdered himself. In the 1970s the character was portrayed in the Thames TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, when the case of 'The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway' was dramatized. Judy Geeson was casted in the role of Polly Burton, a journalist for The Echo.
'Exactly,' he said, while he leant forward excitedly, for all the world like a Jack-in-the-box let loose. 'Precisely; and you are a journalist – call yourself one, at least – and it should be part of your business to notice and describe people. I don't mean only the wonderful personage with the clear Saxon features, the fine blue eyes, the noble brow and classic face, but the ordinary person – the person who represents ninety out of every hundred of his own kind – the average Englishman, say, of the middle classes, who is neither very tall nor very short, who wears a moustache which is neither fair nor dark, but which masks his mouth, and a top hat which hides the shape of his head and brow, a man, in fact, who dresses like hundreds of his fellow-creatures, moves like them, speaks like them, has no peculiarity.' (from 'The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway', in The Man in the Corner, 1909)
The Irish lawyer Patrick Mulligan was the hero of 12 stories in Skin o' My Tooth (1928); it was also his nickname. M. Hector Ratichon, a highly unscrupulous "volunteer police agent" in the Paris of 1813, fearured in seven cases in Castles in the Air (1921). In the short story 'The Great Pearl Mystery' Major Gilroy Straker is arrested for the murder of Madame Hypnos. Moreover, the Countess Zakrevski's stolen pearls are found in his room at the Dominions Club. Straker's explanation is not very good, and her sister Mary hires Patrick Mulligan to defend him. "He did not do it, Mr Mulligan. God knows he did not do it, but human justice does err at times, and – well! it's no use saying anything more – is it?" Mulligan finds out that a gang of malefactors are behind the crimes. Pincetti, the proprietor of a Continental restaurant, is the head of the organization. Again Orczy's characters use disguises, and a socially respected person is wrongly suspected of a crime. The culprits are found among people who are distant relatives. Bacco, one of the criminals, is a waitress. "'An innocent man's only hope of safety hanging on a glove button, with a scrap of yellow washing kid still attached to it!' Skin o' My Tooth remarked to me when we were back at the office. 'Give me the evening paper, Muggins, and let's think of something else.'" (from 'The Great Pearl Mystery', in The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes, 1998)
Orczy's attempt to create a female aristocratic hero, Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk, from the 'Female Department of Scotland Yard', was not so successful. She solved 12 cases in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910). Lady Molly's methods included disguises. Once she helped the release of her spouse from unjust imprisonment. Between the years 1905 and 1928 Orczy published 13 collections of short stories about the Old Man in the Corner and Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk of Scotland Yard. Elvi Hale played Lady Molly in the episode 'The Woman in the Big Hat' (1971) of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.
the late 1910s Baroness Orczy and her husband moved to
Monte Carlo, where they stayed during the Nazi occupation; the SS
headquarters were in the Hôtel de Paris, opposite the Casino. In the
film Pimpernel Smith
(1941), directed by Leslie Howard, an Cambridge archeologist named
Horatio Smith rescues Jews from Nazi concentration camps. Some of
Orczy's friends in Monte Carlo admired Mussolini, but Orczy herself,
like most of the liberal-minded English residents, did
not feel any sympathy toward the Fascist régime.
Montague Barstow died in 1942. After World War II Orczy spent her remaining years in England, which she described as her spiritual home. A prolific writer, she worked actively until her eighties, and finished her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life (1947) before her death. Baroness Orczy died in London, on November 12, 1947. Her son, John Montague Orczy-Barstow, published under the name John Blakeney the novel The Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1935), with a foreword by the Baroness Orczy.
For further reading: Baroness Orczy’s The scarlet Pimpernel: A Publishing History by Sally Dugan (2012); 'Orczy, Baroness,' in The Facts on File Companion to the British Novel: Beginnings through the 19th Century by Virginia Brackett and Victoria Gaydosik (2006); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 3, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by J.M. Reilly (1985); Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers, ed. by Aruna Vasudevan (1994); 'The Old Man in the Corner (1901-1905) by Emma Orczy' in City and Shore: the Function of Setting in the British Mystery by Gillian Mary Hanson (2004); Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel: a Publishing History by Sally Dugan (2012)