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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, and other comic book superheroes. Orczy was also an artist, and her 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, who was featured in a series of twelve British movies from 1924, starring Rolf Leslie.

"They seek him here, they seek him there.
Those Frenchmen seek him everywhere.
Is he in Heaven? – Is he in hell?
That damned annoying Pimpernel."

(from The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905)

Baroness 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, Orczy moved with her parents from Budapest to Brussels and then to London, learning to speak English at the age of fifteen. She was educated in convent schools in Brussels and Paris. 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.

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. Orczy's first detective stories were published 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 and a 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.

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 agents.

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.

Although Howard was considered 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 book of memoir. "Fred Terry was the ideal Sir Percy and there cannot be two ideals in one's mind of the one character."

Orczy's best known detective character was the Old Man in the Corner, who solved mysteries 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 nondescript armchair detective 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. 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.

In 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)

Selected works:

  • Old Hungarian Fairy Tales, 1895 (editor and translator, with Montagu Barstow)
  • The Enchanted Cat, 1895 (editor and translator)
  • Fairyland's Beauty, 1895 (editor and translator)
  • Uletka and the White Lizard, 1895 (editor and translator, with Montague Barstow)
    - Keisarin kynttilän jalat (suom. Tauno Nuotio, 1928)
    - Film: The Emperor's Candlestics (1937), prod. MGM, dir. George Fitzmaurice, scr. Moncton Hoffe, Harold Goldman, Herman Mankiewicz, starring William Powel, Luise Rainer, Robert Young, Maureen O'Sullivan
  • The Beloved of the Gods: A Romance, 1905
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905
    - Vallankumousvuosilta: pakolaisromaani (suom. Armida Enckell, 1916) / Tulipunainen neilikka (2. laitos teoksesta Vallankumousvuosilta, suom. Armida Enckell, 1919) / Punainen neilikka (3. laitos teoksesta Vallankumousvuosilta, suom. 1935)
    - Films: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1917), dir. Richard Stanton, starring Dustin Farnum, Winifred Kingston and William Burress. The Elusive Pimpernel (1919), dir. Maurice Elvey, starring Cecil Humphreys, Marie Blanche and Norman Page. The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1928), dir. T. Hayes Hunter, starring Matheson Lang, Juliette Compton and Nelson Keys. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), dir. by Harold Young, written by Robert E. Sherwood, Sam Berman, Arthur Wimperis, Lajos Biro, starring Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey and Nigel Bruce. The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937), directed by Hans Schwarz, written by Lajos Biro, Arthur Wimperis, Adrian Brunel, starring Barry K. Barnes, Sophie Stewart. Pimpernel Smith (1941), directed by Leslie Howard, written by Anatole de Grunwald, Roland Pertwee, Ian Dalrymple, starring Leslie Howard, Mary Morris, Francis L. Sullivan (an up-dated version in which an archaeologist Pimpernel rescues refugees from the Nazis). The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), written and dir. by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring David Niven, Margaret Leighton, Cyril Cusack, Jack Hawkins. TV series 1956, starring Marius Goring as Sir Percy Blakeney; TV movie in 1982, dir. by Clive Donner, starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. TV series 1999-2000, dir. by Patrick Lau, starring Richard E. Grant, Elizabeth McGovern, and Martin Shaw.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905 (play, with Montagu Barstow, prod. Nottingham, 1903; London, 1905; New York, 1910)
  • By the Gods Beloved, 1905 (US title: Beloved of the Gods, 1905; as The Gates of Kamt, 1907)
  • The Case of Miss Elliott, 1905
  • A Son of the People: A Romance of the Hungarian Plains, 1906
    - Pustan poika (suom. Väinö Nyman, 1921)
  • The Sin of William Jackson, 1906 (play, with Montagu Barstow, prod. London, 1906)
  • I Will Repay: A Romance, 1906
    - Minä tahdon kostaa (suom. Armida Enckell, 1919)
    - Film: I Will Repay (1923), scr. Isabel Johnston, Kinchen Wood, dir. Henry Kolker, starring Holmes Herbert, Flora le Breton, Pedro de Cordoba, Ivan Samson
  • In Mary's Reign, 1907 (as The Tangled Skein, 1907)
  • Beau Brocade, 1908 (play, with Montagu Barstow, prod. Eastbourne, Sussex, and London, 1908)
    - Film: Beau Brocade (1916), dir. Thomas Bentley, starring Mercy Hatton, Charles Rock and Austin Leigh
  • The Elusive Pimpernel, 1908
  • The Old Man in the Corner, 1909 (US title: The Man in the Corner, 1909)
  • The Nest of the Sparrowhawk: A Romance of the XVIIth Century, 1909
  • Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, 1910
    - Scotland Yardin Lady Molly (suom. Julius Saarinen, 1926)
  • Petticoat Government, 1910 (US title: The Petticoat Rule, 1910)
  • A True Woman, 1911 (US title: The Heart of a Woman, 1911)
    - Todellinen nainen (suom. Salme Setälä, 1919)
  • The Duke's Wager, 1911 (play, prod. in Mancester)
  • The Traitor, 1912
  • The Good Patriots, 1912
  • Meadowsweet, 1912
  • Fire in Stubble, 1912 (US title: The Noble Rogue, 1912)
  • Eldorado: A Story of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1913
    - Eldorado. Punaisen Neilikan seikkailuja (suom. Aune Suomalainen, 1938)
  • Unto Cæsar, 1914
  • The Laughing Cavalier, 1914
    - Film: The Laughing Cavalier (1917), prod. Dreadnaught, dir. A.V. Bramble, Eliot Stannard, with A.V. Bramble, Mercy Hatton, George Bellamy, Edward O'Neill, Frederick Sargent, Eva Westlake
  • The Bronze Eagle, 1915
  • A Bride of the Plains, 1915
  • The Old Scarecrow, 1916 (in the Story teller, May 1916 issue)
  • Leatherface: A Tale of Old Flanders, 1916
    - Film: Two Lovers (1928), prod. Samuel Goldwyn Company, dir. Fred Niblo, starring Ronald Colman, Vilma Bánky and Noah Beery
  • A Sheaf of Bluebells, 1917
  • How Jean-Pierre Met the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1917
  • Lord Tony's Wife : An Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1917
  • The Legion of Honour, 1918 (play, adaptation of Orczy's novel A Sheaf of Bluebells, prod. Bradford, 1918; London, 1921)
  • Flower o' the Lily, 1918
  • The Man in Grey: Being Episodes of the Chouan Conspiracies in Normandy During the First Empire, 1918
    - Harmaapukuinen mies (suom. Jussi Laurosela, 1928)
  • The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1919
    - Punaisen Neilikan liitto (suom. Aune Suomalainen, 1939)
  • His Majesty's Well-beloved: An Episode in the Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton as Told by His Friend John Honeywood, 1919
  • The First Sir Percy: An Adventure of the Laughing Cavalier, 1920
  • Castles in the Air, 1921
  • Nicolette: A Tale of Old Provence, 1922
  • Leatherface, 1922 (play, with Caryl Fiennes, adaptation of Orczy's novel, prod. Portsmouth and London, 1922)
  • The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1922
    - Punaisen Neilikan voitto (suom. Helmi Krohn, 1940)
  • The Old Man in the Corner Unravels the Mystery of the Pearl Necklace and the Tragedy in Bishop's Road, 1924
  • The Honourable Jim, 1924
  • Pimpernel and Rosemary, 1924
  • Les Beaux et les Dandys de Grand Siècles en Angleterre, 1924
  • The Old Man in the Corner Unravels the Mystery of the Russian Prince & of Dog's Tooth Cliff, 1925
  • The Old Man in the Corner Unravels the Mystery of the White Carnation & the Montmartre Hat, 1925
  • The Old Man in the Corner Unravels the Mystery of the Fulton Gardens Mystery & the Moorland Tragedy, 1925
  • Unravelled Knots, 1925
  • The Miser of Maida Vale, 1925
  • A Question of Temptation, 1925
  • The Celestial City, 1926
  • Sir Percy Hits Back: An Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1927
    - Punaisen Neilikan kaksintaistelu (suom. 1935)
  • "Skin o' My Tooth": His Memoirs, 1928
  • Blue Eyes and Grey, 1928
  • Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1929
  • Marivosa, 1931
  • IIn the Rue Monge, 1931
  • A Child of the Revolution, 1932
  • A Joyous Adventure, 1932
  • The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1933
    - Punaisen Neilikan urotyö (suom. 1938)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World, 1933
  • A Spy of Napoleon, 1934
    - Film: Spy of Napoleon (1936), prod. Julius Hagen Productions, dir. Maurice Elvey, starring Richard Barthelmess, Dolly Haas, Frank Vosper, Lyn Harding
  • The Uncrowned King: A True Romance of the ’60’s Now First Put on Record by Baroness Orczy, 1935
  • Sir Percy Leads the Band, 1936
    - Punaisen Neilikan perintö (suom. Helmi Krohn, 1941)
  • The Turbulent Duchess: H.R.H. Madame le Duchesse de Berri, 1936
  • The Divine Folly, 1937
  • No Greater Love, 1938
  • Mam'zelle Guillotine: An Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel, 1940
  • Pride of Race, 1942
  • The Will-O'-The-Wisp, 1947
  • Links in the Chain of Life, 1947 (autobiography)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1964
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1964 (illustrated by John Falter)
  • The Man in the Corner, 1966 (with an introd. by Vincent Starrett; illustrated by H. M. Brock)

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