A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BARONESS ORCZY, THE CREATOR OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL
She was named Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josepha Barbara Orczy (pronounced Ort-zee). Born into a rich, affluent life, she used her love of romance, mystery, disguise and especially heroism to create The Scarlet Pimpernel.
She writes in her autobiography, Links In the Chain of Life: "I have so often been asked the question: 'But how did you come to think of The Scarlet Pimpernel?' And my answer has always been: 'It was God's will that I should.' And to you moderns, who perhaps do not believe as I do, I will say, 'In the chain of my life, there were so many links, all of which tended towards bringing me to the fulfillment of my destiny..."
She took her subjects from history because modern life and modern ideas bored her. She hated modern art with its "naked ladies with green thighs and faces like acidulated pumpkins." She believed in gallantry and chivalry. She believed in heroes.
"My imagination was already then at work..."
Born in 1865 in Tarnaors, Hungary, she spent her first years in a time of "splendid feudal lords ensconced in their opulent chateaux, medieval still in their magnificence." Emmuska's father was a nobleman in the court of Franz Joseph, leader of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire; the Orczy family traced their line back to the famous hero Arpad, who came into Hungary before the Norman Conquests.
From the start, she was a romantic. When she and her sister played, Emmuska would always be the dashing prince come to save the damsel in distress. She always wanted to be the hero: "in a childish, obscure way, my imagination was already then at work on doughty deeds of valor, on noble heroes, dare-devil adventures and on hapless victims of cruel persecutions..."
Years later she remembered her family home: a great, rambling farmhouse on the river Tarna that had been in the family for generations. In her memory, the house was always filled with the noise of opulent parties, joyful dancing and gypsy music.
At the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was producing timesaving, effort-saving machinery. Emmuska's father, Felix, wanted to update the equipment on his farm. Like much of the peasantry throughout Europe, the workers on the Orczy farm were afraid that the new machinery would replace them. Many of them called the machines the work of the devil. As Orczy later wrote, "they were frightened, they knew not of what."
"So Romantic, So Medieval..."
On a hot July evening when Emmuska was three, the family held a grand party for her elder sister's birthday. It was to be a masquerade party in which "everyone was to dress up in some fantastic guise. The women were to don male attire and the men to wear bodices and petticoats." She remembered, with the vivid imagery of a three-year old's eyes, a wild party, "so gay, so romantic, so medieval."
Just as the party reached its peak, she and her sister were hastily put to bed. After being tucked in, she remembered seeing a red glow at her window and thinking it must already be sunrise. When she and her sister went to the window she saw the truth: the farm workers had set fire to the barn and the stables. The fire had spread to the crops, and the harvest was ruined.
She was three years old. In one night she was confronted with two elements that were important in her later work: peasants rebelling against the aristocracy, and the delightful mystery of masks. Later she would make her hero a master of disguise and an audacious plotter against the tyranny of the mob.
"My spiritual birthplace..."
After the disaster, the Baron moved his family throughout Europe, trying to recoup his losses. He finally brought them to England in 1880, where they settled on Wimpole Street. Emmuska was fifteen years old.
She was often asked about her ancestry: "You are Hungarian born, aren't you? Nothing English about you?" To which she replied: "No, nothing; except my love, which is all English." When she came to London, she didn't speak a word of English, but after six months, she was proficient enough to earn a special prize.
The family reveled in the social and artistic life of London. Her father was an amateur musician who wrote his own compositions for the orchestra. Their house became a salon of sorts for the musical geniuses of that time; visitors included Liszt, Gounod and Wagner.
Once she was asked, "Baroness, you have the real distinction of having lived equal amounts of time in England and Hungary, you know both ways of living, so you can compare the two places better than anyone else. Please tell me, how would you compare the life style of the two countries?" To which she replied, "Well, I would say the Englishman lives like a king and eats like a pig, and the Hungarian lives like a pig, but God knows he eats like a king." (from The Cuisine of Hungary by George Lang, Bonanza Books)
From the first, she loved London, and called England her "real, my spiritual, birthplace..."
"Dreams of glory and fame..."
She had a real drive to do something great: "eating out my heart in all sorts of vain longings and dreams of glory and fame to be attained..." In her early life she tried to express these experiences and longings in an artistic form.
Her father tried to develop her musical talent, but she did not have an ear for music. She moved to painting, "a mad desire to adopt an artistic career." She was soon attending the West London School of Art, and Heatherley's studio school.
Although her pictures were good enough to hang at London's Royal Academy for three years, she wasn't satisfied: "Soon I realized that it was going to be mediocrity for me. Mediocrity again, my bugbear, my nightmare!"
Although she was not destined to be a painter, art school did change her life forever, for it was there she met a young illustrator named Montague Barstow, the son of an English clergyman, whom she eventually married. It was the start of a joyful and happy marriage, "for close on half a century one of perfect happiness and understanding of perfect friendship and communion of thought."
The two newlyweds reveled in the artistic life of London at the end of the 19th century. They attended concerts, went to exhibitions, the opera, and especially the theatre!
"One of our greatest delights was the theatre."
The Barstows went to the theatre every night, befriending some of the rising stars in the English theatre like Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and A.W. Pinero. They reveled in all types of theatre: the classical plays that London is known for, farces, comedies and "real melodrama, hot and strong." Orczy loved the melodramas, those plays where emotions and romance where at their height. The melodramas were full of vivid life, the theatres more like circuses, where you could buy sandwiches and lemonade, and boo at the villains and shout hurrah for the heroes.
The theatre is where she became interested in thrillers, or "marrow-freezing dramas" as she called them, with titles like "Lady Audley's Secret," "The Lonely Man of the Ocean," or (a favorite of hers) "The Vicissitudes of a Servant Girl." Describing them, she could also be describing her future work: "Virtue was inevitably triumphant in the end. Vice, as exemplified by the villain, brought about its own chastisement; and comedy was always on the side of virtue."
"I felt in my heart a kind of stirring..."
Along with other painters and illustrators, the Barstows knew many of London's writers. With the complete lack of inhibition or fear that seemed to be the focus of her personality, she decided to try writing. Amazingly, she sold her first stories right away to Pearson's magazine, and the editor asked for more.
In 1888 she came close to a real life horror story when she and her husband, only married a week, returned home only to see the police and a crowd forming on the pavement. The legendary "Jack the Ripper" had murdered a young woman just outside the Barstows' door. It fascinated her that, in this city of light and theatre and joy, horror could lay waiting just beneath the fog. This inspired her - she wanted to create a character that would explore that darkness.
But London in the 1890's belonged to another detective; Sherlock Holmes was wildly popular and Emmuska knew that any character she created would have to be completely different from Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective. She conceived of an eccentric scarecrow of a man, solving crimes from the safety of a little London teashop using only the clues provided in the newspaper. She called him The Old Man in the Corner and he "was in no way reminiscent of any other character in detective fiction. I thought of him in his big checkered ulster, of his horn-rimmed spectacles, of his cracked voice and dribbling nose, and above all of his lean, bony fingers fidgeting, always fidgeting, with a bit of string."
The Old Man was the first "arm chair detective," that is, the first detective who was never really involved with the crime, but solved the mystery from a distance. This formula was later used by many mystery writers, most famously by Rex Stout in his Nero Wolfe series.
The Old Man In the Corner was first published in 1901 by Royal Magazine , for which Emmuska received the large amount of 60 pounds. The stories were immediately popular, and the public clamored for more.
Orczy created other detectives, including Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, one of the first women detectives in 1910 and Skin o'My Tooth, a lawyer/detective. But even as she rejoiced in her new fame, she had the feeling that something bigger was coming: "I felt inside my heart a kind of stirring that the writing of sensational stuff for magazines would not, and should not, be the end and aim of my ambition. I wanted to do something more than that. Something big."
"The birth of the Scarlet Pimpernel"
She and her husband spent the first year of the new century in Paris. To her romantic mind, Paris held memories of the French Revolution: "We wandered through the streets of that quarter of old Paris which held enshrined the whole of her marvelous history and along the pavements which to my ears still echoed with the footsteps of Robespierre and Danton...with the clatter of the tumbrels and the shouts of...the revolutionary mob thirsting for freedom at the price of the tyrant's blood."
The stirrings in her grew stronger. Surely the bloody and terrible revolution would prove a suitable background for "something big." In her mind, she saw the bloody world of the French Revolution. Now she needed a hero to fight its Terror. Upon their return to England, he came to her in a flash: "I first saw him standing before me - don't gasp, please - on the platform of an underground station...Now, of all the dull, prosy places in the world, can you beat an Underground railway station? But I give you my word that as I was sitting there, I saw - yes, I saw - Sir Percy Blakeney, just as you know him now...I saw him in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands hold up his spy-glass; I heard his lazy, drawling speech, his quaint laugh...it was a mental vision, of course - but it was the whole life story of the Scarlet Pimpernel that was there and then revealed to me...my thoughts were clear enough for me to tell my beloved husband about the wonder that had occurred; the birth of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
After she had her hero in her mind, "everything else was easy." She wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in five weeks, a time she looked on later as the happiest in her life - here at last was a "big" story that brought together all the facets of her romantic personality: her fascination with theatricality and disguise, her passion for history and especially, her love of honor and heroism.
"Hot and Strong"
Although she was sure of her book's worth, it was rejected by most of the publishing houses in London. The fashion of the time was for modern, true-to-life novels, not the historical romance and adventure of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy was discouraged, but not ready to give up yet.
An actor friend put her in contact with the husband and wife acting team of Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, who were looking for a new romantic drama. The Scarlet Pimpernel seemed to fit the bill and a production was planned. Working with her husband, Emmuska fit her book into play form.
The play opened at the New Theatre in London in 1904. The standing ovation of the first night audience was "hot and strong," but not so the reaction of the critics the next morning. The jaded London critics, trying to champion new, "modern" plays, pooh-poohed the "old-fashioned" Scarlet Pimpernel. But the play became a popular success; word of mouth made The Scarlet Pimpernel a smash hit. It became a favorite of the London audiences - playing more than 2000 performances, one of the most popular shows ever staged in an English theatre.
The novel was published soon after the play's opening and was an immediate success. Orczy gained a following of readers in England and throughout the world. With the demand high, she wrote many sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel over the next 35 years.
The success of The Scarlet Pimpernel, in novel and play form, allowed the Barstows to live out their lives in luxury and comfort. Over the years, they lived on an estate in Kent, a bustling London home and an opulent villa in Monte Carlo. She continued to create adventures for her "reckless daredevil" and watch his incarnations take life throughout the world. The play was done to great acclaim in France, Italy, Germany and Spain; the novel was translated into 16 languages (and is, of course, still widely read today).
In 1934, the movie producer Alexander Korda (another Hungarian, who had been born in a town not far from the Orczy farm) began to create the first Pimpernel movie. Korda had just had great success with the actor Charles Laughton in the film The Eight Wives of Henry VIII, so he understandably asked the famous British actor to play the role of Sir Percy. But when the announcement went out to the press, the reaction from the Pimpernel's many fans was horror - Laughton, the ugly pug-nosed actor to play the suave Sir Percy? Never! Korda was nothing if not pragmatic and he offered the role to Leslie Howard, who played the daredevil opposite Merle Oberon as Margueritte.
With Raymond Massey as the evil Chauvelin, this first film of Orczy's adventure was a great success. Over the years Sir Percy has been played by such actors as David Niven, James Mason, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Andrews and Daffy Duck (as the now classic "Scarlet Pumpernickel"). When asked who her favorite Pimpernel was, the Baroness always answered Fred Terry, the first Sir Percy, whose stage interpretation led the way for her great success.
In 1943, Montague Barstow died at their home in Monte Carlo. Emmuska was left "in darkness and alone." She lived with her one son and traveled between London and Monte Carlo. She published her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life in 1947 and died weeks later at the age of 82.
Baroness Orczy fulfilled her dream. She created an audacious, romantic character that the world still remembers. Her beloved Pimpernel lives on in books, movies and now as a Broadway musical. The Baroness would have been very pleased.