Baroness Emma Orczy
Portrait of Baroness Emma Orczy by Bassano
|Born||Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci|
23 September 1865
Tarnaörs, Heves County, Hungary
|Died||12 November 1947 (aged 82)|
Henley-on-Thames, South Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
|Genre||Historical fiction, mystery fiction and adventure romances|
|Notable works||The Scarlet Pimpernel|
The Emperor's Candlesticks
|Children||John Montague Orczy-Barstow (pen name John Blakeney)|
Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orci (; 23 September 1865 - 12 November 1947) was a Hungarian-born British novelist and playwright. She is best known for her series of novels featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel, the alter ego of Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy English fop who turns into a quick-thinking escape artist in order to save ill-fated French royalty from "Madame Guillotine" during the French revolution, establishing the "hero with a secret identity" into popular culture.
Opening in London's West End on 5 January 1905, The Scarlet Pimpernel became a favourite of British audiences. Some of Orczy's paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. During World War I, she formed the Women of England's Active Service League, an unofficial organisation aimed at encouraging women to persuade men to volunteer for active service in the armed forces.
Emmuska Orczy was born in Tarnaörs, Heves County, Hungary, and was the daughter of composer Baron Félix Orczy de Orci (1835-1892) and Countess Emma Wass de Szentegyed et Cege (1839-1892). Her grandfather, Baron László Orczy (1787-1880) was a royal councillor, and knight of the Sicilian order of Saint George, her grandmother was the Baroness Magdolna Müller (1811-1879). Her maternal grandparents were the Count Sámuel Wass de Szentegyed et Cege (1815-1879), member of the Hungarian parliament, and Rozália Eperjessy de Károlyfejérvár (1814-1884).
Emma's parents left their estate for Budapest in 1868, fearful of the threat of a peasant revolution. They lived in Budapest, Brussels, and Paris, where Emma studied music unsuccessfully. Finally, in 1880, the 14-year-old Emma and her family moved to London, England where they lodged with their countryman, Francis Pichler, at 162 Great Portland Street. Orczy attended West London School of Art and then Heatherley's School of Fine Art.
Although not destined to be a painter, it was at art school that she met a young illustrator named Henry George Montagu MacLean Barstow, the son of an English clergyman; they were married at St Marylebone parish church on 7th November 1894. It was the start of a joyful and happy marriage, which she described as "for close on half a century, one of perfect happiness and understanding, of perfect friendship and communion of thought."
They had very little money and Orczy started to work with her husband as a translator and an illustrator to supplement his low earnings. John Montague Orczy-Barstow, their only child, was born on 25 February 1899. She started writing soon after his birth but her first novel, The Emperor's Candlesticks (1899), was a failure. She did, however, find a small following with a series of detective stories in the Royal Magazine. Her next novel, In Mary's Reign (1901), did better.
In 1903, she and her husband wrote a play based on one of her short stories about an English aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., who rescued French aristocrats from the French Revolution: The Scarlet Pimpernel. She submitted her novelisation of the story under the same title to 12 publishers. While waiting for the decisions of these publishers, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson accepted the play for production in London's West End. Initially, it drew small audiences, but the play ran four years in London, broke many stage records, eventually playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in Britain. It was translated and produced in other countries, and underwent several revivals. This theatrical success generated huge sales for the novel.
Introducing the notion of a "hero with a secret identity" into popular culture, the Scarlet Pimpernel exhibits characteristics that would become standard superhero conventions, including the penchant for disguise, use of a signature weapon (sword), ability to out-think and outwit his adversaries, and a calling card (he leaves behind a scarlet pimpernel at each of his interventions). By drawing attention to his alter ego Blakeney he hides behind his public face as a slow thinking foppish playboy (like Bruce Wayne), and he also establishes a network of supporters, The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that aid his endeavours.
Orczy went on to write over a dozen sequels featuring Sir Percy Blakeney, his family, and the other members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, of which the first, I Will Repay (1906), was the most popular. The last Pimpernel book, Mam'zelle Guillotine, was published in 1940. None of her three subsequent plays matched the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She also wrote popular mystery fiction and many adventure romances. Her Lady Molly of Scotland Yard was an early example of a female detective as the main character. Other popular detective stories featured The Old Man in the Corner, a sleuth who chiefly used logic to solve crimes.
Orczy's novels were racy, mannered melodramas and she favoured historical fiction. Critic Mary Cadogan states, "Orczy's books are highly wrought and intensely atmospheric". In The Nest of the Sparrowhawk (1909), for example, a malicious guardian in Puritan Kent tricks his beautiful, wealthy young ward into marrying him by disguising himself as an exiled French prince. He persuades his widowed sister-in-law to abet him in this plot, in which she unwittingly disgraces one of her long-lost sons and finds the other murdered by the villain. Even though this novel had no link to The Scarlet Pimpernel other than its shared authorship, the publisher advertised it as part of "The Scarlet Pimpernel Series".
Orczy's work was so successful that she was able to buy a house in Monte Carlo, "Villa Bijou" at 19 Avenue de la Costa (since demolished), which is where she spent World War Two. She was not able to return to London until after the war. Montagu Barstow died in Monte Carlo in 1942. Finding herself alone there and unable to travel, she wrote her memoir, Links in the Chain of Life (published 1947).
She held strong political views. Orczy was a firm believer in the superiority of the aristocracy, as well as being a supporter of British imperialism and militarism. During the First World War, Orczy formed the Women of England's Active Service League, an unofficial organisation aimed at encouraging women to persuade men to volunteer for active service in the armed forces. Her aim was to enlist 100,000 women who would pledge "to persuade every man I know to offer his service to his country". Some 20,000 women joined her organisation. Orczy was also strongly opposed to the Soviet Union.
She died in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire on 12 November 1947.
Asked how to say her name, Orczy told The Literary Digest: "Or-tsey. Emmuska--a diminutive meaning "little Emma"--accent on the first syllable, the s equivalent to our sh; thus, EM-moosh-ka."