Baroness Emmuska Orczy
About the Author
Hungarian-British novelist, best remembered as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). Baroness Orczy's sequels to the novel were less successful. She was also an artist, and her works were exhibited at the Royal Academy, London. Her first venture into fiction was with crime stories. Among 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.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy was born in Tarna-Ors, Hungary, as the only daughter of Baron Felix Orczy, a noted composer and conductor, and his wife Emma. Her father was a friend of such composers as Wagner, Liszt, and Gounod. 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. In London she studied at the West London School of Art. Orczy married in 1894 Montague Barstow, whom she had met while studying at the Heatherby School of Art. Together they started to produce book and magazine illustrations and published an edition of Hungarian folktales.
Orczy's first detective stories appeared in magazines. As a writer she became famous in 1903 with the stage version of the Scarlet Pimpernel. 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, was produced in Nottingham and finally given a London run in 1905.
The book adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel was rejected by more than a dozen publishers. Orczy's bestselling novel had as its background the French Revolution. 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 that he is the Scarlet Pimpernel, Sir Percy assumes the double role of a clumsy English aristocrat, and swashbuckling hero, the master of disguise. 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" and 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.
The book has inspired several film versions, the best of which was directed in 1934 by Harold Young, starring Leslie Howard (Sir Percy) and Merle Oberon (Marguerite), his wife. Marguerite is fooled by Percy's act to save her imprisoned brother. She agrees to help the villainous Frenchman Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) 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.
In 1905 there appeared Orczy's first collection of mystery stories under the title The Case of Miss Elliot. Among Orczy's detective characters is 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. The first collection of the Old Man stories, The Case of Miss Elliot, was published in 1905. This nondescript armchair detective spends much of his life in the corner of a London teashop. A young reporter 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. In the 1970s the character appeared in the Thames TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, when the case of 'The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway' was dramatized.
The Irish lawyer Patrick Mulligan was the hero of 12 stories in Skin O' My Tooth (1928). M. Hector Ratichon, a highly unscrupulous "volunteer police agent" in the Paris of 1813, was the hero of Castles in the Air (1921) in seven cases. 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')
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 of solving crimes include disguises. She also 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, Lady Molly, Bill Owen and other characters.
In the late 1910s Baroness Orczy and her husband moved to Monte Carlo, where they stayed during the Nazi occupation. Her husband died in 1942 and after World War II she spent her remaining years in England. Orczy was a prolific writer and worked actively until her eighties. Her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life, was published in 1947. Baroness Orcxy died in London, on November 12, 1947.
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.