Emma Orczy

Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orci (/ˈɔːrtsiː/; 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.[1]

Opening in London's West End on 5 January 1905, The Scarlet Pimpernel became a favourite of British audiences. Some of her paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. During World War I, 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.

Baroness Emma Orczy
Portrait of Baroness Emma Orczy by Bassano
Portrait of Baroness Emma Orczy by Bassano
BornEmma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci
23 September 1865
Tarnaörs, Heves County, Hungary
Died12 November 1947 (aged 82)
Henley-on-Thames, South Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
NationalityHungarian, British
GenreHistorical fiction, mystery fiction and adventure romances
Notable worksThe Scarlet Pimpernel
The Emperor's Candlesticks
SpouseMontagu Barstow
ChildrenJohn Montague Orczy-Barstow (pen name John Blakeney)

Early life

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).[2] Her grandfather, Baron László Orczy (1787–1880) was a royal councillor, and knight of the Sicilian order of Saint George,[3] her grandmother was the Baroness Magdolna Müller (1811–1879).[4] Her maternal grandparents were the Count Sámuel Wass de Szentegyed et Cege (1815–1879), member of the Hungarian parliament,[5] and Rozália Eperjessy de Károlyfejérvár (1814–1884).[6]

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 Montague MacLean Barstow, the son of an English clergyman; they married in 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."[7]

Writing career

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).[1] 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.[1][8]

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".[9] 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".

Later life

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).[10]

She held strong political views. Orczy was a firm believer in the superiority of the aristocracy,[11] as well as being a supporter of British imperialism and militarism.[9] 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.[12][13] Orczy was also strongly opposed to the Soviet Union.[14]

She died in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire on 12 November 1947.

Name pronunciation

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."[15]


Cover of Baroness Orczy's THE OLD MAN IN THE CORNER, popular edition, Greening & Co., Ltd., London, 1910
H.M. Brock's cover of Baroness Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner (popular edition, Greening & Co., London, 1910).
Adventure v08 n01
The Laughing Cavalier was serialised in Adventure in 1914
Short story collections
Omnibus editions
  • Links in the Chain of Life (autobiography, 1947)



  1. ^ a b c Robb, Brian J. (May 2014). A Brief History of Superheroes: From Superman to the Avengers, the Evolution of Comic Book Legends. Hatchet UK.
  2. ^ Szluha, Márton (2012): Vas vármegye nemes családjai II. kötet (Noble families from the county of Vas, II tome). Heraldika kiadó. page 260.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ [2]
  5. ^ [3]
  6. ^ [4]
  7. ^ Orczy, Emmuska. Links in the Chain of Life, Ch. 8. London: Hutchinson, 1947.
  8. ^ Naversen, Ron (2015). "The (Super) Hero's Masquerade". In Bell, Deborah. Masquerade: Essays on Tradition and Innovation Worldwide. McFarland. pp. 217ff. ISBN 978-0-7864-7646-6.
  9. ^ a b Mary Cadogan, "Orczy, Baroness", in Twentieth-century romance and historical writers, edited by Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd edition. London: St. James Press, 1994 (pp. 499–501). ISBN 1558621806 .
  10. ^ introductory notes to 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', Sarah Juliette Sasson, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005, ISBN 978-1-59308-234-5, p. v,xii
  11. ^ "In spite of her attraction to strongly chivalric ideas, she writes about the "lower orders" with a distinct air of patronage and condension, especially if they step out of line and fail to obey their "betters"". Cadogan, Twentieth-century romance and historical writers.
  12. ^ Keep the Home Fires Burning, Propaganda in the First World War, by Cate Haste, Allen Lane, 1977
  13. ^ See also White feather – A symbol of cowardice.
  14. ^ Orczy, Emmuska. The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World: Essays, with a Portrait, Ch. 5. London: John Heritage, 1933.
  15. ^ Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.

External links

A Child of the Revolution

First published in 1932, A Child of the Revolution is chronologically the last book in the Scarlet Pimpernel series by Baroness Orczy.

I Will Repay (film)

I Will Repay is a 1923 British silent period film directed by Henry Kolker and starring Holmes Herbert, Flora le Breton and Pedro de Cordoba. It was based on the 1906 novel I Will Repay by Emma Orczy, which is a sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel (part of a large series of such novels). It was released under the alternative title Swords and the Woman

Mam'zelle Guillotine

Mam'zelle Guillotine, by Baroness Orczy, is a sequel book to the classic adventure tale, The Scarlet Pimpernel. First published in 1940, it was the last novel Orczy wrote featuring the Pimpernel and is dedicated to those fighting in World War II.

"To all those who are fighting in the air, on the water and on land for our country and for our homes, I dedicate this because it is to them that we shall owe a happy issue out of all our troubles and a lasting peace." - Emmuska Orczy - Monte Carlo - 1939-40

Nicolette (novel)

Orczy's Nicolette is a re-telling of the medieval French story Aucassin and Nicolette.

Pimpernel and Rosemary

Pimpernel and Rosemary is a novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, originally published in 1924. It is set after the First World War and features Peter Blakeney, a descendant of the Scarlet Pimpernel (Percy Blakeney).

The action is mainly set amongst the disaffected Hungarian nobility in Transylvania, allowing Orczy to draw on her knowledge of Hungarian history and politics.

Sir Percy Hits Back

Sir Percy Hits Back is (chronologically) the ninth book in the Scarlet Pimpernel series by Baroness Orczy. It was first published in 1927.

A French-language version, translated and adapted by Charlotte and Marie-Louise Desroyses, was also published under the title La Vengeance du Mouron Rouge.

Sir Percy Leads the Band

First published in 1936, Sir Percy Leads the Band is (chronologically) the second of the Scarlet Pimpernel series by Baroness Orczy.

The novel is set in January and February 1793 and follows on from the original Scarlet Pimpernel book.

Spy of Napoleon

Spy for Napoleon is a 1936 British historical drama film directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Richard Barthelmess, Dolly Haas, Frank Vosper, Henry Oscar and James Carew. It is based on the 1934 novel A Spy of Napoleon by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, best known for writing The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The Elusive Pimpernel

The Elusive Pimpernel is a 1950 British period adventure film by the British-based director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, based on the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It was released in the United States under the title The Fighting Pimpernel. The film stars David Niven as Sir Percy Blakeney (a.k.a. The Scarlet Pimpernel), Margaret Leighton as Marguerite Blakeney and features Jack Hawkins, Cyril Cusack and Robert Coote. Originally intended to be a musical, the film was re-worked as a light-hearted drama.

The Elusive Pimpernel (1919 film)

The Elusive Pimpernel is a 1919 British silent adventure film directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Cecil Humphreys, Marie Blanche and Norman Page. It was based on the novel The Elusive Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.

The Emperor's Candlesticks (film)

The Emperor's Candlesticks is a 1937 film starring William Powell and Luise Rainer, based on the novel of the same name by Baroness Orczy. It was directed by George Fitzmaurice. The film is a story about spies from opposing sides who fall in love in pre-revolutionary Russia.

The Gallant Pimpernel

Published in 1939 this is a collection of four of The Scarlet Pimpernel novels in a single binding.

The Laughing Cavalier (film)

The Laughing Cavalier is a 1917 British silent adventure film directed by A. V. Bramble and Eliot Stannard and starring Mercy Hatton, Edward O'Neill and George Bellamy. It is an adaptation of the 1913 novel The Laughing Cavalier by Baroness Emmuska Orczy.

The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel

The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel is a 1937 British thriller film directed by Hanns Schwarz and starring Barry K. Barnes, Sophie Stewart, Margaretta Scott and James Mason. It is a sequel to the 1934 film The Scarlet Pimpernel based on the stories by Baroness Emmuska Orczy.

France, 1794. Citizen Chauvelin lays a trap for his long-standing nemesis Sir Percy Blakeney (Barry K. Barnes) by kidnapping his wife (Sophie Stewart).

The Scarlet Pimpernel (TV series)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a series of television drama programmes loosely based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy's series of novels, set during the French Revolution.

It stars Richard E. Grant as Sir Percy Blakeney, and his alter ego, the eponymous hero. The first series also starred Elizabeth McGovern as his wife Marguerite and Martin Shaw as the Pimpernel's archrival, Paul Chauvelin. Robespierre was played by Ronan Vibert.

It was filmed in the Czech Republic and scored by a Czech composer, Michal Pavlíček.

The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel

The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel, first published in 1922, is a book in the series about the Scarlet Pimpernel's adventures by Baroness Orczy. Again Orczy interweaves historic fact with fiction, this time through the real life figures of Thérésa Cabarrus, and Jean-Lambert Tallien; inserting the Scarlet Pimpernel as an instigator of the role Tallien played in the Thermidorian Reaction in July 1794.

The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (film)

The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel is a 1928 British silent costume drama film directed by T. Hayes Hunter and starring Matheson Lang, Juliette Compton and Nelson Keys. It was based on the novel The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy. It was made at Cricklewood Studios, with art direction by Clifford Pember.

Madeleine Carroll was meant to play Lady Blakeney but filming was delayed and proved unavailable.

The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel

The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, is another sequel book to the adventure tale, The Scarlet Pimpernel. First published in 1933, it is 6th in the series and one of the shorter Scarlet Pimpernel books. A French-language version, translated and adapted by Charlotte and Marie-Louise Desroyses, was also produced under the title Les Métamorphoses du Mouron Rouge.

The story features the Pimpernel's arch enemy Chauvelin as well as introducing the Austrian Baron de Batz, a real historical figure who also appears in Eldorado and Sir Percy Leads the Band.

Two Lovers (1928 film)

Two Lovers (1928) is a silent feature film directed by Fred Niblo, and produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

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