Baroness Orczy

Interest in the French Revolution goes far beyond France and has oft been the setting for novels. The most famous are probably those featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel, the fictional English saviour of doomed French aristocrats. A foppish dandy by day, and a bold adventurer by night, Sir Percy Blakeney first appeared in a play (1903), and then in a book (1905), and after that, in a series of books. I read most of them as a teen-ager, and quite enjoyed them, although I couldn’t really understand why Sir Percy never locked his wife in the cellar before going off to rescue someone, as she invariably turned up at some point and imperilled everyone involved in the mission. A clever, resourceful, modern-day female adventurer she was not. Mostly, she just got in the way or did something stupid so hubby had to go and rescue her as well as the doomed aristocrats.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s creator was herself an aristocrat, albeit a Hungarian one. Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orczi (who must have been quite old before she could spell this) was the daughter of Hungarian composer/conductor Baron Felix Orczy, and her early life was spent among the rich and famous. In her teens however, the wretched peasantry rose up and destroyed the family home, causing her family to flee Hungary and go first to Brussels, and then to London. Memories of the uncouth peasant uprising that disrupted her life no doubt accounted for Baroness Orczy’s desire to, at least fictionally, rescue the poor misunderstood French aristocratic victims of the Reign of Terror. (Non-aristocratic victims had to shift for themselves.)
The baroness did not, however marry an aristocrat. Her husband, with whom she was reportedly very happy, was Montague MacLean Barstow, a clergyman’s son who became an illustrator. Working together, they published illustrated books and magazines of Hungarian folktales.
Her husband also co-authored three of her plays, including the one introducing Sir Percy to the world. But she was the one who went on to make him so famous that many people think he was an actual historical figure. He wasn’t. There were indeed some people who risked their lives to cheat Madame Guillotine of her victims, but none of them were English, foppish or otherwise. Accounts of their exploits might well have inspired her stories, however, consolidating all these heroes into one hero.


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