There are very few novelists or playwrights whose work can survive the passage of time through popular culture's tides and ravages. Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josepha Barbara Orczy, better known as Baroness Orczy, is one of these few. Best known today as the creator of The Scarlet Pimpernel, her work penetrated popular film and television dramas in the form of parodies and in cartoon adaptations of modern times, and even (by way of a quotation) into a song by the Kinks.
Born in Tarnaors, Hungary, in 1865, she was the only daughter of Baron Felix Orczy and his wife Emma. The family was a cultured one, the parents being acquaintances of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, among others. In the 1870s, the family left Budapest for Brussels, and then finally settled in London where their daughter learned to speak English in her teens, amid an education taking her to convent schools as far as Belgium and France. After settling in England, she attended the West London School of Art and the Heatherby School of Art. At age 18, she met and married another art student, Montagu Barstow, and the two began careers that were closely intertwined. Together they produced illustrations and published a book of Hungarian folktales. Orczy was also the editor and translator of The Enchanted Cat, Fairyland's Beauty, and Uletka and the White Lizard, all in 1895. The Baroness began authoring fiction in the late 1890s, and her detective thrillers appeared in magazines from then onward. Her breakthrough to fame took place in 1903, when her play The Scarlet Pimpernelpremiered, co-authored by her husband. The play was initially produced in Nottingham with Fred Terry and Julia Neilson as Sir Percy Blakeney and Marguerite St. Just, and the performance's success brought it to the London stage in 1905. This story about intrigue and derring-do in the midst of the "reign of terror" following the French Revolution struck a responsive chord in a public that was very enamored, at the time, with the tales of Anthony Hope and Alexandre Dumas. In a period between productions, the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel was rejected by a dozen publishers before it finally saw the light of day. The Baroness also saw a collection of her mystery short stories, The Case of Miss Elliot, published in 1905. Orczy and Montagu later worked together on The Sin of William Jackson (1906) and Beau Brocade (1908), the latter based on one of her novels.
It was Orczy's fiction, however, which saw the greatest success. She wrote other historical novels and tried to create a heroine sleuth in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910) without much success, but The Scarlet Pimpernel continued to sell. It came to the screen for the first time in 1917 with Dustin Farnum portraying the hero, Sir Percy Blakeney. The Baroness then wrote a sequel, The League of the Pimpernel, in 1919, which was the first of many follow-up stories. She and her husband moved to Monte Carlo during the 1910s and spent the remainder of their lives together there. He eventually retired, but Orczy continued to write and get her short stories published in book form: 13 books of her short fiction pieces, invloving such characters as the Old Man in the Corner, Lady Molly, and Bill Owen. There were other plays produced during her late era, including The Legion of Honor (1918) and Leatherface (1922). Orczy also wrote further stories of her most popular creation, including The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1922), Pimpernel and Rosemary (1925), Sir Percy Hits Back (1927), Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1929), The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1933), and The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks at the World (1933).
During the 1910s and '20s, there were 19 screen adaptations of the Baroness' fiction, but only three were stories of the Pimpernel; instead, it was her hero of the French Revolution who dominated her recognition. In 1934, London Films and producer Alexander Korda made the definitive film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Leslie Howard in the role of the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney, Merle Oberon as Marguerite St. Just, and Raymond Massey as the villainous Chauvelin. The attempt by Korda to produce a sequel three years later failed, and there were no further efforts to film any of the Baroness' later Pimpernel tales during the sound era. Spy of Napoleon (1936) and The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937) were also based on her novels, but the most notable adaptation of Orczy's work came in the form of Leslie Howard's modernization, Pimpernel Smith (1941), which transposed the story to World War II, and which Howard starred in, produced, and directed. The Baroness continued writing into her eighties. She was a product of the Victorian Age and had lived into an era in which her native Hungary had become a pro-fascist dictatorship. Orczy and her husband rode out the Nazi era in Monaco, but he died in 1942, and the Baroness returned to England after the war. She published her memoirs, Links in the Chain of Life, in 1947, and passed away in London at the age of 82.
In 1950, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced a well-intended but ultimately abortive color version of her most famous story, titled The Elusive Pimpernel, starring David Niven and Margaret Leighton. Television versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel followed in 1982 and 1999. The role, however, remains inexorably linked to Leslie Howard after some 70 years, as much as Rhett Butler belongs to Clark Gable and Scarlett O'Hara to Vivien Leigh. The Pimpernel character was so well known that he would be burlesqued in a Daffy Duck cartoon (as "The Scarlet Pumpernickel") in the '40s, and be referred to in episodes of Get Smart in the '60s. More subtly, Orczy's influence showed up in the opening lines of "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," a hit song by Ray Davies and the Kinks: "They seek him here/they seek him there" is the opening line of the poem about the Pimpernel quoted in the Baroness' original book from 1905.