The Scarlet Pimpernel: Biography

ABOUT THE AUTHORBaronness Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947) was born into an upper class family in Hungary. In 1868, however, the family fled due to a peasant uprising. “During a party celebrating the fifth birthday of Emma’s sister, Madeleine, peasants set fire to the family estate, protesting the introduction of mechanized farming equipment” (Sasson, “The World of Baronness Orczy and The Scarlet Pimpernel,” p. ix). The family eventually settled in London (in 1880; sister Madeleine died in 1872). This early exposure to class conflict—the resentment of lower class workers toward upper class nobility—no doubt shaped Orczy’s outlook as she wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel, the tale of a hero who rescues aristocrats from certain death.In London, Emmuska studied painting under illustrator Montagu Barstow, whom she eventually married, in 1894. The marriage would endure until his death in 1942. In 1901, following some success with a series of detective stories, Orczy penned The Scarlet Pimpernel. After several publishers rejected the book, however, Orczy, with Barstow, adapted it as a stage play, which premiered in 1903 to great success. The first edition of the novel followed two years later. A dozen sequels followed, and they remain Orczy’s claim to fame.Orczy died in London in 1947. Her most famous story lives on. “Apparently,” the New York Times wrote in 1998, there can never be too many versions of the story, which was immortalized by Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon on film in 1935 and has been produced on stage and screen many times since… ’With all his disguises and rescues, the Pimpernel was really like the first crusader, the first Superman, explained Delia Fine, A&E’s vice president for film, drama and the performing arts. ’When you put the combination of adventure and romance against the horrors of the French Revolution, it stands the test of time’” (