Baroness Orczy was a novelist I had never heard of until recently, although her tales featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard are well known among detective story fans. That’s why I was surprised to learn the baroness was ALSO the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel – a book I first heard about in high school. (You can also read The Scarlet Pimpernel as a free eBook through the Gutenberg Project.)
The Scarlet Pimpernel actually started out as a play in 1903, which the baroness had written along with her husband, Montague Barstow. Because of the play’s huge success, the baroness decided to turn it into a novel in 1905. The novel quickly became a bestseller.
Both The Scarlet Pimpernel and Baroness Orczy’s first book featuring Lady Molly were published during the first decade of the 20th century – Great Britain’s Edwardian Period.
The Unusual Background of Baroness Orczy
Reading about Baroness Orczy’s childhood and teen years was a little like reading a fiction romance novel. She was born into a life of great wealth, thanks to the connections (mostly by birth) from both sides of her family.
Born in Tarnaörs, Hungary, her father was a composer and her mother was a countess. One of her grandfathers was a knight of the Sicilian Order of Saint George, and another grandfather was a member of the Hungarian parliament.
In 1868, when the baroness was only three years old, peasants on her parents’ farm set a barn on fire, protesting the way (they thought) machines were starting to replace them. Soon afterward, fearing more protests, her parents moved their family to Budapest. Later they moved to Brussels, Paris, and eventually London.
The baroness was fifteen years old when she reached England, and at the time she was unable to speak a word of English. Six months later, though, she was already proficient in the language. Despite her father’s musical talents, she herself apparently did NOT have an ear for music, so she began working toward becoming an artist.
Her painting skills were good enough to get three of her paintings displayed at London’s Royal Academy, where they hung for three years, but the baroness felt that her paintings, in reality, were only mediocre. Her attendance did bring her a husband, though – Montague Barstow, who was an illustrator. Their marriage lasted 48 years, from 1894 until Montague’s death in 1942.
Inspiration at the Theatre
One of the young couple’s favorite pastimes in the early years of their marriage was attending the theatre almost nightly, where the baroness fell in love with romantic melodramas and thrillers. The stories they saw performed on the stage stirred up ideas in Baroness Orczy’s mind of stories she herself could create.
The idea for The Scarlet Pimpernel started brewing in the baroness’s mind during the year she and Montague spent in Paris (1900). With her own ties to nobility, and her imagination stirring up images of horror she knew must have taken place during the French Revolution, she realized she needed to find a “hero to fight its Terror.”
The type of character that “stars” in The Scarlet Pimpernel – a foppish aristocrat who actually has a secret identity as a hero – eventually became an archetype for future superheroes who disguise themselves in their everyday lives (think Superman, Batman, and Spiderman …).
The Old Man in the Corner
Two years before The Scarlet Pimpernel first appeared on stage, Baroness Orczy wrote a series of short stories featuring an unnamed detective who solves crimes while sitting in a genteel London tea room, in conversation with a female journalist. The character first appeared in a series of six stories known as “Mysteries of London,” which were published in The Royal Magazine in 1901.
Eventually, the number of stories in the collection grew to 12, and the collection was published in a volume titled The Old Man in the Corner. As she did with the Scarlet Pimpernel a few years later, the baroness had created a new type of detective – the armchair detective who solved crimes from afar, rather than in person.
The stories are focused primarily on “sensationalist newspaper accounts,” with occasional visits to a courtroom. The main character spends most of his time tying complicated knots in a piece of string. (This unusual hobby is connected to a surprise turn of events in the final story of the series, in a volume containing 13 stories – Unravelled Knots, published in 1925.)
Baroness Orczy and Lady Molly of Scotland Yard
Baroness Orczy didn’t write her first detective novel until several years after the success of her play-turned-novel about the “Pimpernel.” First published in 1910, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is actually a COLLECTION of short stories about Molly Robertson-Kirk.
The main character in these stories actually became another important archetype in future detective novels, in which characters rely on “brains” instead of “brawn.” Lady Molly one of the first female detectives in literature. She’s respected by Scotland Yard, and as we learn, her cases are all famous.
As Baroness Orczy tells us (through Mary, the narrator), Molly is the “most wonderful psychologist of her time.” She is smarter, bolder, savvier than men, and Mary notes the “extraordinary faculty which she possesses of divining her fellow-creatures’ motives and intentions.”
It didn’t take long for the Lady Molly stories to gain a lot of new fans among readers.