The Scarlet Pimpernel

We seek him here, we seek him there...

You are all likely to be aware of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood and his connections with Sherwood Forest. More certain is that Nottingham is the birthplace of another romantic hero, the fictional Sir Percy Blakeney: the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The Pimpernel was the creation of the Baroness Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy (1865-1947); her formidable battery of Christian names usually reduced to Emmuska. She was born on 22nd September 1865 at Tarnaörs, the younger daughter of Baron Bodog (Felix) Orczy (1835-1892); Tarnaörs is about seventy five kilometres west of Budapest. The Baron tried an experiment in modernisation of agriculture at a later estate at Tisza Abėd but his peasants rose and burnt both crops and machines.

The Baron withdrew to Budapest, becoming intendent of the national theatres. Obviously a confirmed “improver”, he introduced the music of Wagner and the conducting of Hans Richter. These innovations proving unpopular, the Orczys moved to Brussels and then to Paris. Emmuska was fluent in Hungarian, French, and, in order to converse with her Viennese grandmother in German, which she disliked. But she knew no English when the family moved to London when she was fifteen.

However, the language barrier must have been overcome and the Baroness completed her education at Heathley’s School of Art; a fellow pupil was Angela Brazil (1868-1947) later the author of girls’ school stories. At this time she also met Henry Barstow (1862-1943) whom she married in 1894. Together they set up home in Holland Park, working as illustrators. Baroness Orczy began to write short stories for the then flourishing magazine market; notably the stories of the “Old Man on the Corner”. The old man sits in the corner of an ABC teashop, knotting and untying pieces of string, drinking milk and eating cheesecakes, while he solves crimes that have the police baffled with a complete indifference as to catching the criminal. These stories were eventually published here in three collections (1905, 1909, 1925) and enjoy a certain vogue among connoisseurs of early crime fiction.

In 1900 the Barstows scraped the money together to visit the Paris Exhibition. This visit, and perhaps some memory of the revolt on her father’s estate, triggered an idea in Orczy’s mind and she wrote the “Scarlet Pimpernel” in five weeks. The Pimpernel is a wealthy English aristocrat of indolent and foppish demeanour who secretly leads a band of similar types to rescue victims of the French Revolutionary Terror in the 1790s. The Baroness could not find a publisher and with her husband turned the novel into a play which was accepted by the actor-manager Fred Terry (1863-1933), brother of Dame Ellen Terry and great uncle of John Gielgud.

Fred Terry was not only a member of a vast acting dynasty but, with his beautiful wife Julia Neilson, ran a highly successful touring company. Terry, like his famous sister, had worked with Henry Irving and in the Irving tradition played everything from Shakespeare to modern melodrama. It was in the latter that he chose to make his reputation. “They took the theatre dreadfully seriously”, reflected John Gielgud, “This made them extremely good in rubbish… very fustian plays.” Although suspect in his literary taste, dismissing Oscar Wilde’s dialogue in the telling word “unnatural”, Fred Terry was a good businessman with a shrewd sense of the theatre-going public’s demands.

So it was on 15th October 1903 that the “Scarlet Pimpernel” opened at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal: it was not a success. But Terry had confidence in the play and, with a re-written last act, took it to London where at the New Theatre on 5th January 1905 it began a run of 122 performances and numerous revivals. The novel now became a runaway bestseller and Fred Terry had a hit: playing the Pimpernel for the rest of his life, on and off.

The Baroness Orczy wrote eleven more adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel and other stories, moving after the Great War to Monte Carlo helping to have an Anglican church erected there. Her life became difficult in old age, her husband dying in 1943, and she returned to London, dying in Brown’s Hotel on 12th November 1947.

It would be foolish to pretend that the Baroness Orczy is a very good writer, even among those of similar stamp. At her best she is lively with convincing characterisation and a good grasp of the historical situation, well aware of the shortcomings of the old regime in France. However, like many popular historical writers she uses the French Revolutionary period to paint a picture of a calm, settled, peaceful, welcoming England, contrasting with a violent class divided, ideological continent. One of the ironies of this is that at the time Britain was beginning one of its most disturbed periods; militant suffragettes, unrest among organised labour with protracted strikes, all kinds of turbulence regarding Irish Home Rule including violence on the floor of the House of Commons, all culminating in the Great War. Nonetheless, even if his reputation is not what it once was, in the Pimpernel the Baroness created a character that for the best part of a century was recognisable even by those who had never read her books; no mean achievement. Perhaps only a foreigner, and a woman, could have done it.

Clarence Rickards

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Last revised 1st April 2005