Sunday, February 3, 2008

Baroness Orczy

When I first read Baroness Orczy's novel of the French Revolution The Scarlet Pimpernel as a college student, I thought it to be one of the most romantic love stories I had ever read. I still do. Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947) was a fascinating lady who had witnessed the destruction of an uprising first hand in her native Hungary. She loved painting but took up writing as an effort to ameliorate her family's genteel poverty, and she was quite successful. Here is a short description of her life:

When Baroness Orczy (pronounced "OR-see") created the gallant and beautiful aristocrats of The Scarlet Pimpernel, she was writing partly out of her own experience. Born in 1865, the only child of a Hungarian baron, she was herself an aristocrat. And although unrest in Hungary made her father give up the family's holding and leave the country when she was just a little girl, all her life she proudly used her title. When she began writing her novels, she signed them not "Emmuska" (or more properly, "Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy"), but "Baroness Orczy".

Intense, witty, darkly attractive, she was a welcome guest at all the highest courts of Europe. She dressed in rich, low-cut gowns, in heirloom jewels and wondrous hats, at least one of which - broad brimmed, decorated with a huge curling ostrich feather - was just such a dashing hat as her heroine wore while making her grand entry in The Scarlet Pimpernel. It is quite possible that Baroness Orczy patterned her heroine after herself. This woman, Marguerite Blakeney, the French actress, the charming but independent woman with lovely face, sensitive nature, superior mind - this might have been the woman Baroness Orczy wanted to be. As much as she was born an aristocrat, Baroness Orczy was raised a cosmopolitan. She lived in Brussels, Budapest, London, Paris, and Monte Carlo. She studied music on the continent, art in Great Britain. "Before I reached my teens," she wrote, "I could already jabber in three languages without a trace of a foreign accent." This was before she knew English, which she began to learn at the age of fifteen! When she decided that she did not possess the "sacré feu" (sacred fire) necessary to make her a great painter, she started using her facility with language to create pictures with words. And despite her Hungarian birth and continental upbringing she chose English as the language in which to write. She married an artist and remained devoted to him all her life; by her own account, her marriage was blissfully happy. Also by her own account, some of the happiest days of all were the five weeks during which she wrote the novel by which she is still remembered, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Published in 1905, it became popular almost at once, and Baroness Orczy became somewhat of a celebrity.Though she lived a life of wealth, privilege, and fame, before the end she experienced herself that dark threat of what she had written, that shadowy side of being an aristocrat, that danger of capture and death. During World War II she and her husband were trapped in Monte Carlo when the Nazis invaded France. For the next five years they lived within a stone's throw of the German Gestapo headquarters, afraid to speak English in public. Her husband died in this exile. Her longtime maidservant was arrested by the Italians, and despite months of effort Baroness Orczy could not obtain the Englishwoman's release. She was left utterly alone in a "neutral" state overrun by all England's enemies. Her home was bombed by the R.A.F. just before Monte Carlo was liberated. An old woman, she died soon afterward, in London, in 1947.

Old, but not broken. Her passion, her verve, her romantic and indeed flamboyant love of life, stayed with her to the end, and live after her in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Baroness Orczy also wrote a little known biography about Caroline of Naples, the Duchesse d'Angouleme's sister-in-law, entitled The Turbulent Duchess. It was a great help to me when writing Madame Royale.

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4 comments:

Shan-Oh said...

Thank you for the lovely post. I love the Scarlett Pimpernell, and had often wondered about the author. I wonder, have you read the modern books by Laura Willig? I've read three of them, the first is the Pink Carnation...they are somewhat elevated, not-so-trashy romance novels, but good fun to read and built upon the Pimpernell.

Reading your blog is always so much fun. I never know what further historical tidbit I'll get to learn about!

elena maria vidal said...

No, I have not heard of Laura Willig. Thanks, shan-oh!

Christopher Orczy said...

Hi Elena.

My name is Christopher. I am a great great grandchild of the Baroness. Upon reading your blog, I was fascinated to find you are a Carmelite. I was also interested in your interest in Trianon. The first music I released was about the Treaty of Trianon. Being a Carmelite, you may also be interested in a piece I composed for St Teresa.

elena maria vidal said...

Welcome, Christopher! I visited your blog; it is fascinating! I would love to read your piece on St. Teresa.