Baroness Emma Orczy de Orci
Baroness Emma Orczy de Orci
Charlie Balintitt Jr.

Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála was born 155 years ago, on September 23rd, 1865 in the town of Tarnaörs, Hungary, about 65 miles slightly northeast of Budapest.  With such a long name given to her at birth, she was simply known as Emmuska. (Reminding me of the late Sándor Anna, our good friend, who was known to everyone, even in her old age, as Annuska).  Her father was Baron Orczy Félix and her mother was Countess Wass Emma, the reason she became, in essence, “little Emma” and then carried that name with her throughout her life.

After a peasant uprising in 1868, following her father’s attempt to modernize farming in Tisza-Abád, her family moved to Budapest.  They went on to live in Paris and Brussels as well, before finally settling in London in 1880 (this may have been since her mother was born in London on June 8th, 1839, during one of her grandparent’s long trips to western Europe).  There she studied at the West London School of Art and later at the Heatherley School of Fine Art.  Although a talented artist, with some of her paintings exhibited at London’s Royal Academy for years, she did not become a painter of note, but did meet her future husband at art school.

Emmuska married Henry George Montague MacLean Barstow on November 7th, 1894.  He was an illustrator and translator, without much of an income.  Soon after the wedding, she started working with him to help with the family budget.  She began writing her first novel, The Emperor’s Candlesticks, just after the birth of her son, John Montague Orczy-Barstow, on February 25th, 1899.  This first attempt at authorship did not do well at all.  Her second novel, In Mary’s Reign, published in 1901, did a little better.  During this time, she also developed a readership for a series of detective stories that were published in the Royal Magazine.  It was her childhood experience of basically fleeing from Hungary that led her to create the hero of these short stories and her most famous series of novels about The Scarlet Pimpernel.

It was not until after she developed one of her short stories, along with her husband, into a play in 1903, that she found success.  Her hero was Sir Percy Blackeney, a foppish English aristocrat with a secret life as the Scarlet Pimpernel, who rescued French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution with his superior wit, variety of disguises and exceptional swordsmanship.  (This flower, a scarlet pimpernel, was basically his calling card).  She also turned the short story into a novel, which was turned down by a dozen publishers, until the play became a great triumph opening on January 5th, 1905 in London and going on to having over 2,000 performances.

She went on to write over a dozen more Scarlet Pimpernel novels.  All in all, she wrote a total of 51 novels, 5 plays, numerous short stories, which were also published in book collections, as well her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life, which was published shortly before her death.  Also, at least 13 of her stories were turned into motion pictures.

Leslie Howard, the famous actor, who was best known for playing the role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind in 1939, also played the lead character in the 1934 film adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  For me it is always appealing to find out when a Hungarian (or at least ½ Hungarian in this case) actor gets to play a main part in a production based on the work of a Hungarian author.  But in this case, it was a trifecta, since the movie was also produced by a Hungarian, Alexander Korda.

Emmuska became so successful that the Barstows went on to live luxurious lives.  In addition to a spacious home in London, they had an estate in Kent.  They later bought a beautiful house in Monte Carlo, named “Villa Bijou”, where they entertained frequently, reminiscent of the parties given by her parents in her early childhood. 

I really did not know much about her until I began writing this article, but when I saw that her mother was a member of the Wass family, I had to take a look at their family tree, since my father’s third cousin was another well-known writer, Wass Albert.  As it turns out, Wass Emma is from another branch of the Wass family, so her relationship to Wass Albert is somewhere along the lines of a 5th cousin twice removed.  If we are related at all, it would be very distant.  Although I am now quite curious as to whether she is related to one of our dear friends, Elizabeth Halász, née Baroness Pongrácz, better known as Dóki.  When I saw one of the most popular pictures of Emmuska in her middle age, I can see a striking resemblance to Dóki.

Her legacy lies not only in the volume of work that she produced, but in the most notable character that she created.  Her hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, with the secret identity of Sir Percy Blakeney, may have been the first literary example of this and went on to be copied by many other writers.  A few examples come to mind of subsequent fictional heroes with hidden identities: Superman (Clark Kent), Batman (Bruce Wayne), Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), the Lone Ranger (John Reid), Spiderman (Peter Parker) and Wonder Woman (Diana Prince).   

As much as she has produced in her life, Orczy Emmuska’s great career as a writer, a great English writer at that, all came about by chance.  Here is how she explains it in her life story:

“At fifteen years of age, when first my parents settled down in London (temporarily as they thought), I had never been in England, never had an English friend or English governess, or English tutor of any sort or kind.  I did not speak one word of English.  Then how did it all come about?  Neo-Victorians and Neo-Georgians will put it down to destiny, others to predestination.  I, in my humble way, put it down to the Will of God.  And looking back on my long life and its many changes I can trace the links of my chain of life that began on the great plains of Hungary, continued through the heart of London, and find me now at this hour of writing this book in Monte Carlo jotting down all that I can remember of those links which led me one by one to the conception of my first literary work.  If any one of those links had not been, if any turn of event in my life had been different, I would probably have ended my days in the country of my birth and known nothing of the happiness which comes from love, from the affection of friends (such as one meets in England) and from success in the work to which I devoted so many years of my life.

"In Gotha's Freiherrliches Taschenbuch – the continental counterpart of our Debrett – the ancestry of the Orczy family is traced back to the entry of Árpád and his knights into Hungary nearly two hundred years before the Norman Conquest.

“Ah well!  such is destiny: such was the Will of God!  If this had not happened . . . or that . . . if my father had not been half-ruined by the agrarian troubles of the '70's and the great Viennese financial crisis that followed . . . if he and my mother had not then decided to go to Brussels for a time while my sister and I were still babies, then to Paris when I grew to school age, and finally to London to complete my education after the death of my sister . . . if he had lived a few years longer, when he intended to return to his own country and to end his days in the old home . . . if I had had any talent for the musical career to which in his heart he had already devoted me . . . if . . . if . . . if . . . well, if all those things had not happened The Scarlet Pimpernel would not have been written.

 “Links in the chain of life.”

Beyond any trauma from her frequent moves as a child, she went through at least two great tragedies in her life.  The first came early on, when her older sister died on May 3rd, 1875, when Emmuska was almost 10.  This is how she remembers it (also from Links in the Chain of Life):

“We were only a very little while in Brussels.  My beloved sister died there at the age of twelve.  My father idolized her, and her death did, in a way, break his heart.  He had suffered greatly through the tragedy in Tisza-Abád, and the three years of struggle against covert enmity in Budapest, but nothing in the way of misfortune struck so deeply at his heart than the death of dear little Madeleine.  I was just old enough, too, to realize my own loss to the full.  Though I was younger by two years than she was, we had always loved each other devotedly.”

The second came late in life when her husband died.  It seems like her life ended then as well.  These are the last words in her autobiography:

“Early in 1943 the light went out of my life.  My darling passed away and I was left in darkness and alone.”

She died on November 12th,  1947.

Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.