It’s the birthday of Baroness Emmuska Orczy (books by this author), born Baroness Emma Magdalena Rosália Mária Josefa Borbára Orczy at her family’s estate in Hungary (1865). Part of the landed nobility, Orczy’s family fled a peasant uprising when she was three, landing first in Budapest and then, after her composer and conductor father sent her to study music in both Brussels and Paris, finally settling in London. Orczy was 15 when she began to learn English, the language she would eventually make a small fortune writing in. But for now, she dropped music in favor of visual arts. It was a fortuitous switch, despite having been raised around friends of her fathers like Liszt and Wagner; she met her husband, Montague Barstow, in an art studio.
Barstow had little money to his name, so Orczy, who later described their marriage as one of “perfect friendship and communion of thought” in her autobiography, set to work translating and illustrating a book of Hungarian fairy tales with him. Inspired by the collaboration, she began to write more, publishing a few largely unappreciated novels and a number of short stories. She and her husband collaborated again, this time adapting one of her stories, about a swashbuckling Englishman, into a play, which Orczy then quickly adapted a final time, into a novel. Its protagonist, Sir Percy Blakeney, also known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, helped his aristocratic brethren escape during the French Revolution; Orczy’s family’s own flight from a working-class revolt helped inform her writing. The play version of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” was produced and ran in London’s West End; in an early but unintentional example of brilliant cross-promotion, as it gradually drew larger and larger audiences, the sales for Orczy’s novel of the same name grew too. Eventually it was made, and remade, for film and television.
Orczy went on to write many more adventure and mystery novels, many of which were sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel; although commercially successful, none of them ever achieved the same popularity that the first in the series had. Orczy and her husband continued to work side by side for the rest of their lives — he painting, she writing — in a studio in their villa in Monte Carlo. Their only child, a son, had a brief writing career publishing with the last name Blakeney, his mother’s famous character. It was, perhaps, a bit more dashing, or at least shorter, than Orczy-Barstow.