Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy, better-known to the English-speaking world as “Baroness Orczy,” was born September 27th, 1865, at her family’s ancestral estate of Tisza-Abad, in Tarna-Ors, Hungary, daughter of Hungarian nobleman Baron Felix Orczy. As the Baroness stated in her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life, she would probably have never left the land of her birth and never learned a word of English, let alone have become an author, had it not been for several unexpected happenings. The links in the chain of the Baroness’s life would eventually lead to her becoming a world-famous author and the creator of a very popular and greatly influential fictional hero.
It was Baron Felix Orczy’s fateful decision to make a large investment in modern farming machinery for his agricultural holdings that changed the life of his family. The peasants on the Orczy estates, used to pre-industrial hand tools and reluctant to be trained in the use of the new equipment, revolted against the smoke-belching gadgets as tools of the devil for putting them out of work, and finally began a property-destroying uprising that wiped out the machinery and most of the year’s crops with fire. The aftermath of this disaster left the Orczy family severely financially impaired, and, though they retained ownership of their estates, they left them to live in Budapest. All this took place in 1868, when Emma was three years old, and her memories of the event no doubt influenced her later choice of another (though far more violent) uprising, the French Revolution, as background for her Scarlet Pimpernel novels.
After spending three years as director of the national opera in Budapest, Baron Felix resigned due to conflicts with rival officials and began a somewhat restless life, moving his family—consisting of his wife, his older daughter Madeline, and young Emma—from Budapest to Brussels, then to Paris. They lived on the remaining income of the Tisza-Abad estates, and the Baron supplemented this by performing as conductor for different operas. During this time, Madeline and Emma were both educated in a series of convent schools. The Baron, a talented amateur composer, also attempted to instruct his daughters in his great love, music. Emma had little interest in becoming a musician, however, and was fonder of inventing stories of (in her own words) “doughty deeds of valor” and “noble heroes”, which she shared with her sister. Madeline died when Emma was eight, after which Emma devoted more time to studying music, although a family friend, the great composer Franz Liszt, advised her father that her talents did not lie in that direction.
The family moved to London in 1880 when Emma was fifteen, a move she would call “the most momentous step” of her life. In England she persuaded her father to let her give up studying music, and took up the study of illustration instead. She studied for several years at Heatherly’s School of Fine Art, in London, but her artistic career never materialized. However, her time at Heatherly’s was highly important, since it was there she met her future husband, fellow-student Montague Barstow. They were married in 1894, and lived in modest but comfortable circumstances in London. Montague’s magazine illustrations and Emma’s English translations of Hungarian fairy tales provided the principal source of their income, until Emma began submitting stories to magazines in 1899, shortly after the birth of their only child, John. Her first real success was the Old Man in the Corner series of detective stories, which began in 1901, but the creation that would bring her lasting fame debuted in 1905, first as the protagonist of a stage play and then as the hero of a novel. This creation was, of course, the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The Pimpernel boosted Baroness Emma Orczy to novelistic fame, and though she would still write many books involving completely different sets of characters, she continued to return to the Pimpernel saga throughout her career, writing eleven novels and two short story collections about the character all told. By 1918, the Baroness’s success with her books was so great that she and Montague were able to purchase a villa in Monte Carlo. Though they traveled extensively, to Hungary, Italy, Canada, and many other destinations, the Villa Bijou was always their home.
The twilight of their long and happy life was clouded in the early 1940s, when Monte Carlo and the surrounding country of Monaco were occupied by the Axis powers during WW2. Due to their British citizenship, the Baroness and her husband were kept under close surveillance by the Axis authorities, though they were not interned like several of their English friends and servants, due to their advanced age. Montague passed away in 1943, before the end of the war, and following the liberation of Monaco the Baroness sold the Villa Bijou and returned to London.
Baroness Emma Orczy died in 1947 at the age of 82, finally reaching the end of the chain of links in a remarkable life.