Baroness Orczy (Mrs. Montague Barstow), known to successive generations of guileless lovers of romantic adventure as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel, died yesterday in London.
In drama and novel, more recently in the cinema also, the figure of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the indolent macaroni who dared the terrors of the Revolution in France and snatched beauty and high birth from the guillotine, induced the pleasantest of innocent thrills. Sir Percy Blakeney was hardly a profound creation, and Baroness Orczy could hardly be classed as a serious student of history or a writer of outstanding originality; nevertheless both became household names for a grateful multitude.
Born in 1865 in Tarnaörs, Hungary, the only child of Baron felix Orczy and his wife, Emma, née Comtesse Wass, Baroness Orczy came to London at the age of 16 and studied various arts, more particularly painting. She exhibited at the Royal Academy while still a student. It was at Heatherly's that she met her husband, Mr. Montague Barstow, the son of a Yorkshire clergyman and a promising black and white artist. After their marriage they went to live in Paris, travelled in Europe, and worked together on book and magazine illustrations. She began writing in 1900, having by that time become fully convinced that she was not meant to be a painter. The thought of writing apparently occurred to her when she was staying in London as a paying guest with a family of which two of the daughters wrote stories for the magazines; plainly, they knew nothing of the world. Why then should not she, who had travelled extensively and felt she knew the world, improve on their efforts?
A series of detective stories in the Royal Magazine went a little way towards establishing her reputation, but not very far. Then, in 1904, she produced a manuscript of a novel, "The Scarlet Pimpernel," based upon one of her short stories. The manuscript was received by no fewer than 12 publishers. While waiting for a happy decision she and her husband together cast the novel into the form of a play, and with great good luck the play was accepted for production by Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, peerless performers in sword-and-cloak drama. The start was shaky, but Fred Terry persisted and had his reward; the play ran four years in London, broke many stage records, was promptly translated and produced in many countries abroad, and has been revived more than once during the past 40 years. Success in the theatre brought with it immense sales for "The Scarlet Pimpernel" in its original form of a novel. The idea of her celebrated book is of a simple and naive romantic ingenuity, and while the form and the writing cannot claim any conspicuous literary merit, the straightforward narrative hit the taste of the reading public. The play deserved its good fortune, but owed its reputation to Fred Terry and Julia Neilson as much as to anybody. Baroness Orczy wrote three other plays, none of which attained the great success of her first effort, and a large number of novels, many of them picturing the Scarlet Pimpernel again, of which the earliest in date (notably "I Will Repay," published in 1906) were the most popular. She continued for many years, however, to enthral a faithful public; her last book was "Mam'zelle Guillotine," which appeared in 1940. Her husband died in 1943.
The Times Thursday, November 13, 1947