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.