About twenty years ago, my then-boyfriend expressed a longtime wish to read The Scarlet Pimpernel. Soon thereafter, I was delighted to discover it in a second hand bookstore – but not so delighted when he ignored me to stay up all night reading it, only to pronounce it “OK” (but I married him anyway). Fast forward, as they say, to this past year, when my research into Edwardian detective fiction unexpectedly brought Baroness Orczy into my life again.
Baroness Emmuska (Emma) Orczy (1865-1947) was the daughter of self-exiled Hungarian nobility. Her marriage with a poorer Englishman, a fellow art student, was the prompt that drove her to try her talents at writing novels and plays, often with her husband. The Scarlet Pimpernel first came to life as a play that had a long, successful run, and morphed into a series of about a dozen books. In fact, I was surprised to find that the total of her short story collections and novels (not counting plays, translations etc.) numbers more than 60 and includes mysteries, detective fiction, romance and adventure, often within the wider genre of historical fiction. Her success enabled her to buy villas in Italy and Monte Carlo, where she lived after WWI until the death of her husband after fifty-some years of marriage – and yet, though many people have heard of The Scarlet Pimpernel, very few could name its author, let alone any other works by her.
The reason is the one that, perversely, interests me so much in these forgotten classics: she was popular. Her works are not great literature; they are written to entertain and to catch at the feelings of the time, even when her setting is historical. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1903), though set in the French Revolution, echoes the unrest between classes that had driven Orczy’s own family into exile, and would soon sweep across Russia. Her detective novels explore the relationships not only of class but gender. Lady Molly, the eponymous heroine of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910) depends on “feminine intuition” to guess at solutions to crimes, which she then sets out to prove. She stands in contrast to the logic employed by The Old Man in the Corner (1909), a detective who spends his time in a London tea shop, solving crimes merely from the details brought him by a female reporter.
Orczy’s work is a treasure trove for the historical novelist and fun for the literary curious. I enjoyed Lady Molly for the varied picture it paints, albeit sometimes stereotyped, of women, particularly women criminals, in the Edwardian period. If you’re interested in a light read that gives you a flavour of Europe in the early 20th century, then give Orczy a try. It may tempt you to know that The Scarlet Pimpernel, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard and several other of her novels are available as free ebook downloads on manybooks.net. By the way, that second hand copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel still sits on our bookshelf!