Women of Speculative Fiction: Emma Orczy

This one might be a bit more surprising than Mary Shelley. Baroness Orczy wrote adventure and mystery stories, and however outlandish and fanciful their plotlines were, it would be a stretch to categorize them as either fantasy or science fiction. However, Emma’s character of the Scarlet Pimpernel provided a prototype for one of the bedrock features of comic book stories: the disguised hero with a secret identity. For this contribution alone, her influence on speculative fiction is invaluable.

Born to a baron father and a countess mother in Hungary, Emma Orczy nonetheless did not spend her childhood in wealth and luxury. Her parents, fearing a peasant revolt, left their estate and traveled across Europe for a time before settling in London, where Emma attended art school. Though she did not become a painter as hoped, she did meet illustrator Montague MacLean Barstow, the man she would eventually marry. By all accounts their partnership was a very happy one for the nearly fifty years of their marriage, though they were very poor to begin with.

Her first novel was a failure. She had moderate success with the second, as well as some short stories. Then she and her husband decided to write a play based on the character from one of her stories, a British aristocrat who secretly rescued French nobles from the guillotine. His name was Percy Blakeney; his alias was The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Emma wrote a companion novel around the same time, and as the play began to draw notice and become very popular, so did the book’s popularity. She would go on to write over a dozen sequels, as well as other mystery and adventure romances (including Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, containing a female detective! but again, not speculative fiction, so we’ll move on.) The success of her books was considerable enough that she was eventually able to buy an estate in Monte Carlo.

She was quite conservative in her political views, a staunch supporter of the superiority of aristocrats. Perhaps that’s not too surprising when you consider that her famous hero was a nobleman rescuing other noblemen from tyrannical commoners. She did organize the Women of England’s Active Service League during World War I, eventually recruiting over 20,000 women…though it seems their primary aim was to convince the men to serve their country.

Regardless, she could tell a rollicking good story. The iconic Scarlet Pimpernel endures in our cultural imagination, because there’s something so delightful about a do-gooder who manages to fool everyone into thinking he’s a mindless fop while secretly performing daring feats of heroism. Interestingly, the original novel is told from the point of view of his estranged wife Maguerite, who doesn’t learn her husband’s alter-ego until very close to the end of the story. She spends much of the novel confused by Percy’s shallow behavior and coldness toward her – she doesn’t know that he has come to fear she is a sympathizer with those leading the Reign of Terror (in fact, she only had a personal vendetta against a Marquis who tormented her brother and didn’t realize her desire for vengeance would send his entire family to the guillotine). Meanwhile, she hears tales of the gallant Scarlet Pimpernel and fantasizes about this dashing mystery man, much like every other woman in England.

The plot thickens as Marguerite finds herself embroiled in a blackmail plot regarding her brother’s involvement with the Pimpernel. When she finally realizes who he really is, she hurries off to France to try to protect her husband. They both escape the clutches of the villainous Citizen Chauvelin thanks to another of Percy’s ingenious disguises, and return to England happily reconciled.

You can see that in addition to creating a highly entertaining figure with a dual identity, Emma Orczy was also writing the sort of romantic fantasy that we’ve all probably entertained at some point – what if that mysterious dreamy hero you’ve admired from a distance is actually the unassuming person right in front of you? And oh, he also happens to be married to you. You can resolve your marriage woes and get your dream guy all at once; how convenient! But who cares if it’s wildly implausible. It’s plain old fun entertainment. As it’s highly unlikely too many modern-day readers will pick this book up without already knowing Percy’s secret identity, they can enjoy being in the position of knowing what Marguerite doesn’t, chuckling at her naiveté and cheering when she finally sees the truth.

Descendants of the Scarlet Pimpernel archetype are plentiful, from Zorro to most of the costumed superheroes in comic books. Superman took the secret identity trope to the extreme with an awkward, bespectacled Clark Kent providing the cover for nothing less than an otherworldly superhuman. There was an important woman in his story too, and we’ll be getting to that next time. But it started with Sir Percy Blakeney and Baroness Emma Orczy.

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