Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558
Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy was born in Hungary on September 23, 1865, the daughter of Baron Felix Orczy, an able composer and conductor, and Emma (née Wass) Orczy. Problems, including a peasant uprising, persuaded the Orczys to move first to Budapest, then to Brussels, followed by Paris and, finally, London. Young Emma, or Emmuska, as she preferred to be called, was educated first as a musician and later, when it was decided on the advice of Franz Liszt—a family friend—that she did not have the gift of music, as an artist. Emmuska attended the West London and Heatherly schools of art. She showed promise and was for several years an exhibitor at the Royal Academy. While she was at the Heatherly School of Art, the young Hungarian met another student, Montagu Barstow, who was to become her husband.
It is intriguing that a woman who did not speak a word of English until she was fifteen years of age should have become one of the most prolific and popular writers of her time, writing more than thirty books in her adopted language. Baroness Orczy explained how the idea of becoming a writer first came to her. She and her husband were staying with a family whose members wrote stories that they sold to popular magazines. Orczy, observing that people with little education who had never traveled were successful as authors, decided that she, with her international background and solid education, should be able to do at least as well. She wrote two stories and found to her joy not only that they were accepted immediately—by Pearson’s Magazine—for the amount of ten guineas but also that the editor asked that she give him first refusal on any future stories she wrote. A literary career had begun.
It was suggested to the baroness that she write detective stories, somewhat in the style of the then very popular Sherlock Holmes stories. As a result, she created the strange old man who sits in his unobtrusive corner, playing with his string and expounding in a haughty and self-assured manner to the reporter from The Evening Observer on crime and criminals. The stories caught on and ran as a series in The Royal Magazine before their publication in book form under the title The Old Man in the Corner in 1909.
Baroness Orczy produced four series of stories featuring Bill Owen, the peculiar old man, and Polly Burton. The first two series ran in The Royal Magazine from 1901 to 1904 and were later published as The Old Man in the Corner; the third series was first published in book form as The Case of Miss Elliott in 1905. The fourth and last series was published in 1925 as Unravelled Knots. Baroness Orczy is most famous, however, not for her detective stories but for being the author of that epic of trans-Channel derring-do and genteel romance, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905).
At the outbreak of World War I, Barstow and Orczy moved to Monte Carlo, where they lived until his death in 1943; at that time, the baroness moved back to London. During her later years, Orczy’s literary output slowed down considerably, although she kept writing until the end—her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life (1947), being her last published work. Baroness Orczy died in London, at the age of eighty-two, in 1947.