Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Baroness behind the Scarlet Pimpernel

Aristocrat also thought to have created the first female fictional detective

Baroness Orczy was from an  aristocratic family in Hungary
Baroness Orczy was from an 
aristocratic family in Hungary
British novelist and playwright Baroness Orczy, who is best known for creating the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel but also wrote several collections of detective short stories, was born on September 23, 1865 in Tarnaörs, a village in central Hungary, about 100km (62 miles) from the capital, Budapest.

Emma Magdolina Rozalia Maria Jozefa Borbala Orczy de Orci was the daughter of aristocratic parents, but when she was just three years old the family had to leave their estate because of fears of a peasant revolt. They came to live in London when Emma was 14, where she later attended art school.

There she met Henry George Montagu MacLean Barstow, the son of an English clergyman, who was an illustrator. They were married in 1894 and to supplement her husband’s low earnings, Emma started working as a translator and illustrator. After their only son was born, she wrote her first novel, which was not a success. She then wrote a series of detective stories for the Royal Magazine under the name Baroness Orczy and acquired a small following.

In 1903, she and her husband wrote a play based on one of her short stories about an English aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, who in his guise as the Scarlet Pimpernel, rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. The play was accepted for production in the West End and ran for four years. It was translated and staged in other countries, generating huge success for Baroness Orczy’s subsequent novel featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Baroness Orczy wrote several other plays, collections of shorts stories, and about 50 novels. Eventually she became so financially successful she and her husband were able to buy a villa in Monte Carlo.

Elvi Hale as Lady Molly in
The Woman in the Big Hat
One of her famous detective characters was Molly Robertson-Kirk, who first appeared in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, a collection of short stories published in 1910 and probably the first book to feature a female detective as the main character. Lady Molly, like Miss Marple who was to come more than 20 years later, was a successful sleuth because she recognised domestic clues that were outside the experience of male detectives. The stories are narrated by Lady Molly’s female assistant, Mary Granard, who was perhaps the first female ‘Watson’.

I was delighted to come across a Lady Molly story from the 1910 collection recently in The Giant Book of Great Detective Stories edited by Herbert Van Thal.

In The Woman in the Big Hat, Lady Molly and her assistant, Mary, are having tea together in Lyons, when they notice a crowd of people forming outside the café on the opposite side of the road. Lady Molly is quick to join them and succeeds in gaining entrance to the café to view the cause of the commotion, which is the dead body of a customer. This is fortuitous as she soon receives a message saying Scotland Yard will require her assistance. She is told that there is a woman suspect in the case and they will ‘rely on her a great deal’.

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is available as a paperback
Lady Molly of Scotland Yard
is available as a paperback
The police doctor says the man has been poisoned and Lady Molly questions one of the waitresses, who tells her the victim had been having tea with a woman in a big hat. Scotland Yard think they have discovered the identity of the woman and question her, but Lady Molly is present at the interview and passes a note to the chief officer telling him they have the wrong woman.

She neatly traps the person responsible for administering the poison in the café, with the help of two of the culprit’s own servants. Her faithful assistant, Mary, observes: ‘…my dear lady had been right from beginning to end.’ Lady Molly explains to Mary how she arrived at the truth, saying: ’Our fellows did not think of that because they are men.’

Lady Molly was the first in a long line of women in fiction who have been able to beat the police at their own job because they have noticed something very simple the male officers did not pick up on.

The Woman in the Big Hat was adapted for the anthology TV series, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in 1971, with Elvi Hale starring as Lady Molly.

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is now available from or

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