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Saturday 7 August 2021

The Golden Age: Baroness Orczy (1865-1947)

 by Carol Westron

Baroness Orczy must be the most exotic of all the Golden Age Mystery writers. Even her rank and full name, Emma Magdolna Rozalia Maria Jozefa Borbala Orczy de Orczi (known to her intimates as Emmuska), make her stand out

Emma Orczy was born in Hungary. Her father was the composer Baron Felix Orczy de Orczi and her mother was the Countess Emma Wass von Szentegyed und Czege. The Baron was a nobleman at the court of the Emperor Franz Josef, ruler of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the Orczy family traced their lineage back to the legendary Hungarian hero, Arpad. For the first three years of her life, Emma was brought up in great luxury and, as she described in her autobiography, at a time of 'splendid feudal lords ensconced in their opulent châteaux, medieval still in their magnificence.' (Links In the Chain of Life, 1947.) However, in 1868 her parents left Hungary because they were afraid of the increasing threat of a violent revolution by the peasants whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the introduction of new machinery.

For the next twelve years the family lived in several of Europe's great capitals, Budapest, Brussels and Paris until, in 1880, they settled in London. At this time Orczy could not speak English, but within six months she spoke it fluently.

Orczy had a driving ambition to excel in some creative sphere and, having failed in music, despite her composer father's tuition, she decided to study art at the West London School of Art and at Heatherley's School of Fine Art. Her paintings were good enough to hang at the Royal Academy but Orczy was not satisfied, 'soon I realised it was going to be mediocrity for me. Mediocrity again, my bugbear, my nightmare!' (Links In the Chain of Life, 1947.) However, one lasting gift came from her years at art college, for it was here that she met Montague Maclean Barstow, a young illustrator. They were married in 1894 and remained happily married until Barstow's death in 1942. Orczy described her marriage as, 'close on half a century one of perfect happiness and understanding of perfect friendship and communion of thought.' (Links In the Chain of Life, 1947.)

The young couple had little money and Orczy worked with her husband as a translator and illustrator to supplement their income. It was a strange life, because, despite their comparative poverty, Orczy's noble birth meant they were welcomed by aristocratic London. At the same time, they lived in a rough area and Orczy later claimed that one of Jack the Ripper's victims was killed near to their house. They enjoyed attending the theatre and Orczy was particularly fond of melodramas full of exciting action,in which virtue, in the end, triumphed. It seems likely that she realised that this was the creative outlet she craved. 'I felt in my heart a kind of stirring.' (Links In the Chain of Life, 1947.)

In 1899 Orczy's only child, John Montague Orczy-Barstow was born. In the same year she published her first book, The Emperor's Candlesticks, which was not successful, although her next novel, In Mary's Reign (1901) did better. However, at this time, Orczy was getting regular payment from Royal Magazine for her detective stories, which later were gathered together under the title The Old Man In the Corner.

Orczy was always a cosmopolitan and she and her husband spent the first year of the 20th century in Paris. This reawakened memories of the French Revolution, which for Orczy combined with memories of her early childhood. When she was three and still living on her father's estates in Hungary, her family held a masquerade party in which, 'everyone was to dress up in some fantastic guise. The women were to don male attire and the men to wear bodices and petticoats' and which she remembered as being, 'so gay, so romantic, so medieval.' ((Links In the Chain of Life, 1947.) Later, when she was in bed, she saw from her window a red glow and thought at first it was the sunrise until she saw that it was fire, set by the peasants in anger at the mechanisation of their jobs. This ruined the harvest and caused Orczy's father to abandon his estates. Thirty-five years later the two components of aristocratic gaiety and masks and lower order revolution combined, and Orczy knew, in her visit to Paris, that she had to write about the French Revolution.  All she needed now was a central character, and soon after their return to England she discovered him. 'I first saw him standing before me – don't gasp please – on the platform of an underground station... Now, of all the dull, prosy places in the world, can you beat an Underground railway station? But I give you my word that as I was sitting there, I saw – yes, I saw – Sir Percy Blakeney, just as you know him now... I saw him in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands hold up his spy-glass; I heard his lazy drawling speech, his quaint laugh... it was a mental vision of course – but it was the whole life story of the Scarlet Pimpernel that was there and then revealed to me.' (Links In the Chain of Life, 1947.) From that time on, Orczy's main literary preoccupation was to write about the tall, handsome, English aristocrat who concealed his intelligence and courage behind the mask of an wealthy, foolish fop and who rescued French nobles from the guillotine. Orczy's novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, was submitted to twelve publishers but, at that time, it was not fashionable to publish romantic historical adventures and the book was rejected. However, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson were looking for a play for the West End and in 1903 Orczy and her husband rewrote the book as a play and it was accepted. The play steadily increased in popularity and became a success, playing for more than 2000 performances in the West End and running for over four years. Fred Terry remained Orczy's ideal Scarlet Pimpernel, even after the widely acclaimed 1934 film adaptation starring Leslie Howard.

Not surprisingly, after the stage success, the book was swiftly accepted for publication. Other Scarlet Pimpernel books followed and, along with the royalties from the play, allowed Orczy and her family to live in luxury for the rest of their lives. Even those who have never read the book are familiar with the rhyme: 'We seek him here, We seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in Heaven? Is he in Hell? That demmed elusive Pimpernel.' Orczy spent the rest of her life writing about Sir Percy Blakeney and his followers, as well as other historical adventures, but she never lost her interest in writing mystery stories.

Orczy's interest in crime stories had been strong from her early years in London, when she and her husband were still struggling to make a living and the terrible crimes of Jack the Ripper were the talk of the city. However, at this time, Sherlock Holmes ruled as the master of fictional detectives, so Orczy took the advice of her husband and made her detective as unlike Holmes as she could. The old man in the corner is never given a name. He tells his stories of crime and deduction to a young Lady Journalist, (sometimes referred to as a young lady novelist) who narrates the stories to the reader. Neither the reader nor the Lady Journalist ever encounter the old man other than sitting in the corner of an ABC teashop, where he always drinks milk and eats cheesecake. He is the first 'armchair detective' and plays no active part in the investigations, although he relates that he frequently attends Coroners' and criminal courts to observe the proceedings. The Old Man tells the Young Lady about various crimes that he has studied through newspapers and through attending courts, he then describes what he has deduced and unmasks the culprit. As he talks, he is continually tying intricate knots in a length of string. . However, there is never any proof involved and his solution is never put to the test of any form of justice system. The culprits are convicted by the Old Man's certainty of his omniscience. As the Lady Journalist herself wonders, 'I didn't know what I did believe; his whole story sounded so far fetched and strange. Was he really giving me the results of continued thought, or was he experimenting as to exactly how far the credulity of a lady novelist could go.' (The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway; The Old Man In the Corner, reprinted from Royal Magazine 1901-1905.)

The Old Man is one of the most extraordinary characters in detective fiction, as Orczy herself acknowledges, 'I thought of him in his big checkered ulster, of his horn-rimmed spectacles, of his cracked voice and dribbling nose, and above all of his lean, bony fingers fidgeting, always fidgeting, with a bit of string.' (Links In the Chain of Life, 1947.) The Old Man is vain, egotistical and cold-hearted, and he is as repulsive morally as he is physically. He has no moral compass and frequently reserves his admiration for the murderer and holds the police in total contempt.

It seems probable that Orczy intended to stop the Old Man In the Corner series after a few stories; perhaps she had grown weary of the monster she had created. In The Mysterious Death in Percy Street the Old Man expresses warm admiration for the murderer of an old woman: '”Confess that that murder was one of the cleverest bits of work, accomplished outside Russian diplomacy,” he said with a nervous laugh, “I must say that were I the judge, called upon to pronounce sentence of death on the man who conceived that murder, I could not bring myself to do it. I would politely request the gentleman to enter our Foreign Office – we have need of such men. The whole mise-en-scene was truly artistic.”' (The Mysterious Death in Percy Street; The Old Man In the Corner, reprinted from Royal Magazine 1901-1905.) At the end of that story the Young Lady Journalist suddenly realises that the Old Man himself was the murderer: 'In my mind's eye I saw those fingers rendered doubly nervous by cerebral excitement, grasping at first mechanically, even thoughtlessly, a bit of twine with which to secure the window; then ruling habit strongest through all, I could see it; the ingenious fingers fidgeting with that piece of string, tying knot after knot, more wonderful, more complicated, than any I had yet witnessed.' She challenges him and, 'I saw the tails of his tweed coat, his extraordinary hat, his meagre, shrivelled up personality, fast disappearing down the street. I never set eyes on the man in the corner from that day to this.' (The Mysterious Death in Percy Street; The Old Man In the Corner, reprinted from Royal Magazine 1901-1905.)

However, as with Sherlock Holmes, the public didn't want to let an interesting character go and the Old Man was resurrected by featuring in a large number of 'prequel' short stories. A set of these short stories were set in various cities in the UK, and were preceded by a large publicity campaign in the relevant city. This caused Orczy some trouble when she set a story in Glasgow but was ignorant of the judicial details of Scottish legal procedure. Orczy's publisher received a large number of complaints that Scotland did not have Coroners and attempted to pass the grief on to the author. Orczy was very upset but followed the advice of her husband and went on the offensive, pointing out that she, as a foreigner, had good reason to be unaware of the peculiarities of the British judicial system but her editor should have picked up on her mistake. This worked and the trouble went away. The Glasgow Mystery was withdrawn from publication for some years but it is now back in circulation.

Orczy had three other detective series. The Irish lawyer Patrick Mulligan appeared in twelve stories in Skin o' My Tooth (1928.) Skin o' my Tooth is also Mulligan's nickname. Monsieur Hector Ratichon is an unscrupulous 'volunteer police agent' in Paris in 1913. His seven cases are described in Castles in the Air (1921.) Apart from the Old Man in the Corner, Orczy's best known detective was Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk, who solved twelve cases in the series Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. This was a bold early attempt at depicting a woman police detective and many of the stories are very ingenious, but the tone is spoiled by the reverential note of the narrator, Lady Molly's maid. She is Watson to Lady Molly's Holmes but, unlike the real Watson, she never criticises Lady Molly in any way but rather wallows in adulation.

Orczy's political beliefs are entrenched in her work. She was a Conservative who supported British imperialism and militarism and opposed the Soviet Union. Above all she firmly believed in the superiority of the aristocracy. Orczy was one of the earliest members of the Detection Club. Despite the overwhelming success of the Scarlet Pimpernel, she continued to enjoy writing crime, and throughout all of her writing runs the thread of masks and disguise.

Although desolate after the death of her husband in 1942, Orczy continued to write and, shortly before her death, she finished her autobiography Links In the Chain of Life (1947), in which she wrote, 'In the chain of my life there were so many links, all of which tended towards bringing me to the fulfilment of my destiny.'

The Case of Miss Elliott  by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
(a short story from
The Old Man In the Window)
Published by
House of Stratus; New edition (May 2003)

 '”Yes that is another awful tragedy,” he said quietly after a while. “Lady doctors are having a pretty bad time of it just now.”'

Although the Lady Journalist has not spoken her thoughts out loud, the man in the corner has sensed his companion's preoccupation with the death of Miss Elliott, who was found beside a footbridge in a deserted spot in Maida Vale. She had 'died through a deep and scientifically administered gash in the throat, whilst the surgical knife with which the deadly wound was inflicted still lay tightly grasped in her clenched hand.'

Miss Elliott was a good-looking, young woman, who was well qualified in the medical profession and was in charge of a private Convalescent Home that was supported through charity donations. Miss Elliott had showed no signs of being depressed or deeply distressed, although one of her nurses claimed that she had heard her arguing with Dr Stapylton, one of the doctors in charge of the Convalescent Home. Dr Stapylton denied this and claimed that they had been discussing the dismissal of inefficient nurses, and, as this nurse was amongst those being dismissed, she was acting out of spite. Indeed, Miss Elliott's brother said that she seemed particularly happy and he believed it was because she had formed an attachment to Dr Stapylton and expected him to ask her to be his wife.  Even if there had been a lover's quarrel, this seemed an extraordinary way for

Miss Elliott to have committed suicide. '”She had access to all kinds of poisons, amongst which her medical knowledge could prompt her to choose the least painful and most efficacious ones. Therefore, to have walked out on a Sunday night to a wretched and unfrequented spot and there committed suicide in that grim fashion seemed almost the work of a madwoman. And yet the evidence of her family and friends all tended to prove that Miss Elliott was a peculiarly sane, large-minded, and happy individual.”'

Initial evidence indicates that Dr Stapylton is guilty of this dreadful crime but, at the last minute, he proves that he has an alibi and it has to be assumed that the witness who identified him is mistaken, even though this witness was another doctor at the clinic, who knew Dr Stapylton well.

As in all of The Old Man In the Corner stories, the plot twists and turns and is full of disguises and deception, which the Old Man unravels, even as he knots his piece of string. The twelve stories in this reprint (published by Dover Publications in 1980) are all interesting to read and have a lot of the intrigue of the classic whodunnit, the fun of trying to work out who the villain is and how they committed the crime before the Old Man explains it. The Case of Miss Elliott is a warmer story than most, because the Old Man does not appear to admire the villains and feels some compassion for the innocent victim.

Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.

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