The Scarlet Pimpernel & Baroness Orczy

Feb 26, 2018, 06:00 AM

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a character now long disconnected from his origins in a 1903 novel. The Pimpernel is a mysterious Englishman who uses elaborate disguises to heroically rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. Naming himself after a small red flower, the enigmatic hero's identity is known only to a select few. In reality, he is a wealthy English aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has appeared in films, TV series, stage plays, spin-offs and parodies. He is, in fact, the original masked hero - the prototype for Batman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, or any number of other superheroes with secret identities.

Yet the Scarlet Pimpernel was, originally, the creation of Baroness Orczy, a fascinating figure in literary history. A Hungarian aristocrat who found fame as an English novelist; a conservative who was nevertheless very progressive in her depiction of female characters; a novelist remembered for a single character but who produced a huge body of work.

Orczy was an accomplished writer of detective fiction. Her 'Old Man in the Corner' stories harked back to Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin, while anticipating the Miss Marple tales of Agatha Christie. Orczy was also the creator of Lady Molly, one of the earliest examples of a female detective. Lady Molly is a detective in the Holmesian mould, with her Watson-like sidekick, solving crimes in her capacity as a detective for Scotland Yard.

In this episode I explore the life and writings of Baroness Orczy, following her journey from her childhood home in Hungary to international fame and fortune. I'm joined by Dr Clare Clarke to assess her impact on detective fiction and popular literature more widely. We talk Victorian periodicals, Sherlock Holmes, feminism, and a mysterious murder in Dublin.

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