The Scarlet Pimpernel
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.
Dr Clare Clarke is Assistant Professor in 19th-Century Literature in Trinity College Dublin. Her main research area is in the field of late-nineteenth century popular fiction, particularly crime and detective fiction. She is the author of Late-Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock (Palgrave Macmillan: 2014). Her second monograph, British Detective Fiction 1890-1900: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, is forthcoming in 2018/19.
The music this week was by Paddy Mulcahy. You can find lots more great music on his website
Tracks Heard on the Episode:
On the Steps (The Words She Said)
Arp-a-play (Nowhere to Be)
Brother Walks In (The Words She Said)
Clicktracks on Mars (The Words She Said)
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 In C Sharp Minor Liszt (used courtesy of F.M. Free Music)
Sound Effects were from Freesound.org
Works & Authors Mentioned
Many of Orzcy’s works are out of copyright and available free online.Lots of them are here, on Project Gutenberg
I used the Oxford edition of The Scarlet Pimpernel with an excellent introduction by Nicholas Daly (who you may remember from Episode 9 on fictional countries)
Baroness Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (Oxford World’s Classic, Intro & Edited by Nicholas Daly)
Baroness Orczy: The Old Man in the Corner Stories
Baroness Orczy: The Lady Molly Stories
Baroness Orczy: Links in the Chain of Life
Looking for more popular literature of this period? This episode is on the imaginary country of Ruritania
Or this episode looks at the fears of invasion which lurk behind The Scarlet Pimpernel
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