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Superheroes Began with a Woman: Remembering Baroness Emma Orczy

Guest post by Alan Sizzler Kistler

Superheroes began in the imagination of a woman.

I’m not speaking metaphorically, nor do I mean “behind every great man from Krypton, there is a fearless woman ready to kick a little butt in the name of truth and justice”  (though this is true and Lois Lane is simply marvelous). I’m talking about Baroness Emma “Emmuska” Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josepha Barbara Orczy. Her hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, started the ball rolling.

TheScarletPimpernelThere were stories of powerful fighters of evil before, such as Hercules, Gilgamesh, or Robin Hood, but these were cultural myths that shifted with the teller. They weren’t created for popular entertainment under the direction of one person or a small group of people, and the characters didn’t use what we consider to be a “secret identity” or costumes that symbolized an alter ego. Rather than fighting injustice in general, they usually had one major enemy or were reactionary protagonists, fighting evil if they stumbled upon it or if it directly entered their lives. Robin Hood didn’t patrol Nottingham the way Batman patrols Gotham or Superman watches over Earth.

The first step towards a traditional “superhero” in literature started in the mind of Baroness Orczy. In 1899, the 34-year-old Emma Orczy gave birth to her son John and published her first book. It didn’t meet with success, but that didn’t slow her down. She published several short stories and then a second novel in 1901, which earned her a bit of fame. She enjoyed writing heroic detective stories, and created Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, one of the first female detectives in literature. In 1901, she wrote (but did not publish) a story called “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which came to her so quickly that she is said to have finished it in five weeks. The story starred Sir Percy Blakeney, a British baronet married to Marguerite—“the cleverest woman in Europe.” Sir Percy is a man skilled in swordsmanship, disguise, and strategy. During the early days of the French Revolution, he secretly rescues people he considers unjustly sentenced to death by Madame Guillotine. To cover his tracks, he uses an alias taken from an old family seal, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and recruits nineteen friends as agents in his “League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” In public, Sir Percy acts like a shallow fop, one who grows faint at the mention of violence and believes that all problems can be solved by luxury, relaxation, and beautiful clothing.

This hero was clearly drawn from Baroness Orczy’s childhood as well as her political views. During her older sister’s fifth birthday, a peasant uprising set her family estate ablaze, prompting her family to leave Hungary and travel through Europe before settling in London, where she eventually met her husband Montagu Barstow. The Scarlet Pimpernel was the kind of hero she wished could have protected her family when she was a young girl.

Though she didn’t initially publish the story, Emma Orczy and her husband wrote a stage production version that opened in October 1903 at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. It wasn’t well received but the Baroness again chose to not give up. After a little rewriting, the new version of the play opened in London in 1905 and became a popular hit, even while critics wrote negatively about it. The same year, Baroness Orczy published her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was highly acclaimed by casual reader and critic alike. She went on to write ten sequel novels, plus two collections of short stories featuring the hero. She also wrote two prequel novels starring an ancestor of Sir Percy Blakeney, and another novel that focused on a descendant. The Scarlet Pimpernel grew beyond Baroness Orczy and spread across pop culture. There have been film adaptations, TV adaptations, and a Broadway musical. In 1940, Daffy Duck assumed the identity of the Scarlet Pumpernickel. Bart Simpson once watched a film where Zorro declared war on the Scarlet Pimpernel. In the first comic book series starring the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a painting revealed that an earlier incarnation of the titular team included Sir Percy and Marguerite, as well as the Reverend Dr. Syn (more on him in a little bit).

Was Sir Percy the first superhero? He didn’t have any powers, but neither do characters such as Batman or Iron Man (usually), or Green Lantern without his ring. In general, I see the term “superhero” as traditionally referring to a character who wears a distinctive costume or uniform, lives in an exaggerated reality that involves science fiction and/or fantasy elements, often has a secret identity, and fights evil due to a moral calling rather than because it is literally a job they signed up for (so the police and agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are heroes, while the Justice League and Avengers are superheroes). There are exceptions, but this is the general and traditional idea. The Scarlet Pimpernel wore many disguises, but he didn’t have a costume or a distinctive mask, just his literal calling card decorated by a red flower. He’s close to a superhero, but not quite there.

Dr Syn Scarecrow Blevins 1To my mind, the first traditional superhero came in 1915 with Russell Thorndike’s book Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh. The book featured Dr. Christopher Syn, a pirate-turned-reverend living in Dymchurch (a town in Kent, England) who decided not to simply stand by as his parishioners were victimized by the government and criminal elements. At night, Dr. Syn rode a dark stallion, which he kept in a hidden lair, and donned the costume of a demonic scarecrow. None suspected that the kindly, somber reverend was secretly the terrifying Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, feared even by those he helped.

Syn is a very different character on the surface, but Thorndyke followed many beats from the Scarlet Pimpernel. Similar to Orczy’s hero, Dr. Syn acted less aggressive in his public life, using tricks to appear older and weaker than he was. While Blakeney had the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Syn had a few trusted agents, including a witch and a death mask-wearing gravedigger called Hellspite. Dr. Syn was also a man initially born into a wealthy upper class family who, unbeknownst to his family and friends, received training in fighting and other special fields, just like Sir Percy.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was popular enough that he starred in six later novels by Thorndyke, three films, a television mini-series from Disney, audio adaptations, a stage play, and comic books. The town of Dymchurch even has a biannual “Days of Syn” celebration in honor of the character.

In 1919, four years after Syn’s debut, Johnston McCulley created a more famous character who also inspired by Baroness Orczy’s hero. McCulley’s story “The Curse of Capistrano” was serialized in the pulp fiction magazine All-Story Weekly. Later, it was published as a novel under a new title: The Mark of Zorro.

Don Diego de la Vega aka Zorro was, like Sir Blakeney, a man of wealth and education who was secretly adept at sword fighting, strategy, and disguise. In his daily life, he pretended to be a shallow weakling with no direction in life, focused mainly on the latest fashion and popular trends. While the Scarlet Pimpernel left a calling card, Zorro left his monogram carved on walls. Following Syn’s example, Zorro used a hidden lair and a dark horse and donned a distinctive costume.

After Zorro, pulp fiction magazines and comic strips brought forth other characters cut from the same cloth. The mysterious Shadow, the Spider, and the Phantom all followed the basic model of the Scarlet Pimpernel, being independently wealthy renaissance men who pretended to be less in their public life while fighting evil via an alter ego. The Spider, Phantom, and Green Hornet also had unique seals like the Scarlet Pimpernel. While many of his contemporaries wore distinctive clothing, the Phantom took it a step further by donning a skin-tight costume and a mask that didn’t reveal his eyes.

Two years after the Phantom was introduced, Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, published in 1938. The Man of Steel was not independently wealthy as the Scarlet Pimpernel had been, nor did he rely on a team of agents, but there was still the element of a man who pretended to be meek in public so none would suspect he was a hero who protected others from harm and evil. Similar to the Pimpernel, you immediately felt Superman’s presence when you saw his distinctive seal. In the Superman radio show a couple of years later, it was implied that Superman’s S-shield was actually a Kryptonian symbol. This idea entered into popular culture with Superman: The Movie in 1978, where it was shown that the shield was Superman’s family symbol —just like the scarlet pimpernel flower was Sir Percy Blakeney’s family seal.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was not a traditional superhero. He was actually the proto-superhero, that first model that eventually led to Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Justice League, and so many others. Some of these characters may still have been created, but they wouldn’t have been the same. Our popular culture, and some of our lives, would be very different. We needed The Scarlet Pimpernel before we could figure out how to take things further and further.

So if someone suggests that superheroes can only be appreciated by the male gender, remember that it all started with a woman who certainly wasn’t perfect but who should be recognized for never letting failures and setbacks stop her.  A woman who kept writing until she created something that struck a chord. Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s story was the seminal work of a whole new genre, and look where we are now, over a century later.

She changed the world.

Alan-Kistler-headshotAlan Sizzler Kistler is an actor and author who bounces between New York City and Los Angeles. He is the host of Stay Geeky on YouTube and co-host of the podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks on iTunes. A contributor to various websites, Alan is the author of The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook and the upcoming Doctor Who: A History, and is a contributor to the book Star Trek and History. He prefers his vampires to be scary and is still waiting for a Wonder Woman movie. Find him on Twitter: @SizzlerKistler

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14 responses to “Superheroes Began with a Woman: Remembering Baroness Emma Orczy”

  1. Richard says:

    While I can certainly accept that Hercules is not a superhero because he is actually a religious figure, a demi-god, Robin hood qualifies even more so that the scarlet pimpernel.

    A superhero tends to share a number of qualities.
    Foremost among them are having some power that puts them
    far and above human beings. Meaning their powers by
    definition make them “impossible”.

    In the case of Robin Hood you had a man who was able to
    shoot an arrow and split another arrow.

    Batman’s and Iron man’s superpowers are technically their
    intellect. At one time the Batman character was an actually detective as opposed to the relative brute we have today. Iron Man and Batman both create technical marvels that do not exist outside of science fiction and the comic books.

    So, one that basis, Sherlock Holmes is certainly a superhero(1887). The only question is whether or not
    a superhero is such if he is not disguised or have an
    alternate identity.

    Some of the pulps written during the wild west days likely have characters that qualify, performing impossible acts with gunshots, etc.

    Wikipedia sites a character called “Spring Heeled Jack” from 1867 that certainly has the hall marks of superheros as we know them to be, with the costumes and secret lairs, etc.

  2. Alan Sizzler Kistler says:

    I explained the criteria above. Robin Hood and Spring-Heeled Jack were both myths and folk lore that shifted with the teller and were not created by one person seeking to entertain. Also, pulps weren’t written during the wild west, they were a 20th century invention that were created after the Pimpernel. You’re confusing pulp fiction with dime novels. And there’s no real question about Sherlock Holmes being a superhero.

    Thanks for reading.

    • Tony says:

      Spring Heeled Jack *began* as folklore in the early decades of the 1800s, transitioned through representation as a pop-culture anti-hero via melodrama in the mid-late 1800s and then emerged as a prototype superhero in the 1890s.

      Alfred Burrage’s “penny dreadful” renditions of that character, which pre-date Baroness Orczy’s Pimpernel stories, include all of the motifs you’re looking for; a wealthy aristocrat who assumes a colorful, masked secret identity and battles evildoers, secret underground lair, etc.

      Basically, the “masked avenger” chronology is Spring Heeled Jack>Scarlet Pimpernel>Scarecrow>Zorro>Batman (et al).

  3. Fenmarel says:

    Any idea of what did Belzeboss mean when he said “I’ll make him squeal like the Scarlet Pimpernel”?

    By the time I listened to Tenacious D’s song Belzeboss, I had no idea who the Scarlet Pimpernel was but I had assumed it must be a woman. Now that I know the facts, however, I’m wondering “why did he say that?” and I suppose it must have been based in some movie.

    What are your thoughts?

    Thank you very much for such a great and enlightening research.

  4. […] Freeman, Managing Editor, co-host of The Hash podcast on BTR)Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.Baroness Orczy was a novelist, playwright, and artist who is predominantly known for writing The Scarlet […]

  5. The Scarlet Pimpernel is very important, but I’m afraid he’s not quite the first maksed Viglante.

    A direct inspiration for the Scarlet Pimpernel was Alexandre Dumas Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, another red Theme vigilante during the French Revolution, who’s goal was specifically to save Marie Antionette.

    The first Masked Viglante however was probably Paul Feval’s Le Loup Le Blanc (The White Wolf) seriealed at about the same times as the Three Musketeers and and Sue’s Mysteries of Paris.

    Feval went on to write many other Swashbuckling and (then) modern Heroes, villains and antiheroes, some who were maksed and some who were not.

    He wrote at least two Female vigilantes that I know of. la Louve which was a prequel to The White Wolf. And then there is Bel Demonio aka Beu Demonio, aka Bel Demonio aka Woman of Mystery, which has some inaccurate descriptions online that mislead people about who the title character is.

    • Rebecca Schubert says:

      Emma Orczy is known for the disguised hero. It’s about the disguise and that is what Superman and the marvel franchise is based on

  6. […] This hero may have been something of a Robin Hood to the downtrodden, but definitely a thorn in the  side of government officials. Mary Fritch, better known by her nom de guerre Moll Cut-Purse, would steal from those who abused their power, and humiliate anyone in the wrong. Her influence continued into the 17th and 18th centuries, as she‘s considered one of the (many)  influences of the popular literary antiheroine Moll Flanders, and later heroes like  the Scarlet Pimpernel. […]

  7. Tamara says:

    My main point on this issue when I wrote my undergrad thesis on it 21 years ago (available on Amazon) was not that Orczy was the first to invent any kind of superheroish being (one could make an argument for Robin Hood, for mythological deities, or any of the others mentioned above) but that she really popularized the proto superhero and particularly the secret identity. She created a hero who, like Batman, Zorro, Superman, and others later, used their own face as a mask, as you detail above. Her novels walk that line between literature like Dumas wrote and pop lit of later generations, like comic books. I talked to the original publisher of Batman at a comics convention many years ago, and he had no doubt that the Pimpernel had a lot to do with the creation of Batman. However, Orczy created a character who was even closer to Batman in the form of Leatherface, who was a rich man and vigilante who wore a dark cape and cowl, ran across rooftops to save the day, and made friends with the chief of police. I don’t hesitate to say that she basically invented proto-Batman, inspired Zorro, and can be found in the DNA of several other modern superheroes. As I mentioned before, while her works are not exactly literary, with shallow characters and superlative, over-the-top descriptions of perfectly good or perfectly evil characters, they’re also deeper than a lot of modern works that came later. I find Orczy and her works fascinating because she does walk that line between literary and pop with this work and some of her other 81 books (not that I’ve read them all). I am finding this discussion fascinating and appreciate all those who have contributed to it.

  8. Lloyd Cooke says:

    Scarlet Pimpernel is not a superhero. You said: “a character who wears a distinctive costume.” Have you not noticed that (every generally accepted) superhero is dressed up in a costume? Robin Hood is not a superhero. Neither is Dr. Syn, Green Hornet, Zorro. But Superman, The Phantom, Wonder Woman and Batman are superheroes.

  9. […] Film editor Marcia Lucas helped to shape the original Star Wars trilogy. In terms of superheroes, Baroness Emma Orczy published The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1909, whose narrative and titular character laid the foundation […]

  10. Rebecca Schubert says:

    She is an ancestor of mine

  11. […] hero wasn’t Superman. He didn’t have powers, but as Alan Sizzler Kistler points out, neither did Batman or Ironman. A superhero by definition has a set costume, a mission […]

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