The woman who invented superheroes

The Guardian, March 2022
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The year is 1868 and in rural Hungary a little girl called Emma is celebrating the fifth birthday of her elder sister at a masquerade party where the women dress as men and the men as women. But the girls’ parents are ill at ease and, just as the party is at its most raucous, they put their daughters to bed. Sensing something is wrong, the girls creep to their window, where they can make out a glow in the darkness. They realise their family estate has been set on fire by farm workers, who are angry at the thought of being replaced by machinery in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.

Every superhero has an origin story, from Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive arachnid and becoming Spider-Man to Bruce Banner overdosing on gamma rays and bursting out of his shorts as the Hulk. But this night in Hungary is the origin story for the entire superhero genre. The threat of revolt sent that Hungarian family into exile. They settled in London, where Emma grew up to be Baroness Orczy, creator of the first superhero: The Scarlet Pimpernel. Not convinced? The claim is supported by none other than Marvel co-creator Stan Lee himself: “The Scarlet Pimpernel was the first superhero I had read about, the first character who could be called a superhero.”

Orczy’s first Pimpernel novel, which was made into a successful film in 1934, presented a foppish 18th century Englishman named Sir Percy Blakeney, whose altar ego is the dashing hero The Scarlet Pimpernel, forever nipping across the Channel to save French aristos from “Madame Guillotine”. After each rescue, he leaves a card displaying a small red flower — a scarlet pimpernel. He has no superpowers, but then neither does Batman. “For anyone interested in superheroes,” Lee added, “this is the first legitimate superhero I can think of.”

While it’s true that Orczy took pre-existing elements – a double life and special powers go back to Greek mythology – she then joined them to a flamboyant secret identity and marked each adventure with a calling card. All that remained, in the late 1930s, was for comic strip artists to get drawing.

“It all depends on your definition,” says Laurence Maslon, co-author of Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture. For him, Orczy’s key innovation was the calling card: the personal touch that the hero leaves behind, like an artist’s signature. “What is Batman’s bat signal,” he says, “but the Pimpernel’s calling card writ large?”

There was a time when superhero films were a male preserve, Supergirl and Catwoman having both crashed at the box office. That perception has shifted. We’ve had Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman 1984 and Scarlet Johansson following suit in Black Widow. One senses that Orczy would be proud.

Alone in London in the late 19th century, she grew up with an inferiority complex fuelled by her domineering grandmother, who had used to hiss at her to speak up and converse. In her memoirs, Orczy recalled: “I was not pretty or dashing. I didn’t feel that anyone who was clever and interesting would take the trouble to entertain me.”

Yet she found the British magnificently welcoming. Her love affair with the nation was sealed when, at art school, she made the acquaintance of a young man named Montague Barstow. He became her husband and “all the world to me”. It was around then that Orczy abandoned her ambition to be an artist and embarked on writing. But what was she going to write about? On a visit to Paris in 1901, she was outraged by the anti-British sentiment she encountered, which had been fuelled by the Second Boer War. Orczy resolved to write a defence of the British. After returning to London, she was on a platform of the Underground when she was assailed by a vision.

“I saw [The Scarlet Pimpernel] in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands holding up his spy-glass: I heard his lazy drawling speech, his quaint laugh. I can’t tell you in detail everything I saw and heard – it was a mental vision, of course, and lasted but a few seconds – but it was the whole life story of the Scarlet Pimpernel.”

First she wrote the story as a play, which was staged in 1905 to somewhat cynical reviews. “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” sneered the Daily Mail, “is a little flower that blossoms and dies in one day, which is the obvious fate of this play.” It turned out the critic had it wrong. After a slow start, the play was a smash. Then came the Pimpernel novels, in which the hero repeatedly evades the clutches of his enemy, Chauvelin: The Elusive Pimpernel (1908), The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1922), The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1933), and so on.

“Remember, as the pulps and adventure comic strips appeared, Orzcy was writing sequels, perpetuating the character’s fame,” says Robert Greenberger, author of The Essential Batman Encyclopaedia. Part of the character’s claim to influence lies in his longevity: after his first appearance in 1905, he was sporadically brought back to life by Orczy until as late as 1940.

Valerie Frankel, author of Superheroines and the Epic Journey, remarks that the Pimpernel’s double life also allowed Orczy to pioneer a curious kind of love triangle, one in which the woman is torn between two men, not knowing they are one and the same. Her heroine, Marguerite St Just, is married to Sir Percy but fascinated by The Scarlet Pimpernel. A similar dynamic recurs between Lois Lane, the sensitive but safe Clark Kent, and the exciting but elusive Superman. It crops up again and again in later superhero narratives.

“It’s delightful that a woman invented superheroes and added the romance triangle that became a staple,” says Frankel. “But it’s not surprising. William Marston’s wife and mistress helped him create Wonder Woman in the early 1940s, and some Golden Age artists were women. In fact, women have always been part of the industry.”

Orczy wasn’t the only woman who contributed to the birth of superheroes. Nor was The Scarlet Pimpernel the only pre-superhero hero with a double life, cape and calling card. There was also the Reverend Syn (who first appeared in 1915), Zorro (1919), the Shadow (1931), the Spider (1933) and the Phantom (1936). But the elusive Pimpernel predates them all.

And Orczy had a rare gift: that of the storyteller. Her Pimpernel books are compulsively readable, and still in print in countless countries (in France, Le Mouron Rouge; in Germany, Die Scharlachrote Blume; in Hungary, A Vörös Pimpernel). There’s a hint of her capacity for storytelling in her heady account of conceiving her hero in the London Underground. In reality, the vain Sir Percy didn’t just blow in on the back-draft of a Tube train, though. He’s at least partly based on the dandy Beau Brummell, who once claimed that it took him five hours to get dressed. And a historian recently turned up a true-life prototype: a French spy named Louis Bayard, who secretly worked for the British at the start of the 19th century. He is said to have used the symbol of a scarlet pimpernel as his personal token.

Frankel also believes that Orczy associated deeply with her masculine hero, who seems to worry far more about his clothes than his wife does. For this purpose, she had some personal heroism to draw upon. She had been uprooted as a child and built another life for herself in a far-off land. Notwithstanding her shyness, she found a husband. And after failing to make it as an artist, she reinvented herself as a writer, working at it until she became a success.

Orczy may not have looked heroic, but when seeking models for the flair and courage of the Pimpernel, she may have found them as much in herself as in other fictional swashbucklers– in herself and in certain female relatives. Her grandmother was clearly terrifying. But her mother, Countess Emma, was more formidable still.

In her memoirs, Orczy describes how at the end of the First World War, the Countess returned to Hungary. The countryside was seething with dangerous communists, leading her nephew Count Szirmay, with whom she was staying, to hide in the forest. But the Countess, who was in her 70s, stayed in the house even after the communists took it over.

“My darling mother,” Orczy recalled, “was commanded to sit at meals with them: and this she did, never for one moment losing her presence of mind or her supreme dignity. From time to time she was interrogated as to the whereabouts of Count Szirmay. Her reply was, ‘I do not know and if I did I would not tell you.’” She was threatened with death if she persisted in this attitude. Her reply was: “I am 75 years of age. I have very little time to live, anyhow. So shoot away if you have a mind to. What difference does it make?”

Did the Countess really make that riposte to the communists? Throughout Orczy’s memoir, one detects the writerly impulse that cannot resist embellishment. But it’s pleasing to think she said something along those lines. For if it had been the Scarlet Pimpernel himself who had been threatened by his enemies, he could not have come up with a more dashing and defiant answer.