Category Archives: History

Baroness Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel”



A few years ago my friend enticed me to see the 1934 movie, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  I loved it and have seen it at least twice since.  This week I found a used copy of Baroness Orczy’s book of the same title, from which the movie was adapted.  This particular edition includes an introduction and notes by Sarah Juliette Sasson, which, alone was worth buying the book.  From the jacket:

Sarah Juliette Sasson earned a PhD in French and comparative literature from Columbia University, and is a lecturer there in the Department of French and Romance Philology.  She is the managing editor of the Romantic Review, a journal dedicated to Romance literatures.
Prior to Sasson’s introduction is a three page section titled “The World of Baroness Orczy and The Scarlet Pimpernel.”  It begins:
1865  Baroness Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy is born in Tarna-Ors, Hungary, on September 23 to a noble family.  Her father, Baron Felix Orczy, is an accomplished conductor and composer.  Rudyard Kipling is born.  U.S. president Abraham Lincoln is assassinated.
1867  Francis Joseph I is crowned king of Hungary in Budapest, following the creation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.  Romeo et Juliette, an opera by Charles Gounod, debuts in Paris.
1868  During a party celebrating the fifth birthday of Emma’s sister, Madeleine, peasants set fire to the family estate, protesting the introduction of mechanized farming equipment.  The family moves to Budapest, where Baron Orczy, at the urging and recommendation of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, accepts a post as administrator of the National Theater.  Das Rheingold, an opera by family friend Richard Wagner, debuts in Munich.
1871  Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is published.
Among other notable people mentioned in this timetable are: Thomas Edison, Franz Kafka, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack the Ripper, Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and the Wright brothers.
Baronness Orczy wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in five weeks in 1901.  Two years later she and her husband collaborated on a stage version which was produced at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, England.  She went on to write several stories and books that featured the Scarlet Pimpernel.  She also wrote a couple of series of detective stories.  One, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard featured the first female crime solver.
The timeline ends:
1947  Baroness Orczy publishes her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life. She dies on November 12 in London.
I’d like to read that book too.


I have a small collection of first hand remembrances of survivors of the Holocaust related to World War II and the Nazi Regime.  I want to know as many of them as I can, even though it is only through reading their accounts.  I just finished reading the most recent addition to my collection, All But My Life.  I love this book, partly because the author is not just telling her own story, but is impelled to give witness to the lives of those she knew who didn’t survive, also including those Germans who were kind.

It was written by a woman who was a pre-teen when she and her family were “relocated” by the Nazis.  It is one of the best such books I’ve read and I think ranks up there with The Diary of Anne Frank.  It was a devastating, and yet hopeful read.  I recommend it.

From the book:

Once as I passed the shredder I thought I saw Mama’s coat.  I turned away, praying, then forced myself to look again.  It was just a black coat.  It could have been anybody’s–hundreds of people word black coats.

And as always when in despair, I started to think of my homecoming.  I placed and replaced details upon details, playing with the fragments of my dreams.  Who would come home first?  I always wished that I should come last– walk into the house to find them all there.  At times, I thought I would reach home late at night.  The house would be dark.  I would not wake them.  I would go to the garden and wait.  I would watch the sun rise.  Then I would approach the house. Mama would be wearing her flowered housecoat.  No, she wouldn’t–we had given it away for a pound of margarine and a loaf of bread.  Well, anyway, breakfast would be on the table.  Arthur wouldn’t be there and Mama would say to me, “Go wake up Arthur, you know he never gets down in time.”

    I would run up the stairs.  My brother’s hair would be tousled, as it always was in the morning.  “Arthur,” I would whisper.  He would mutter something and turn over and pretend to go back to sleep.  Then, realizing I had come back, he would sit up with wide-open  eyes, stretching out his arms.  It would be as it had always been, from the time when I had brought him my book of fairy tales to read.  He had read them to me for years before I learned to read.  And we would come downstairs together, holding hands as we had done when we were small, so I should not stumble.  We would come down, and Papa and Mama would be holding hands too.  We would approach Papa for benediction, as we had done as children.  We both would have to bow, for we had gotten so tall.  And Papa would kiss the Bible even as his father had before him when he returned from Siberia.  And Papa would speak the words of Jacob: “I had not thought to see your face again, but God….”



Reading about the Reformation


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On this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation I want to finish reading Alister McGrath’s book Reformation Thought: An Introduction. When I started reading, a few months ago, I immediately realized that what I thought I knew about that time and the purposes and processes of the Reformation was paltry at best. I anticipate enjoying the book, and coming away with a better understanding because I’ve read several books by McGrath. He is a good writer. I trust him to be knowledgeable about anything he commits to writing, and as accurate, easy to understand, and truthful as possible.
From the chapter titled Introduction:

…..The sad state of the church in the early sixteenth century was simply a symptom of a more radical disease—a deviation from the distinctive ideas of the Christian faith, a loss of intellectual identity, a failure to grasp what Christianity really was. Christianity could not be reformed without an understanding of what Christianity was actually meant to be…. [T]he obvious decline of the late Renaissance church was the latest stage in a gradual process which had been going on since about the theological renaissance of the twelfth century—the corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics.

Confronting corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics is an ongoing, and always contemporary battle. Reformation (in the perfect tense) is central to Christianity, both on a personal and corporate level.


A Cathedral: Serious Business

I’ve been enjoying a DVD series of lectures titled The Cathedral, which I borrowed from the library.  I wish I had seen it years ago before my visits to  Paris, Germany and Prague.   Professor William R. Cook, from the State University of New York at Geneseo, who lectures, is enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about theology as well as medieval history and cathedrals.  The format, thirty minute lectures on a focused topic, is easy to follow, and augmented by many photographs. Today I watched the episode on the stained glass windows at Notre Dame de Chartes.  Here is a picture of part of the window (made in the 12th century) depicting the Passion of Christ.

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Professor Cook:

  “Why are these windows beautiful?  The main reason is because they’ll attract people to learn from the stories.  And their souls are at stake.  This is very serious business.  We’re in a cathedral.  We’re not in a museum.  We’re not in an art gallery.  And we always need to remember these stories are what these windows are all about.”

Around the year 2000 a German friend took me to see several Romanesque and Baroque churches in and near Munich and Augsburg.  I remember how disappointed I was that the focus was solely on the antiquity and style of the buildings.

Only A Watermark

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I’ve been lying around the last couple of days, reading multiple books.  When my brain is fatigued I go back to Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiography, written in the third person, and I am enjoying it immensely.  Henry was the great-grandson and grandson of the two Adams presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
I first met Henry Adams when reading  All The Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt, another very good book.
Hearing first hand accounts about Quincy and Boston in the mid-nineteenth century fascinates me, and the commentary on his Harvard education revealed that my notions about Harvard in that century are not at all accurate:
For generation after generation, Adams’s and Browses and Boylstons and Gorhams had gone to Harvard College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and, above all, economy, kept each generation in the track.  Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously.  All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect.  Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones.  Leaders of men it never tried to make.  Its ideals were altogether different.  The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint, what the French called mesure; excellent traits, which the College attained with singular success, so that its graduates could commonly be recognized by the stamp, but such a type of character rarely lent itself to autobiography.  In effect, the school created a type but not a will.  Four years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped.
I’ve arrived now, in Germany, with Mr. Adams as he continues his “education.”  It surprises me, how small the world seems to be as he frequently comes across  acquaintances from America.  I find myself going to the computer to research places and names he mentions.  Reading this is a wonderful way to learn history, and to visit places vicariously, but I especially enjoy the glimpses into that culture and society.  And I’ve noticed that human nature is a predictable constant.
The book is available for download at Gutenberg Press.

Learning about the Reformation

I am currently reading two books by Alister McGrath,  Reformation Thought: An Introduction (1988) and The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (2014).    By the time I finished reading the preface in Reformation Thought I realized my understanding of the movement was, at best, paltry.  I appreciate McGrath’s careful explanations that assume the reader is not familiar with key terms and ideas, finding out that even someone (me) who has fundamental understanding of these things needs correction or clarification.

From the section titled “How to Use this Book:”

Three words sum up the aim of this book: introduce; explain; contextualize.  The book aims to introduce the leading ideas of the European Reformation during the first half of the sixteenth century.  It is like a sketch map, which indicates the main features of the intellectual landscape: notes, suggestions for further reading will allow the reader to add finer detail later.  Second, the book aims to explain these ideas.  It assumes that the reader knows nothing about the Christian theology which underlies the Reformation, and explains what terms such as ‘justification by faith’ and ‘predestination’ mean, and why they are of religious and social relevance.  Third, it aims to contextualize these ideas by setting them in their proper intellectual, social and political context.  That context includes such great intellectual movements as humanism and scholasticism, the alternative religious ideologies of the radical Reformation and Roman Catholicism, and the political and social realities of the imperial cities of the early sixteenth century.  All these factors affected the thought of the reformers, and its impact upon their public— and this work aims to identify that influence and assess its effects.
Here are the section headings of the book:
1    Introduction
2    Late Medieval Religion
3    Humanism and the Reformation
4    Scholasticism and the Reformation
5    The Reformers: A Biographical Introduction
6    The Doctrine of Justification by Faith
7    The Doctrine of Predestination
8    The Return of Scripture
9    The Doctrine of the Sacraments
10  The Doctrine of the Church
11  The Political Thought of the Reformation
12  The Diffusion of the Thought of the Reformation
13  The Thought of the English Reformation
14  The Impact of Reformation Thought upon History
One of the surprises, to me, was the nature of Medieval humanism and its contribution to the Reformation movement.  Humanism here is described as:
a cultural and educational movement, primarily concerned with the promotion of eloquence in its various forms….It is beyond doubt that the Renaissance witnessed the rise of classical scholarship.  The Greek and Latin classics were widely studied in their original languages….[T]he evidence available makes it clear that such study was regarded as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  That end was the promotion of contemporary written and spoken eloquence….it has become increasingly clear that ‘humanism’ lacked any coherent philosophy….In short, humanism was concerned with how ideas were obtained and expressed, rather than with the actual substance of those ideas.
And this:
The literary and cultural program of humanism can be summarized in the slogan ad fonts—back to the original sources.  The squalor of the medieval period is bypassed, in order to recover the intellectual and artistic glories of the classical period.  The ‘filter’ of medieval commentaries—whether on legal texts or on the Bible—is abandoned, in order to engage directly with the original texts.  Applied to the Christian church, the slogan ad fonts meant a direct return to the title-deeds of Christianity—the patristic writers and, supremely, the Bible.
I am enjoying this immensely.