Born in Hungary in 1865, Emma Orczy de Orci, the author of the Scarlet Pimpernel novels moved to Thanet in 1908 with her husband, the illustrator, Montague Barstow. She had already published nine novels including three of the Pimpernel stories.

The couple settled into their new home, Cleave [Cleve] Court, a manor house two miles northeast of Monkton Church. She wrote: 'Thanet is not a beautiful part of England. It is flat; there are no hills, few trees, only big fields and wide spaces with the tang and smell of the sea all around. We spent three very happy years there.'1

The area was to prove the perfect place for breaking in the five Transylvanian horses which she had imported from her uncle’s estate: 'We used to get up at five o’clock in the morning that first autumn, when, harnessed to a light wagonette which we had brought for the purpose, we first took those dear timorous things out on the roads between Acol and Minster, and many a scamper we had over fields at the first approach of a motor and its ominous honking….To say that we created a sensation in the sleepy backwater of Minster-in-Thanet would be, to put it mildly.'2

The local schoolmaster Mr Hawtry swore loudly whenever he met the team of horses being driven around the country lanes, shouting: 'How many more of these abominable beasts are you going to drive about the place?'3

The Baroness quickly became involved in the life of the county, opening fetes, art exhibitions and acting as the guest of honour at school prize givings. In December 1908, she presented prizes and certificates to the students of the Ramsgate County School for Girls delivering: 'a few bright, cheering and encouraging remarks to the girls.'4

It was in Thanet that she wrote The Nest of the Sparrowhawk (1809), set in Acol in 1657.

When the lease was up on Cleave Court, the couple decided to move to Bearsted, near Maidstone buying Snowfield house which had twenty acres of garden. They planted the garden with rhododendrons, flaming azaleas; she wrote: 'We were passionate gardeners, both of us, and the making of that beautiful Kentish garden was one of the joys of our life.'

Unlike Thanet, which she considered to be 'interesting and romantic',5 life at Bearsted was much busier, with football matches at Maidstone and cricket matches on Bearsted Green. The couple bought their first car and would motor up to London to see shows. However, driving the wagonette with her team of Hungarian horses became impossible as: 'The Kentish roads round about us were narrow and twisting. Motor cars soon increased in numbers and took possession of the roads to the detriment of peaceful driving which I loved.'6

It was at this time that she wrote Meadowsweet (1912) set in the ‘Old Manor farm’ Thanet, which was probably inspired by Cleve Court. In the novel two young women, Olive and Boudicea are sent to live with their aunt in Thanet. Olive makes up her mind that: 'she would not wear out her youth and her beauty at the Old Manor Farm in the company of Uncle Jasper’s stuffed abominations: and since Aunt Caroline could not afford to take her up to London, where she might have made a suitable match, she looked about her in Thanet itself.'7 She fixes her attention on Sir Baldwin Jeffrey’s who has a large estate near Ashford and has 'come down to the neighbourhood of Minster-in-Thanet for some fishing.'8 The story describes the Garden of England, with its plums, cherries, strawberries and hot weather which leaves Olive’s 'young face, tanned by sun and sea, beaten by the breezes of Thanet'9 and one gets the sense that Orczy enjoyed the country life.

However, when Olive describes her sister as 'the uncivilized product of barbaric surroundings. What can you expect from education that has been confined within the boundaries of Thanet'10, the mothers of the girls from the Ramsgate county school may have been slightly galled by this description.

Nevertheless, despite its barbarity, there is a simplicity and pureness about Thanet in the novel: 'Tomorrow she thought that she could persuade Aunt and Uncle to go back to dear old Thanet, where there were no intrigues, no lies, no false appearance of affection, no lying lips, but where memory dwelt under the cherry-trees and was kept sweet and young in the fragrance of spring flowers.' 11

At the outbreak of the first world war, the Baroness founded the Women of England’s Active Service League (W.E.A.S.L), encouraging women to support their men to go to war:

'Women and girls of Britain, you cannot shoulder a rifle, but you can actively serve your country all the same. Give your country your sweetheart, she wants him; your son, your brother, she wants them all; your friends she wants them all.'12

The acronym was it must be supposed intentional and the league quickly attracted supporters – as many as 15,000 by the middle of September.

However, after some 'White feather foolery' which she said was 'absolutely contrary to the spirit and the letter of the league'. She wrote: 'My attention has been called to the fact; that some exceedingly foolish young people have wasted their time and tried the tempers of sensible persons by sending white feathers to certain young men in the neighbourhood who they consider ought to have enlisted before this.'13 She pointed out that she in no way endorsed this 'amateur press-gang'.

The arrival of the Belgian Refugees in October 1914 disturbed the tranquillity of the village; and although Emma helped out she wrote: ''what intruded most persistently on my consciousness was the ever-flowing stream of Belgian refugees which threatened to submerge our small towns and villages in this part of Kent. Hospitals could not, of course, cope with it; the stream overflowed into every house, every cottage, every stable and barn from Chatham to Rochester, to Maidstone, to Ashford.' 14

In November 1914, the Baroness was invited to distribute prizes at Maidstone Girls Grammar School. The girls, all dressed in virginal white, were encouraged to do their best in life: 'whatever calling they cut out for themselves in life – whether industrial, professional, business, nursing, or scrubbing floors – they should set their minds to do it efficiently.' 15 Considering the number of women who remained unmarried after the first world war, Orczy’s words were prescient.

In the following year, she presented prizes at Ramsgate Girls Grammar School, but this time her cheering words were more like a battle cry as she spoke in Darwinian terms of the survival of the fittest: 'The world will have no further use for the ‘half-baked’ individual who can do twenty-three things badly and not one well; it makes no difference whether you sweep a crossing or write a novel. Determine to do whatever you take in hand just a shade better than it has ever be done before.' 16

The couple lived in Kent until the end of the first world war, and built a 'dear little house' in the grounds for her mother, however in June 1918:

'My poor dear mother got it into her head that she was doing us harm (especially to my husband) by living on our property. She was an ‘alien enemy’ and although the neighbours around, the police and the authorities were most kind, there were some village folk, either malicious or merely ignorant, who were not.'17

Her mother returned to Hungary. Not long after this Emma, suffering from a breakdown and worn out by the constant demands on her time to give talks and open fetes, moved with her husband to Monte Carlo.

This article was published: 19 December 2021.


  1. Orczy, E. (1947) Links in the Chain of Life 

  2. Orczy, E. (1947) Links in the Chain of Life 

  3. Orczy, E. (1947) Links in the Chain of Life 

  4. East Kent Times and Mail - Wednesday 02 December 1908. 

  5. East Kent Times and Mail - Wednesday 01 July 1908. 

  6. Orczy, E. (1947) Links in the Chain of Life 

  7. Orczy, E. (1912) Meadowsweet 

  8. Orczy, E. (1912) Meadowsweet 

  9. Orczy, E. (1912) Meadowsweet 

  10. Orczy, E. (1912) Meadowsweet 

  11. Orczy, E. (1912) Meadowsweet 

  12. Daily Mirror - Friday 04 September 1914. 

  13. Kent Messenger & Gravesend Telegraph - Saturday 19 September 1914. 

  14. Orczy, E. (1947) Links in the Chain of Life 

  15. Kent Messenger & Gravesend Telegraph - Saturday 07 November 1914. 

  16. Thanet Advertiser - Saturday 09 October 1915. 

  17. Orczy, E. (1947) Links in the Chain of Life