The Prisoner Of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda
(and Rupert of Hentzau)

Anthony Hope’s novel “The Prisoner of Zenda” became a bestseller when it was first published in 1894 – and has remained in print for the past 121 years. It is also the only thriller I can recall that begins with the hero eating a boiled egg.

Thriller did I say? Well, yes, the Kingdom of Ruritania is fictitious therefore it can’t be an historical novel. And it is set much in the period when Hope was writing. I suppose, to use an old-fashioned term, we might call it a swashbuckler. But it remains a very thrilling one.

The story is familiar to many because of two really good film versions (starring respectively Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., and Stewart Grainger and James Mason – other minor film adaptations and parodies aren’t worth bothering with).

I suspect fewer people these days have ever read the novel. Which is a pity because it’s a cracking read, written in a style that seems as modern as if it were written last week. Not having re-read it for about forty years I was surprised how good it is. Many of the misconceptions of my memory of it were easily dismissed looking again. For instance I’d remembered the heroine Princess Flavia as a bit of a drip, which is the way she’s usually portrayed in the films. She isn’t. She’s a strong well-rounded character up there with the leading men.

The plot is relatively simple. Rudolf Rassendyll, a distant relative of the royal house of Ruritania returns to that kingdom for a holiday. His resemblance (they are not identical as in the films, where the same actors had to play the part) to its wastrel king is noted and, following a sequence of events I won’t spoil for you, he is forced to take the monarch’s place.

There is a great deal of conspiracy, some sword-fights, a dramatic rescue from a castle, a bit of romance, and some hints about the wider European situation which are quite prophetic. The tale is told in the first person by Rassendyll himself.

I do wonder if the seeds of the story were planted in Hope’s mind by what happened at Mayerling in 1889, when the heir to the Austrian Empire and his lover committed suicide at a hunting lodge. The stories are different, but the Mayerling incident triggered off a great deal of mystery and speculation at a time when Hope might have been contemplating his book.

The joy of the piece is the villain Rupert of Hentzau, young, dashing, immediately likeable for all his erring ways. He just happens, through personal ambition, to be on the wrong side. If you like swashbucklers he is iconic – and his influence has permeated down to a number of lesser works. The other villain, Duke Michael, the King’s brother is tamer by comparison.

Interestingly, there is a kind of social and political edge to the conflict of the book. In the capital of Ruritania, Strelsau, there is an old town and a new town. The new town backs the king and the hero’s side in the debate as to who would be the best ruler. But in the old town, where the working people live, there is greater support for Duke Michael and Rupert of Hentzau. I often found myself wondering whether I was backing the wrong side, as we’re supposed to like and be fighting for the existing king and the status quo?

The story ends with one of the best – and realistic – rescue sequences in literature. Terrific stuff! And a sad but satisfying ending.

Anthony Hope (properly Sir Anthony Hope-Hawkins, born 1863) began his career as a barrister, becoming a full-time writer at much the same time as “The Prisoner of Zenda” was published. Interestingly, his first novel “A Man of Mark” (1890) was self-published. He wrote a great many, now mostly forgotten, plays, lots of other novels, often set in fictional countries, and journalism. Apart from the two Ruritanian novels, his other great hit was “The Dolly Dialogues”, about Victorian society and still worth a read. He was knighted in 1918 and died in 1933.

Following the great success of “The Prisoner of Zenda” he wrote a sequel “Rupert of Hentzau” four years later. Rassendyll returns to Ruritania to settle matters left outstanding after his first adventure. Though “The Prisoner of Zenda” is told by Rassendyll in the first person, this second and longer story is narrated by Fritz von Tarlenheim, one of the secondary heroes of the first book, though there are accounts of certain incidents by other players in the drama, Tarlenheim’s own account often framing theirs.

This interesting demonstration of narrative technique is a positive master-class in how to use first person properly. It’s worth studying for that technical aspect alone.

“Rupert of Hentzau” is, in many ways a better novel than its predecessor, both in character psychology and plot development. A swashbuckler too but, well, something finer and more ambitious. A swashbuckler that is a tragedy, perhaps with that hint of the Mayerling incident thrown in. The characters are never pure heroes or villains. You can see where their ideas come from, and most have an uneasy recognition of what might be the consequences of their actions.

And it has the joy of a perfect villain in Rupert of Hentzau himself, too good to be literally written off in one novel. Rupert is given more space than in “The Prisoner of Zenda”. We are allowed to see the depth of his motivation. And few rogues are as likeable. The final drama of the novel is satisfying; it has a roundness, a completion. A fine piece of writing.

The two books should really be read one after the other to get the full effect. They are novels you can get quite lost in. Hope has that good novelist’s gift of leading you entirely into his world.

I had maligned Anthony Hope in my memory of four decades as a second-rater. He isn’t. These two novels are page-turners of the very best kind and I’m happy that my misconceptions were so pleasantly banished. Hope was a much better novelist than he is usually given credit for. And his Ruritanian swashbucklers are grand pieces of their kind. The fact that they’ve never been out of print and always had an audience proves that.

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