The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894)

Anthony Hope (1863-1933 ) was posh – son of a public school headmaster, Marlborough, First in Classics at Oxford, called to the Bar in 1887, the year Sherlock Holmes made his debut. For fictions was Hope’s real interest – in his spare time he was writing scores of tales, novels and essays. (Project Gutenberg hosts an impressive number of his works including Zenda.)

The idea of The Prisoner of Zenda came to Hope as he walked back from Westminster Count Court in 28 November 1893, a month before Conan Doyle flung Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls. A month later the first draft was completed and the book was published in April 1894. Its spectacular success persuaded Hope to abandon his legal career and become a professional author but none of the reams of novels, essays, stories and plays he produced in the next 40 years recaptured Zenda’s success.

That success comes from a wonderful combination of themes which produce a short, fast-moving text full of excitement and sensation.

Gothic location by locating in Eastern Europe the book takes advantage of our vague sense that the area is full of the wild forests, romantic courts, medieval towns and castles set on crags which our own boring country lacks. He invented the name Ruritania for this relic of an earlier, more decorous and chivalrous age, and the name has endured to describe a backward mid-European fictional setting for swashbuckling adventures. I think of the kingdom of Syldavia in the Tintin adventure, King Ottakar’s Sceptre.

Ancient and Modern Yet in some magical way, this backward kingdom is also plugged into the modern age. In the various fight scenes hero and baddy wield swords for medieval duels, but also have revolvers tucked into their belts. They telegraph the capital city and catch trains to destinations. It is a strange, beguiling blending of past and present which adds to the fairy tale ambience.

Dashing hero The first person narrator is sometimes a problem for novelists but here it perfectly suits the rather lazy but brave and earnest hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, distant cousin of the king of Ruritania, who suddenly finds himself called upon to impersonate the king who has been kidnapped by his wicked cousin, Black Duke Michael.

Wish-fulfilment Who wouldn’t wish to be the hero who shows such pluck and dash – or the beautiful Princess Flavia who he falls in love with – both of them with so little time together before she nobly submits to her duty and he nobly walks away from their love. Millions of female readers have burst into tears at the novel’s moving conclusion or male readers stifled a tear and fantasised that, yes, they too would have done the noble thing!

Movies Cedric Watts in his introduction to the Wordsworth Classic edition of the novel describes its immense influence: Three black and white movies were made in the 10s and 20s, before the classic 1937 talkie version with Ronald Colman, a 1952 remake with Stewart Grainger, a 1979 spoof starring Peter Sellars, as well as countless versions in TV, radio, musical and stage form.

Stock scenes But it was as a fashioner of stock scenes that the book has had most impact: the fake coronation, the chase through the woods, the stealthy crossing of the moat under cover of dark, breaking into the dungeon just in time to rescue the captive, the duel in the forest, the passionate duet of doomed hero and self-denying heroine, the scene at the inn where the hero flirts with the sexy barmaid, the scene where the wicked uncle corners the blonde heroine, the hero getting cornered by three toughs and escaping by the skin of  his teeth – on and on it goes, a wonderful sourcebook of swashbuckling stereotypes.

I like Watts’s lineage of the ‘sardonic, cynical but dashingly handsome villain, epitomised by Rupert of Hentzau: his mocking tones re-echo in the voices of countless screen villains, from Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Orson Welles and Vincent Price, to Alan Rickman, John Malkovich’ and beyond.

Watts suggests the heyday of costume drama was the 30s until the 1970s, and there was certainly a lot of it about, but I’d say the genre lives on in movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Wherever a goody and a baddy brandish swords and a beautiful heroine is in danger, some element of Zenda is present.

The Prisoner of Zenda 1937 starring Ronald Colman

The Prisoner of Zenda 1952 starring Stewart Grainger

PS I’m not completely sure this is the source for the well-known phrase, but the novel does include the words; ‘My work here is done,’ chapter 21.

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