Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope (1898)

Thus Rudolf Rassendyll set out again for the walls of Strelsau, through the forest of Zenda. And ahead of him, with an hour’s start, galloped the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim, again a man, and a man with resolution, resentment, and revenge in his heart. The game was afoot now; who could tell the issue of it? (Chapter 6)

Ha! Buckle your swashes and tighten your bodice – wicked Prince Rupert is conspiring his return to the central European country of Ruritania while the Queen’s loyal servants, led by heroic Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll, are hot on his heels to foil his dastardly plot!

Tone and control

Whereas the first person voice was perfect for the short pacey Prisoner of Zenda (1894), the sequel – Rupert of Hentzau (1898) – is both longer, a bit more confusing, and a bit more revealing.

Plot In the first novel the king of Zenda is kidnapped by his cousin, wicked Black Michael, and his remote English cousin Rudolf Rassendyll is drafted in to impersonate the king at his coronation and in his wooing of the beautiful princess Flavia, until the real king – trapped in the castle at Zenda (hence ‘the prisoner of Zenda’) – can be released. There is a serious motive for the action – wicked Michael’s kidnapping and threat to murder the real king of a European country – lending weight and excitement to numerous tense moments.

In the sequel the spring for the plot is much slighter – Flavia, still in love with English Rudolf (though now married to the real king of Ruritania), sends him a letter affirming her love but saying that, out of duty to her country, they must stop corresponding. The messenger carrying this letter is mugged by an underling of the dashing but wicked prince Rupert of Henzau and then the whole of the 200-page romance which follows describes the convoluted attempts of Rudolf, his manservant James, and the small group of noble assistants from the first novel, to foil Rupert’s plan to show the letter to the king and thus ruin Queen Flavia’s reputation and hasten the ill king’s demise. Mwah ha ha.

So this one is all about an incriminating love letter, compared to the motive in the first novel just not weighty enough to carry 200 pages packed with intrigue and complicated plot twists. A flimsy pretext which smacks of the kind of elaborate melodramas popular on the Victorian stage.

Narrator The subtitle of the novel is ‘From the memoirs of Fritz von Tarlenheim’ and the narrative starts off being in the voice – the rather stilted Germanic voice – of this servant of the Queen of Ruritania. But after he is mugged in and the Queen’s incriminating letter is stolen from him, the action moves to other places – the capital city Strelsau and the castle at Zenda – which he has to strain to accommodate into a first person narrative.

In fact it strains too far and these other chapters are effectively told by the 3rd person omniscient narrator with a few token ‘or so I learned later’s thrown in to try and hold it together. So the text moves from 1st person to 3rd person, sometimes confusingly, and this distinguishes it from the first novel, told by the hero in a first person narrative that unfolds at breathless pace.

 Chivalry

Whereas the first novel dealt with a masculine power struggle, the second one is driven by what seems to us a largely preposterous amount of effort to save the virtue and reputation of the Queen. If chivalry is a mask for the repression of women as free agents, if it is the lie which men in power tell themselves to conceal their own domination of women, then this novel reaches a kind of giddy height of chivalry/misogyny.

A number of high powered men pledge their lives to the service of the Queen and vow to die for her if necessary and, indeed, a number of men are (unbelievably) killed in order to retrieve this simple love letter. And yet the result of all their sacrifices is to leave the Queen trapped, powerless and unhappy. It is the doublethink of ‘Chivalry’ laid bare.

In its closing passages the novel goes to tremendous lengths to showcase the extraordinary gentlemanliness of its hero, the Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll. He is clearly held up as a role model, a fantasy figure, the absolutely perfect gentleman, driven solely by honour and concern not to hurt or offend others.

At an obvious level the novel is romantic escapism because the reader identifies with this perfect man, placed in numerous situations of physical and moral danger, who survives all of them with poise and control. Not unlike his grandson James Bond.

But at a slightly deeper level, the novel is escapist in the way it ignores all the social problems associated with the system which produces the Rudolf Rassendylls of this world ie the stunning economic and social inequality of late-Victorian England.

Not only is it escapist to vicariously identify with the all-conquering hero; and escapist to imaginatively inhabit the childishly simplified world of Ruritania, a world where only about 10 people matter and everyone else is a harmless yokel who can be bought off with a few gold coins; it is just as escapist to enter an imaginative realm where the fancy scruples of the hero appear to justify the grotesquely unjust society of 1890s England. The text allows us to escape the adult world in multiple ways.

The year after its publication the Boer War would break out and reveal the pitiful state of men living in Britain’s cities, badly shaking even conservatives’ faith in ‘the System’. And a decade later the world would plunge into the irremediable disaster of the Great War, which destroyed belief in precisely the values this novel epitomises.

In a deft piece of footwork, Hope contrives the final words of the novel to be ‘God save the Queen’. I felt like bursting into applause at this pirouette of patriotism. Yet it is the completely unquestioning nature of the text, the lack of any troubling elements, of any psychological depth or conflict, which means it is now a children’s book, its naivete about the world, society, human nature, men and women, meaning that, in fact, even modern children would find it lame.

Its appeal is in its deft combination of pure narrative drive – the excitements and tensions of a page-turning plot – with its deliciously prelapsarian emptyheadedness .

Ruritania morphs into Fascist chic

Turn of the century Ruritania conjured for its Victorian readers a remote country which magically combined all the elements of period romance with modern excitements – thus medieval towns, castles and swordfights mingled with modern steam trains, telegraphs and revolvers.

The name Ruritania quickly became associated with the piddly royal family or upper class of a wholly inconsequential country who take themselves with comical seriousness, a seriousness inversely proportional to the country’s complete unimportance in the great affairs of Europe, let alone, of course, compared to the mighty British Empire of the books’ author and readers.

In modern times it is this quality of preening narcissism, of overdressed flunkies, of absurd ceremonial which has led the adjective Ruritanian to be applied comic-opera regimes like Colonel Gaddafi’s in Libya or to countless African or Latin American dictatorships. And the baddy, Prince Rupert, is as gallant as he is amoral, dressed in the finery of an officer in the Guards. But even though the fashion sense has caught up with the 20th century, the mindset remains as brainless as before, with the crushing problems of the world in the 1930s resolving down to two men having a swordfight around a large dungeon.

The Prisoner of Zenda comic version

The Prisoner of Zenda comic version

It is striking to see the change which comes over wicked prince Rupert by the time of the classic black and white movie version (1937). Now there is a whole new class of European baddy, immaculately dressed in black leather, suave and sophisticated and thoroughly evil. Nazi chic has replaced the old world courtesy of a middle European Uhlan.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Rupert of Henzau in the 1937 movie version of The Prisoner of Zenda

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Rupert of Henzau in the 1937 movie version of The Prisoner of Zenda

Text of Rupert of Hentzau on Project Gutenberg

Youth by Joseph Conrad (1898)

Youth, the shortish short story (30 pages) Conrad completed in June 1898, sees the debut of Charles Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego, the fictional narrator of this and his two most famous stories, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Marlow’s arrival marks a step change in the quality of Conrad’s work.

Marlow enforces discipline

Because the story is narrated by a character, not by the omniscient narrator he’d used in all his previous works, Conrad has to make a big effort to rein in the stylistic excesses I have described in previous posts. For example, Conrad’s short story The Return strikes me as being almost unbearable to read for its sustained note of manic hysteria. Conrad uses free indirect style to take us inside the mind of Alvan Hervey as his wife’s infidelity triggers what feels, trapped inside his head, like a nervous breakdown. In fact, this is just another outing for the hysterical, panic-stricken, horror-obsessed nihilism which characterises all of Conrad’s fiction up to this point.

It is with immense relief that one turns to Youth because this hysteria is reined right in and Conrad’s stylistic excesses, though still noticeable at moments, are in general held in abeyance in order to foreground the practical, no-nonsense voice of Charles Marlow.

Plot

The plot is simple. The 20-year-old Marlow is second mate on the Judea, contracted to take coal from Newcastle to Bangkok. The boat encounters a number of problems which repeatedly delay its departure from England, then it hits storms off Africa, and then the coal in the hold begins to spontaneously burn as they enter the Indian Ocean.

Eventually the crew are forced to abandon ship, and Marlow docks in the East having commanded a 14-foot ship’s boat and crew of two for the last week of the ill-fated journey.

Style

The style is blessedly restrained. Both the character of Marlow and the nature of the ‘story’ i.e. a detailed account of the maritime problems encountered by the ship – dictate a much more factual style than anything Conrad had previously written.

We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the boat’s nose against the end of a jutting wharf.

Shorter sentences. Fewer subordinate clauses. Much more factual content. A lot less tautology or redundancy. A blessed relief, though the old Conrad is still there, straining at the leash:

O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life. I think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret.

There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.

This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.

But the familiar lyricism, the repetition and apposition, is justified by the fundamental idea – that this is the character Marlow’s paean to the vividness and optimism of naive and romantic youth. Well, just about justified.

Framing device

Youth starts with the identical setting made famous by Heart of Darkness, i.e. after dinner in London five mature and successful men of the world who have all experienced the sea sit and smoke cigars, chatting. The anonymous narrator is one of them; he sets this scene, describes the audience a little, and then lets Marlow begin his tale.

The frame device, the tale-within-a-tale, does several things:

  • It distances the tale. No matter what happens we know that Marlow survived and is telling it to us now. Though we are caught up in the events he narrates, we are not actually lost in a moment-by-moment helter-skelter of hysteria with a totally unpredictable outcome, as we are in the key scenes of Almayer or An Outpost
  • Marlow is telling his tale to a suave and knowing audience. This has an important effect in toning down the hysterical style of the earlier novels and stories. Although Marlow is still given lines of improbable lyricism, Conrad is conscious of them, limits them, and excuses them – Marlow himself justifies them as he speaks them – because this is a tale of high spirits and boyish optimism.
  • Marlow is English. Unlike the protagonists of Almayer and Outcast and Outpost and Karain. It is as if hysteria is characteristic of the lesser Europeans, the Dutch and Belgians. Conrad emphasises Marlow’s Englishness by making him use the upper-class slang of the day – ‘Pon my soul’, ‘The deuce of a time’. And the Englishness of narrator and audience guarantees a sang-froid, the famous stiff upper-lip, which limits and disciplines Conrad. Enforces restraint. And his prose is all the more effective for it.

For those who like patterns, it is pretty that Conrad published Youth, Heart of Darkness and The End of The Tether in one volume in 1902 (Youth, A Narrative, and other tales) – one representing youth, one representing maturity, one representing old age.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Tales of Unrest by Joseph Conrad (1898)

After his first two novels Conrad turned to shorter forms, to novellas and short stories. He followed 1897’s novella, The Nigger of the Narcissus, with five short stories collected in 1898’s Tales of Unrest, being:

The Idiots

His first short story, written March 1896.

The Lagoon

What Conrad considered his first authentic short story, written in July 1896. A white man stops at a gloomy lagoon where a solitary Malay has his hut along with his woman. The woman is dying of fever. Through the night the Malay tells the story of their doomed love, how they ran away from the king and queen who owned her as a servant girl, how they were pursued, how his brother gave his life to save them. At dawn she dies and the man is left utterly bereft.

Quintessential Conrad – a tale of utter bleakness, told in lush, decadent, tropical prose.

An Outpost of Progress

Published in two parts in Cosmopolis magazine in June and July 1897, Conrad considered this his best short story.

It is set in the Congo, drawing on his experiences there seven years earlier, and strongly linked with Heart of Darkness i.e. pretty much the same plot. Two white men are left high up the river, deep in the Dark Continent, to run a trading station. They fall to pieces physically and mentally and the end comes when a group of African slavers steal away their native staff, leaving ivory tusks in payment.

Having lost their self-respect they go quickly downhill, bicker about nothing until, after a trivial argument, one shoots the other then hangs himself.

Conrad all over. The tropical setting; the complete degradation of the protagonists; the vision of futility; the lush prose.

It is a bit mind-boggling that ‘An Outpost’ appeared just at the moment of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, June and July 1897. On 22 June there was a vast procession of colourfully-dressed colonial subjects through London to an open air service outside St Paul’s cathedral. On 23 June the Queen met some young Indian princes. On 2 July the Queen surveyed her colonial troops at Windsor. Both the June and July editions of Cosmopolis included length celebrations of the greatness and benefits of Empire (some quoted in this article). The Times published Kipling’s great poem, Recessional, on 17 July.

And over exactly this same period, Conrad was publishing this bleak nihilistic tale. You wonder how he avoided being lynched!

The Return

Completed in early 1897. In his preface Conrad says he hated writing this story. Arrogant, successful middle-aged businessman Alvan Hervey returns on the Tube to his smart West London house to find a message from his wife saying she has left him for a magazine editor. He is devastated, his world collapses, everything he has valued is torn away from under him etc.

He is just starting to feel like all the turmoil which Conrad heroes usually luxuriate in, when his wife, embarrassingly, returns. She’s changed her mind!

How does Conrad make such a slight incident (man comes home, reads note, is unhappy, wife walks back in) last 60 pages?

With great torrents of prose describing Hervey’s anguish, mental collapse, fury, despair. Despite its untypical setting (London) it is classic overripe, hysterical Conrad, redolent of Strindberg or of a strung-out existentialist play like Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Huis Clos.

Karain: A Memory

Published in Blackwoods Magazine in November 1897.

From the safety of Blighty the narrator remembers the days when he was a gun smuggler around the Malay archipelago. The striking figure of the native chief, Karain. Fine figure of a man. Everyone loved him. Yet he seemed somehow nervous. One stormy night (lol), he swims aboard the white trader’s schooner and tells them his story, viz:

A Dutch trader steals away a woman from his tribe. He and his best friend vow to track them down and erase the shame. For years they are on the trail together, travelling all over the archipelago in pursuit. But slowly the beautiful girl’s voice and then figure come to him in dreams and visions, talking, defending herself. Finally they find the Dutchman and the girl and his friend gives Karain a rifle and tells him to shoot the white man while he slays the girl with his dagger.

But, as his dearest, oldest friend leaps from the bushes to carry out this plan, Karain is overcome by the secret memory of the voice of the girl and her secret presence. Before he knows what he has done, he has shot his friend. He has spared the vile white man’s life. He gets away. But that night the girl’s voice doesn’t come to him. His friend’s voice and shape come to him. And from that night onwards he is pursued, followed, haunted…!

Conrad excelsis: a frame narrative around a tale of betrayal, despair and haunting.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Day’s Work by Rudyard Kipling (1898)

‘Perfect! Perfect! There’s no place like England – when you’ve done your work.’

‘That’s the proper way to look at it, my son.’

Kipling collected the short stories he’d published in various magazines in the mid-1890s into The Day’s Work, published in 1898, the year after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the year before the Boer War broke out.

A character in one story, William the Conqueror, about British officers working to relieve famine in India, remarks, ‘It’s all in the day’s work’, and this is the focus of the stories – work, men’s work and duties, generally carried out by pukka junior officers of the Empire on which the Sun Never Sets, or by Kipling’s favourite type of man, the engineer.

That said there’s another consistent thread – personification or ventriloquism. A Walking Delegate and The Maltese Cat are both about horses who talk and organise things. The Ship that Found Itself features not just a talking ship but a ship whose parts speak and argue among themselves. .007 features American steam locomotives who welcome a new recruit to the line.

And comedy. A lot of the stories are good-humoured or contain wry humour, but An Error and My Sunday at Home are both obviously meant to be comedies. (Both are about Americans misunderstanding the English; compare and contrast with the fictions on the same subject of Kipling’s friend, Henry James.)

I’d recommend the first and the last stories as highlighting Kipling’s strengths (powers of imagination and description) and weaknesses (lack of depth, oddness).

The Bridge-Builders (1893) India. Encapsulates two big features of Kipling’s style – masculine, technological accuracy, and disconcerting fantasy. Chief Engineer Findlayson sees the work of three years, a giant bridge across the Ganges, just reaching fulfilment when there is an early monsoon flood which requires a panic-stricken clearing of all the equipment by native coolies. This section crammed with technical descriptions of the bridge and bridge-building. Shivering in the rain, he is persuaded to take a pill of opium and, high as a kite, scrambles onto a boat which is washed downstream and crashes onto a sandbank where he hallucinates a meeting of river animals who stand in for the Hindu pantheon of Gods who discuss the past, present and future of mankind. In their perspective, the deep history of mystical India, all Findlayson’s efforts are transitory…

A Walking Delegate (1894) Vermont. Encapsulates two other features – talking animals (vide the Jungle Books) and right-wing politics. A group of horses in a pasture in New England are chatting in their various American accents, when they are interloped by a bolshie, badly-trained yellow horse from Kansas who encourages them to rise up against their human oppressors. Premonitions of Animal Farm. Some bitter repartee captures Kipling’s real hatred of trade unions, socialists and agitators who were a growing force in the States and Britain in the 1890s. In Kipling’s view they make the error of putting the individual before the group, failing to realise that we must all work and do our duty in order to keep society safe and peaceful.

The Ship That Found Herself (1895) The North Atlantic. Is this even a story, or a kind of fantasia of a technical diagram come to life? A new cargo steamer, built in Glasgow, steams across the Atlantic and all the parts of the ship are given voices and complain about the strain they’re under. Slowly, painfully, the parts realise that they all interlock and depend on each other to survive. By the time the ship arrives in New York, she is one co-operative unit, all the parts working together. Identical to how groups of raw recruits are knocked into shape in Kipling’s idealised army. But done with imagination and fantasy…

‘If you lay your ear to the side of the cabin, the next time you are in a steamer, you will hear hundreds of little voices in every direction, thrilling and buzzing, and whispering and popping, and gurgling and sobbing and squeaking exactly like a telephone in a thunder-storm. Wooden ships shriek and growl and grunt, but iron vessels throb and quiver through all their hundreds of ribs and thousands of rivets…’

The Tomb of His Ancestors (1897) India. Young John Chinn, from a Devonshire family of Imperial administrators, arrives with his family regiment. The local tribespeople are called Bhils, they are primitive and childlike and owe ancestral allegiance to previous Chinns who have ruled them. The story is how young Chinn rises to the responsibility of managing them, including hunting the tiger which has been terrorising the tribes and which they’re convinced the spirits of his ancestor rides by night. He does a man’s job, sir. Made into a BBC drama.

The Devil and the Deep Sea (1895) History of the Haliotis, a steamer with a disreputable history of smuggling, and other criminal activities. Finally, while stealing pearl oysters from government beds somewhere off Malaysia she is arrested by a local government warship, having been damaged by a big warning shell, and the local governor sentences the crew to serve in an inland war. At which point British public opinion is stirred and the British government contacts the governor’s government and pressurises him to release the crew and allow them to return, though still in captivity, to their ship. There they work day and night to rebuild the ruined engines under the instruction of the engineer Wardrop and, finally, manage to break their ropes and limp out of captivity. Along the way they commandeer ie steal a native vessel, towing it to a coaling harbour where they scuttle the Haliotis. Months later the gunship that attacked them runs aground the wreck and is sunk. A strangely immoral story. I think the engineer Wardrop, is the hero, and the crew are somehow redeemed from their obvious criminality by the intensity of their hard work together.

William the Conqueror, parts one and two. India. There’s a famine in southern India. Martyn and his sister, William, go to help. She does a man’s work, mainly because she is Kipling’s favourite type of woman – ie a man.

•007 ‘The Story of an American Locomotive’ (1897) America. Highly technical account of a new engine, inducted into the group of other engines in a company, and then its pulling and pushing adventures, the only notable one being helping rescue a big locomotive which has been derailed by a pig. Barely a story. Reminiscent of Thomas the Tank Engine. Despite its railway setting, the tale is essentially that of the new boy at school (or new subaltern in the army), who feels out of place, but is befriended by a more experienced boy/sergeant, and goes on to prove himself in a match/skirmish, and so earns the respect of his peers and takes his place in the hierarchy of the school/regiment.

The Maltese Cat India. An epic polo match told from the point of view of the horses who, whatever their human owners think, are actually planning and running the match.

Magazine illustration of The Maltese Cat

Magazine illustration of The Maltese Cat

Bread upon the Waters (1895) Comedy. British coastal waters. The old engineer we met in the story of ‘Brugglesmith‘ (in the 1893 collection, Many Inventions) is sacked from his marine company by unscrupulous directors. Later he points out the unseaworthiness of one of their ships and has the satisfaction of seeing it wrecked, and towing it for salvage, and making a fortune. This is a hard story to read, with tough Scotch accents and the plot is hard to follow. I think it’s meant to be a comedy but the tone is very badly spoilt for me by the anti-semitic references to the baddie of the story, the scheming Jewish director of the company who is brought low by his own greed. There are one or two other slighting references to Jews scattered through these stories. No thanks. Yuk.

An Error in the Fourth Dimension (1894) Comedy. A rich American, Wilton Sargent, comes to England to be Anglified, adopts all our customs and buys a country house with a railway line at the bottom of the grounds. He gets his man to flag down a train which runs through his land because he wants to pop up to London to check a collector’s piece. However, he is caught and restrained by train officials. Next day he’s charged with assault on the guard and pays the fine. But then the railway company threatens to bring further charges, and sends two officials down to visit while the narrator is providentially present. It becomes clear one’s a psychiatrist. They think Weston’s letters threatening to buy the railway line are the ravings of a maniac. At which point the narrator intervenes to point out that Wilton could buy their railway if he so wished. Embarrassment all round. Wilton sells up and returns to the States which, the implication is, he should never have left.

My Sunday at Home (1895) England. A straightforward comedy which made me laugh out loud. An American doctor on a train journey west, chatting to the narrator, misinterprets an announcement that a man has taken poison and leaves the train to administer an emetic, but mistakenly does so to a drunken navvy who then refuses to let go of him. Eventually he makes his escape in a horse and cart after the navvy’s passed out. What makes this Kiplingesque is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the broad comedy with the narrator’s purple prose descriptions of the beauty of the English countryside.

Illustration for 'My Sunday at Home'

Illustration for ‘My Sunday at Home’

The Brushwood Boy (1895) England and India.  Again Kipling combines the banal with disconcerting fantasy. On one level the story briskly describes the extremely idealised childhood, school days and then heroic army career of a pukka Englishman, from a big country house, who serves in India, beloved of his men, worshiped by women of whom he is oblivious. On another very Kiplingesque level, a strange and eerie tale because this epitome has dreams, penetratingly lifelike dreams of another land, so consistent he can draw maps of it, and these dreams lead him on to a strange and momentous realisation… I won’t spoil the outcome!

‘My one theory in regard to my work is that writing to order means loss of power, loss of belief in the actuality of the tale and ultimately to loss of self-respect to the writer. If a man once deviates from this rule (I speak for myself alone) he mis-says himself at every turn and at the last ceases to be the author of what comes from his pen…’

Other Kipling reviews

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