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.


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

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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