Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda was published in 1894 and was an immediate immense success. It has remained in print ever since and is widely regarded as one of the immortal classics of adventure fiction.
Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (1863–1933) had divided his time between his writing and his career as a barrister. The success of The Prisoner of Zenda led him to devote himself to writing as a full-time career. He prospered as a writer although he would never again achieve the same level of success that The Prisoner of Zenda had brought him. Inevitably he produced a sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, which appeared in 1898 and sold extremely well.
The fictional central European country that provided the setting for the novel, Ruritania, became as famous as the novel itself and indeed gave its name to an entire sub-genre of adventure fiction - the “Ruritanian romance” sub-genre.
The Prisoner of Zenda has been filmed so many times and has been copied, homaged and parodied so often that it’s easy to forget that in 1894 the plot was fresh and fairly original. An English gentleman, Rudolf Rassendyll, visiting the central European Kingdom of Ruritania has a chance encounter with the king of that country. As it happens Rassendyll and the king are distant cousins and it is immediately apparent that their resemblance is startling, almost uncannily so. This resemblance will have fateful consequences.
The king’s brother, Duke Michael, is plotting to usurp the throne and in order to further this plan he is determined to prevent the king’s coronation from taking place. The king is drugged and it seems that Duke Michael’s plan must succeed. At the last moment the king’s advisers hatch a desperate plan - Rudolf Rassendyll will impersonate the king at the coronation. This is dangerous enough but when Duke Michael kidnaps the king Rudolf Rassendyll finds himself having to go on with his impersonation until some means can be devised to free the king. Rassendyll also finds himself having to play the role of suitor to the Princess Flavia, the intended bride of the king. This proves distinctly awkward when Rassendyll realises he really is falling in love with the princess.
The plottings and counter-plottings of the king’s supporters and Duke Michael’s adherents and the desperate attempts to free the king provide plenty of excitement.
Rudolf Rassendyll is an interesting hero, a brave and noble chap but one who is sorely tempted to take advantage of his situation. He is therefore a surprisingly complex and potentially at least a flawed hero. Duke Michael is a sinister but shadowy presence. Both the major hero and the major villain are however totally overshadowed by a subsidiary villain, Rupert of Hentzau. Rupert’s villainy is exceeded only by his courage and daring. In fact his courage and daring are of such a high order that on more than one occasion when Rudolf Rassendyll has the opportunity to end Rupert’s career of villainy he cannot bring himself to kill such a charming scoundrel. Rupert is a magnificent character and it is no surprise at all that Hope went on to feature him as the leading character in the sequel.
Although no-one could have predicted it at the time, within twenty years of the publication of the novel the world it so lovingly describes, a world of kings who put the welfare of their kingdom ahead of their own interests, of princesses who are willing to sacrifice happiness for the sake of duty, of noble courtiers who cheerfully risk their lives for king and country, of subjects who are devoted to the person of their monarch - all of this would be swept away. Ruritania is a fictional country but it is a country that could have existed in 1894. It is not a country that could exist in the post-Great War world of dictators and democracies. This lost world feel gives an added piquancy to the tale.
The Prisoner of Zenda is a fast-paced tale of adventure and romance that lives up to its reputation. Highly recommended.