Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda appeared in 1894 and was an immediate and immense success, establishing itself as a classic tale of adventure and creating its own sub-genre, the Ruritanian romance. It was therefore no surprise that the author should have succumbed to the temptation to produce a sequel and Rupert of Hentzau was published in 1898.
While Rupert of Hentzau was unable to match the enormous popularity and reputation of its predecessor it was nonetheless an extremely successful novel in its own right and it remains in print.
While the sensational success of The Prisoner of Zenda could not have been foretold and its author when writing it could have had no thoughts of a possible future sequel it is nevertheless true that the ending does in some ways invite a sequel.
Since I have no desire to ruin the first of Hope’s Ruritanian adventures for anyone who has not yet read it I will be as scrupulous as I can in this review in avoiding any significant spoilers for The Prisoner of Zenda. It is certainly no spoiler to state that this book deals with the adventures of an English gentleman named Rudolf Rassendyll who bears an uncanny resemblance to the King of Ruritania, and that as a result he is persuaded to impersonate the king. He does this in the king’s own best interests, and in order to attempt to foil a plot against the king. All this is revealed very early on in The Prisoner of Zenda.
While the ending of The Prisoner of Zenda is perfectly satisfying it does leave several matters in a slightly ambiguous condition, most notably the relationship between Rudolf Rassendyll and the Queen of Ruritania and the fate of the arch-villain Rupert of Hentzau. These ambiguities are sufficient to justify a sequel and to provide the ingredients for its plot.
Rupert of Hentzau was not really one of the central players in the drama of The Prisoner of Zenda, although he was certainly an important supporting character. Rupert was however the most colourful character in the book, an unscrupulous villain whose courage and daring gave him an appeal that few readers could resist. Putting him at the centre of a sequel was a very obvious step.
The ending of The Prisoner of Zenda also makes it relatively easy for Hope to bring many of the main characters together again in a satisfyingly plausible way.
As sequels go this feels less contrived than most. Hope is able to convince us that the story really did need to continue. The difficulty was to make the second installment just as exciting as the first had been. Perhaps the author does not quite succeed (it’s very hard to equal the nail-biting tension of the climactic scenes in the palace in the first book) but he gives it his best shot and the results are satisfying enough.
It’s Rupert of Hentzau himself who makes this sequel worth reading. He is an unusual character to find in 19th century fiction. He is in many ways an anticipation of the anti-heroes who would play such a large role in 20th century fiction. Both his vices and his virtues are on the grand scale. He is also undeniably sexy, making him in some ways a very modern character. The one thing that distinguishes him from modern anti-heroes is that he is entirely lacking in self-pity and does not waste precious time in brooding. He was obviously one of the major inspirations for George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. Flashman is a kind of cowardly Rupert of Hentzau.
The danger of such characters is that they can be so attractive that they overshadow the hero, and to some extent this does happen in both of Hope’s Ruritanian adventures. Rudolf Rassendyll is however a fairly interesting hero in his own way, and he is also surprisingly modern. He is brave and noble but he is also genuinely tempted to take advantage of his peculiar situation. Again we find a moral ambiguity we don’t expect in a Victorian adventure tale. Rupert of Hentzau has if anything more of this moral ambiguity than The Prisoner of Zenda. While Rudolf Rassendyll and his fellow-conspirators believe in the nobility of their cause but they are aware that their actions could be interpreted as self-serving and opportunistic, and they do experience some misgivings about the moral rightness of some of their actions.
Rupert of Hentzau is a very enjoyable adventure yarn, made more interesting by the complexity of the characters. Highly recommended.