The Prisoner of Zenda
Puffin Classics 1994 (1894)
“I wonder when in the world you’re going to do anything, Rudolf?” said my brother’s wife. “You are nine-and-twenty,” she observed, “and you’ve done nothing but–”
“Knock about? It is true. Our family doesn’t need to do things.”
The behaviour of Rudolf Rassendyll, younger brother of Robert Lord Burlesdon, appears to live up to his family motto, which is Nil quae feci (roughly translated as ‘I’ve done nothing’). But by the end of The Prisoner of Zenda Rudolf’s actions have belied that motto — at least according to this account supposedly penned by the young man himself.
Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel is based on the notion of the doppelgänger, a plot device familiar from A Tale of Two Cities and many other novels and films. The bearded Englishman, found resting in a Ruritanian forest, is observed to be a lookalike of the dissolute heir to the throne, also called Rudolf — small wonder because they share a common ancestor in the 18th-century King of Ruritania Rudolf III as well as the tell-tale shock of dark red hair. It’s been suggested that Hope was inspired by the visual similarity of royal cousins Czar Nicholas II and King George V, but whatever the truth of the matter the result is a singularly exciting tale of derring-do. Despite its slow opening, the setting up of the coincidences at the beginning is essential, and Victorian readers were as avid for royal gossip, even of the fictional kind, as their modern counterparts.
And Ruritania, where is that? To go on internal clues, it appears to share the same geographical space as Bohemia in the northwest of the modern Czech Republic but because of its nearness to Germany (the railway from Paris passes through Dresden) Rassendyll’s command of German stands him in good stead when he is called upon to stand in for the indisposed king at his coronation. Unfortunately matters are complicated by the enmity of Prince Michael, the King’s half-brother, and the chemistry between the King’s cousin Princess Flavia and Rassendyll. Ultimately the King ends up Michael’s prisoner in the castle of Zenda from which the ‘do-nothing’ Rassendyll, now the complete action hero, has to rescue him — all in secret of course to avoid destabilising the country.
Is Rassendyll an unreliable narrator? He appears to be a leader of men, the compleat ideas man, handsome enough to attract the opposite sex, rugged enough to elicit admiration among men, modest enough to admit to a few minor faults such as being tempted — is he for real? He appears to be the ideal British hero (like Haggard’s Quatermain amongst superstitious Africans) taking suavity and civilisation to some slightly benighted Middle Europeans — they’re Catholics, for heaven’s sake! And Hope the son of an Anglican vicar!
And yet there are indications that Hope has his tongue lodged in his cheek for much of the time. For example, he is aware of sexist attitudes (his sister-in-law has “a want of logic” that must have been peculiar to herself “since we are no longer allowed to lay it to the charge of her sex”) and yet he later casually includes the outrageous statement that “Women are careless, forgetful creatures” — is this Rassendyll or the author speaking? In the guise of the king Rassendyll is the ultimate in tact, able to use dissembling language when required but agonising over lying to those he holds in high regard; on the other hand he has a poor opinion of the intelligence-gathering of diplomats, whom he suggests are “somewhat expensive luxuries” — is this representative of the well-educated barrister’s beliefs? He stood as a Liberal candidate, though never elected, and it’s possible his description of this fictional despotic European country was his way of criticising right-wing attitudes in his own country. He seems aware enough of European politics to sense that social conflict was always rumbling below the surface, and may have had the Bohemian castle of Konopiště in mind for Zenda, a castle owned by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination was to precipitate the Great War twenty years after this novel was published.
Finally, the word ‘Ruritania’ has come to indicate a small, almost ridiculous European country. Hope may have intended an etymology based on the term ‘rural’, indicating not just something to do with the countryside but also something backward and conservative. I also wondered at the hero’s family name, Rassendyll, which looks vaguely German (rassen means ‘racial’) though ‘dyll’ foxes me: I can only find the Albanian word dyll, meaning ‘wax’ — something malleable, perhaps?. But, in view of his russet hair I wondered if the first element was more related to Latin russus, ‘reddish’.
But here I am getting a bit serious about something which is meant to be a bit of escapist fun — a game that I’ll leave to more serious game-players.