208 pages, Penguin
Review by Hereward L. M. Proops
When Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond there was a monumental outcry from die-hard 007 fans that a blonde-haired man couldn't and shouldn't portray the famous secret agent. Thankfully, Craig's brilliant performance silenced the naysayers, but can you imagine the fuss if the film-makers had cast a ginger man in the lead role? Come to think of it, I can't think of a time when I've seen or heard of a “strawberry-blonde” gentleman portray a heroic central character. Redheads, it seems, are not our stereotypical heroes. Readers and cinema-goers would rather their heroes to be dark haired and swarthy rather than flame-haired and freckled.
Victorian author Anthony Hope is the only writer I can think of who has tried to address the sensitive subject of gingerism. In his 1894 adventure novel, Hope's central character is carrot-topped Rudolf Rassendyll. Born into a wealthy family, Rudolf is feckless, idle and utterly charming. Whilst his older brother has inherited the family peerage, Rudolf has plenty of money but little ambition. To avoid his nagging sister-in-law, he decides to take a European vacation and finds himself in the small European country of Ruritania shortly before the new king's coronation. Rudolf cheerfully explains to the readers in the first chapter that his family has some potentially embarrassing skeletons in the closet regarding the Ruritanian royal family and it is for this reason that he has inherited the Elphberg's red hair and freckles.
Taking a wander through the Ruritanian forests on his way to the capital, Rudolf finds himself in the company of the new king and his entourage. Everyone is staggered by the similarity between Rassendyll and the prospective king and they spend a jolly night of drinking and carousing to celebrate. However, Black Michael, the king's evil half-brother (who, of course, has designs on the throne), drugs the king and Rudolf is persuaded to stand in for the unconscious monarch on the day of the coronation. Although this was intended to be a one-off event, the real king is then taken prisoner and Rudolf is obliged to continue the deception whilst the king's loyal followers try to figure out a way to free the real king from the clutches of the duplicitous Black Michael.
As if impersonating the king of an Eastern European country wasn't troublesome enough, poor old Rudolf then proceeds to fall head over heels in love with the king's betrothed, the beautiful Princess Flavia. Forced to court her in order to keep up appearances, Rudolf becomes torn between his duty to the imprisoned king and his own desires. To top it all, Black Michael has a handful of villainous henchmen at his disposal, the most wicked of whom is the deadly, utterly amoral and totally hilarious Rupert of Hentzau. Rassendyll has to contend with these would-be assassins without revealing his true identity and figure out a way to set the king free from Black Michael's castle in the small town of Zenda. Who said European holidays were relaxing?
With modern cynicism, one can question Rassendyll's actions throughout the novel. Black Michael is actually far more popular with the majority of the populace of Ruritania whereas his half-brother, the king, is known to be a bit of a cold fish when it comes to pressing the flesh of the commoners. The king is also a pretty heavy drinker and we learn that he isn't always the most romantic of suitors when it comes to wooing Flavia. In fact, one wonders why Rudolf would actually side with the dry, stuffy aristocrats when Black Michael and his cronies are having such fun. By ignoring the plight of the real monarch, Rudolf has the opportunity to remain as king and marry the woman of his dreams but instead he risks life and limb all in the name of heroism and (painful, brainless) honesty. Still, when reading adventure stories such as this, one has to put aside conventional logic and just enjoy the book for what it is.
“The Prisoner of Zenda” is a great example of a Victorian adventure story. It's got a bit of everything... drama, comedy, romance, swashbuckling action. It might not be the best-written novel of the nineteenth century or the most intelligent, but it is highly entertaining and laid the foundations for countless imitators. Indeed, the legacy of this relatively short and lightweight novel should not be underestimated. The fictional setting of Ruritania influenced a whole sub-genre of fiction - the Ruritanian romance, without which the Marx Brothers might never have visited Freedonia in “Duck Soup” and Tintin might never have gotten involved with the long running squabble between Syldavia and Borduria. The novel has been adapted dozens of times for stage, television, radio and the big screen (although the last cinematic outing was a comic version starring Peter Sellers way back in 1979), and has been spoofed, parodied and referenced by countless other writers.
Four years after the success of “The Prisoner of Zenda”, Anthony Hope published a sequel, “Rupert of Hentzau”. I haven't gotten round to reading this yet but the title gives me high expectations. Dastardly Rupert is one of the most interesting characters in the first novel, yet he is somewhat sidelined due to his role as a henchman. I'm looking forward to seeing how Hope developed the character in the sequel. Needless to say, I'll be returning to Ruritania very soon.
Hereward L. M. Proops