Wednesday, 3 May 2000

Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894)

Edition: Heron, 1970
Review number: 487

Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, the background of The Prisoner of Zenda has become part of our mythology. The term 'Ruritanian' has entered the English language; the novel has been copied, updated (Robert Heinlein's Double Star sets it on Mars) and parodied (George MacDonald Fraser's Royal Flash). It is immensely better written than The Scarlet Pimpernel and than most of the thrillers it inspired (of which the best are by John Buchan and Dornford Yates). Its plot is of course ludicrous, and its conception of politics is backward rather than forward looking. (This is deliberate; Hope also wrote relatively sophisticated political novels in imitation of Trollope.)

Rudolf Rassendyll, idle member of the English nobility, bears a remarkable resemblance to the king of the central European state of Ruritania, the legacy of an indiscretion between an earlier Ruritanian king and Rassendyll's great grandmother. Thinking to have a bit of fun by being present at his cousin's coronation, he sets out for the Ruritanian capital, Strelsau. He falls into the company of the king as he is hunting near Zenda, stronghold of the king's half brother Black Michael, but when Michael abducts the him, Rassendyll is pushed into impersonating the king at the coronation.

Hope tells his implausible tale at breakneck speed, as Rassendyll gets dragged into his impersonation. Using fewer than one hundred and fifty pages, there is little room for anything beyond description of events and characterisation of the narrator, Rassendyll himself. Occasionally, things become a trifle confused (the attack on the castle of Zenda at the end), but this is actually made a positive feature, emphasising just how much events have got out of control.

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