The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – This edition isn’t out yet in the US but can be pre-ordered here

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

~The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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….Through the window of the bar parlour the short red face of Mr. Clark could be seen peering after the lorry. It carried some country policeman in uniform. As near the pond as it could get, it stopped. The policemen clambered down and hauled out a cumbrous apparatus of iron and rope.
….The Chief Constable strode up to the pond. “It’s not so big, Mr. Fortune. We’ll soon make sure one way or the other.”
….“Yes, yes.” Reggie walked around the bank and measured distances with his eye. “We’re going to make quite sure. They couldn’t throw him further than this. Begin from here and work towards that end.”
….The drags were put in and the constabulary hauled and the black water grew turbid and yellow. The ropes strained. “Got something,” the Chief Constable grunted. “Go steady, lads.” Out of the depths of the pond into the shallows came a shapeless mass of cloth. Policemen splashed in and lifted on to the bank something that had been a man.

~The Football Photograph by HC Bailey, in Settling Scores

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….“We want a cheap loaf, cheap bread and provisions cheaper!”
….From the back came a song, quiet at first then louder as we all joined in.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common off the goose.

….All of us singing. I hadn’t known the words before I went in, but they were fixed pretty straight by the time I came out.
….I crossed the street, humming the tune and the thought of a good roast goose dinner in my head. I’d have it with sausages or a thick slice of bacon. I didn’t mind. Bacon. My tummy near collapsed at the thought. And peas. All the peas I could eat.
….It was punishing to think of.
….All the singing in the world couldn’t hide a thing. I was hard hungry. And I was no nearer to being fed.

~The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

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….When he writes of the siege of St Andrews Castle Knox can be pacily exciting, but here his tone is warmly hagiographical. He dramatizes Wishart’s words effortlessly. Knox’s plain prose is quickened by biblical phrasings, spiced by local and temporal details like the dyke at the edge of the moor and the pleasant sunshine. In such vignettes Knox writes like a proto-novelist. His wish to manipulate history seems to prepare the soil for the historical novel which would take strong root in Scotland centuries later in the age of Walter Scott. Elsewhere, as Knox delights in flourishing long transcripts of his own arguments and speeches, the reader is soon wearied by his hectoring egotism and realizes that for this man a three-hour sermon might have been on the short side.

~Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

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….At last we were at the cathedral. Its great grey front, embellished with hundreds of statues and boasting a pair of the finest oak doors in Europe, rose for the first time before me, and the sudden sense of my audacity almost overcame me. Everything was in a mist as I dismounted. I saw the Marshall and Sapt dimly, and dimly the throng of gorgeously robed priests who awaited me. And my eyes were still dim as I walked up the great nave, with the pealing of the organ in my ears. I saw nothing of the brilliant throng that filled it, I hardly distinguished the stately figure of the Cardinal as he rose from the archiepiscopal throne to greet me. Two faces only stood out side by side clearly before my eyes – the face of a girl, pale and lovely, surmounted by a crown of the glorious Elphberg hair (for in a woman it is glorious), and the face of a man, whose full-blooded red cheeks, black hair, and dark deep eyes told me that at last I was in presence of my brother, Black Michael. And when he saw me his red cheeks went pale all in a moment, and his helmet fell with a clatter on the floor. Till that moment, I believe that he had not realised that the king was in very truth come to Strelsau.

~The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 231…

Episode 231

I seem to be in  major reading slump this week and not one of the 213 (up one) books on the TBR is calling my name! I can only hope the postman has gone on holiday and doesn’t visit till I get back in the swing…

Here are a few that hopefully will tempt me soon…

Lit-Crit

Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

I bought this ages ago in one of my periodic fits of feeling I ought to know my own literary heritage better. I assumed, wrongly, that it would be one of these list-style books, like 1001 Books Before You Die, etc. It turned out to be a hefty tome full of essays on various aspects of Scottish literature. Not what I was looking for at the time, so it has lain neglected on my shelves ever since. Time to bite the bullet and see if I can struggle through it… and maybe even learn something! 

The Blurb says: From Treasure Island to Trainspotting, Scotland’s rich literary tradition has influenced writing across centuries and cultures far beyond its borders. Here, for the first time, is a single volume presenting the glories of fifteen centuries of Scottish literature.

In Scotland’s Books poet Robert Crawford tells the story of Scottish writing and its relationship to the country’s history. Stretching from the medieval masterpiece of St Columba’s Iona – the earliest surviving Scottish work – to the imaginative, thriving world of twenty-first-century writing with authors such as Ali Smith and James Kelman, this outstanding collection traces the development of literature in Scotland and explores the cultural, linguistic and literary heritage of the nation. It includes extracts from the writing discussed to give a flavour of the original work, full quotations in their own language, previously unpublished works by authors and plenty of new research. Informative and readable, this is the definitive guide to the marvellous legacy of Scottish literature.

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Historical Fiction

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Courtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. This one caught my eye because I’ve just finished reading a history of the Yorks, so for once I actually know who Elizabeth of York is! Better read it quick before I forget again… 

The Blurb says: Elizabeth of York, her life already tainted by dishonour and tragedy, now queen to the first Tudor king, Henry the VII.

Joan Vaux, servant of the court, straining against marriage and motherhood and privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen. Like the ravens, Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.

Through Joan’s eyes, The Lady of the Ravens inhabits the squalid streets of Tudor London, the whispering walls of its most fearsome fortress and the glamorous court of a kingdom in crisis.

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Adventure

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. When I saw they were bringing out a new edition of this adventure story, I couldn’t resist! Who doesn’t need a bit of swashbuckling in their lives every now and then? Doesn’t it sound like fun?

The Blurb says: ‘If love were the only thing, I would follow you-in rags if need be … But is love the only thing?’

Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda is a swashbuckling adventure set in Ruritania, a mythical pocket kingdom. Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll closely resembles the King of Ruritania, and to foil a coup by his rival to the throne, he is persuaded to impersonate him for a day. However, Rassendyll’s role becomes more complicated when the real king is kidnapped, and he falls for the lovely Princess Flavia. Although the story is set in the near past, Ruritania is a semi-feudal land in which a strong sword arm can carry the day, and Rassendyll and his allies fight to rescue the king. But if he succeeds, our hero and Flavia will have to choose between love and honour.

As Nicholas Daly’s introduction outlines, this thrilling tale inspired not only stage and screen adaptations, but also place names, and even a popular board game. A whole new subgenre of ‘Ruritanian romances’ followed, though no imitation managed to capture the charm, exuberance, and sheer storytelling power of Hope’s classic tale.

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Fiction on Audio

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

I loved Graham Greene when I was young, but have been rather disappointed by a couple of his books I’ve read recently. This has left me scared to revisit the ones I adored. This is one I’ve never read before and is considered one of his best, so fingers crossed it will revive my love. It’s narrated by Samuel West.

The Blurb says: A gang war is raging through the dark underworld of Brighton. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie, malign and ruthless, has killed a man. Believing he can escape retribution, he is unprepared for the courageous, life-embracing Ida Arnold. Greene’s gripping thriller, exposes a world of loneliness and fear, of life lived on the ‘dangerous edge of things’.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?