The Prisoner of Zenda (1894): Anthony Hope


It’s high time for another swashbuckler, as a busy period looms at work. This time the book in question is a much-loved classic which I should really have read years ago. First published in 1894 (my copy was given to ‘Gladys W. Silva from Dorothy & Jack, Xmas 1895’), this wonderful romp hasn’t aged nearly as much as you might expect. It’s a deliciously fast-paced tale of disguise, secret identities, wicked plots, noble heroes and dastardly villains. Like Scaramouche, this was something that I finally decided to try when I saw that Helen had been reading it (I have to thank Helen for a lot of swashbuckling goodness). That was a full year ago, which gives you some idea of how easily I’m distracted where books are concerned. However, good things come to those who wait…

An amiable waster, Rudolf Rassendyll promises his sister-in-law that he will finally make something of his life and join the diplomatic service. Before he signs his future away, he decides on one last jolly: a trip to the Central European kingdom of Ruritania, whose royal house has a scandalous adulterous connection with Rudolf’s own family. The genes have forced their way out in Rudolf, who has the dubious honour of being the one Rassendyll in his generation to bear the red hair and long nose of the Ruritanian royals. At first he sees this as a bit of a lark, but he has barely set foot in Ruritania (having told his disapproving brother that he’s off to the Tyrol) before Rudolf comes to realise that this jaunt has the potential to turn into something much more serious.

An accidental meeting with Ruritania’s king, also called Rudolf, is like looking into a mirror. The two Rudolfs are the spitting image of one another. And when the young king is drugged on the eve of his coronation by his cunning and ambitious half-brother, Duke Michael, Rudolf Rassendyll finds himself drawn into a dangerous charade. The king’s loyal servants fear that if he doesn’t turn up for his own coronation, then Black Michael might well take the chance to seize the throne. It is vital that the Duke’s wicked ambitions are thwarted, but where can they find someone who will stand in for the king? (I’ll give you one guess. Have you guessed yet?) But worse is to come. Rudolf believes that his role as understudy will last only as long as the coronation celebrations, but when he and the loyal officer Sapt return to the king, they find that he has vanished – captured by none other than the wicked Duke himself. As the king languishes a prisoner in Black Michael’s castle at Zenda, Rudolf and his new friends must come up with a plan to rescue him. To succeed, they must face the added danger of Black Michael’s most loyal henchmen: the formidable Six, among whom is the fearless and dashing young villain Rupert of Hentzau. And, the longer Rudolf remains in his role as the king, the harder it will be for him to leave it – and to set aside the attentions of the king’s beautiful cousin, the Princess Flavia.

Ah yes, this is good fun. It has an archaic charm with its Boys’ Own spirit, but it also manages to be rather modern in its thoroughly tongue-in-cheek approach to the story. It brims with brio, panache, sprezzatura and other similar qualities. You won’t find yourself lingering over beautiful passages of description and sensitively observed characterisation, but trust me: you’ll be enjoying yourself far too much to even think of such things. Rudolf himself is a very appealing narrator: self-confident and fully aware of the fine figure he cuts, relishing every aspect of his unexpected adventure. In brief, the whole thing smacks of a Hollywood matinee, with people racing around on horses, swooning in one another’s arms, setting up moonlit rendezvous and diving from windows into moats. The only thing it lacked was someone swinging on a chandelier, but I haven’t quite given up hope – there is a sequel, after all, Rupert of Hentzau, and if anyone is the type to swing on chandeliers it’s Rupert.

Of course I loved it. I’m even more delighted to see that a film version was made starring Douglas Fairbanks – not as Rudolf, interestingly, but as Rupert. I think this will have to be seen.

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5 thoughts on “The Prisoner of Zenda (1894): Anthony Hope

  1. Helen says:

    I'm so glad you enjoyed this…I had a feeling you probably would! I thought it was fun, though not as satisfying as Scaramouche.

    You've reminded me that I still haven't read Rupert of Hentzau!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    You know, after some consideration of that question, I think I actually prefer this to “Scaramouche” (maybe I just prefer whichever I've read most recently!). Let us hope that “Rupert of Hentzau” will be just as delicious to read – and if there isn't a chandelier scene in that book I will be *seriously* disappointed…

    You might have to hold off on Rupert for a while though, perhaps? – surely reading about him *and* Lymond at the same time would just be a bit too much to handle even for the most experienced reader of swashbucklers? 😀

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