It has been three years since the events of The Prisoner of Zenda and, although Black Michael has been defeated, a threat still hangs over the heads of our Ruritanian friends Colonel Sapt, Fritz von Tarlenheim, King Rudolf and the beautiful Queen Flavia. Michael’s nephew, the disgraced and devil-may-care scoundrel Rupert of Hentzau, is still at large somewhere in Europe. More to the point, he is one of the few people who knows about Rudolf Rassendyll’s impersonation of Rudolf I while the king was imprisoned at the castle of Zenda. Armed with this information, Rupert skulks in exile and waits for his chance to turn his knowledge to his advantage, but a greater secret soon falls into his lap.
Rudolf I has proven to be a weak and ineffective king; a pale shadow of a man, compared to his glamorous, courageous doppelganger. That’s disappointing enough for Sapt and Fritz and the king’s other loyal subjects, but it is worse for Flavia, who has sacrificed her own chance of personal happiness with Rudolf Rassendyll in order to serve her country by marrying her cousin the king. Tormented by thoughts of Rassendyll, she soon finds that it’s no longer enough to send the annual courtly gift of a rose: she needs something more personal.
Impulsively Flavia pours out her heart into a letter, which Fritz must carry to Rassendyll when they next meet. It is a moment of weakness which will have huge repercussions for all of them. Rupert, driven by his old enmity with Rassendyll, has discovered the nature of Fritz’s secret annual meetings and is resolved to unearth proof of the queen’s adulterous love. But when he attacks Fritz on a quiet country road, Rupert ends up with a prize far more dangerous than he had dared to dream. The rose is damning in itself, but the discovery of the letter offers Rupert the potential for mischief beyond his wildest imaginings. With one stroke he can discredit the queen and restore himself to favour in the king’s eyes.
As Rupert and his minions spur back to Ruritania, Rudolf Rassendyll finds himself once more drawn into high affairs. Determined to prevent the queen being compromised, by any means necessary, Rassendyll and his friends must once again enter into a desperate and secret war with Rupert of Hentzau, in which wits will be as important as pistols or swords.
Thus Rudolf Rassendyll set out again for the walls of Streslau, through the forest of Zenda. And ahead of him, with an hour’s start, galloped the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim, again a man, and a man with resolution, resentment, and revenge in his heart. The game was afoot now; who could tell the issue of it?
It’s all very Dumas, quite frankly: a band of loyal men driven to great deeds by a burning desire to preserve the reputation of their queen. The race against time is even more urgent in this novel than it was in The Prisoner of Zenda and so the story moves at a breakneck pace, full of plots and counterfeits, as Rupert and Rudolf feint and gradually draw together for their final, inevitable duel. (And that duel, when it finally comes, is with swords rather than pistols, of course: at this date even villains were gentlemen.) It’s all more of the same: a gloriously convoluted, Sunday-afternoon-matinee whirl of a book, and if you’ve read The Prisoner of Zenda you should certainly read this too. It’s less a sequel and more the second half of the story. And is it too much of a spoiler to say that the ending packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch? I was left quite shocked.
For all that, I don’t think this is quite as successful technically as The Prisoner of Zenda. Much of the charm in that book came from Rudolf Rassendyll’s narration and, as he was at the heart of all things, it worked very well. Here the narrative baton is passed to Fritz von Tarlenheim, who is probably the least appropriate narrator: he’s not only considerably less engaging than Rudolf, but he’s also invalided out of the action at a fairly early stage. He therefore ends up telling the story from an omniscient perspective, claiming that he found out all the details from those involved at a later stage – but it’s a clunky conceit. If Hope felt that Rudolf wasn’t an appropriate narrator (and I can understand why), why didn’t he just choose a third-person narration and be done with it?
And yet… and yet… We don’t read books like this for their technical perfection, but for their ability to sweep us away from our mundane lives and into romantic, old-fashioned worlds where queens are always beautiful and slightly tragic, the villains are charming (though by the end of this I was getting heartily tired of Rupert laughing all the time), and the heroes are all public-school types with stiff upper lips who can shoot, ride, handle a sword and charm ladies with equal facility. My only regret was that there was no chandelier-swinging scene. Otherwise, what’s not to like?