Monday 24 December 2012

The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda was published in 1894. It is Anthony Hope's most famous work, but he was much more prolific than is generally known, having written more than 30 books during his career. I'd certainly heard of this very famous book, without knowing all that much about it.

I feel rather victorious having finished this book. It was a battle to the death, much like those within the story, and I won. Sadly, I can't say that I enjoyed this book all that much. Like all classics, I am glad to have read it though. There was something about the prose that made it quite impenetrable for me. I had to start the first chapter three times before I got through it. I was distracted by non-reading life that week, but still. The very early part of the story I found a bit confusing- too many Rudolfs and Ruperts perhaps?

Our "hero" is a rather lazy 29 year old layabout called Rudolf Rassendyll, who has "two thousand pounds a year and a roving disposition". His sister in law is urging him to take on a diplomatic post as an attache. Young Rudolf does commit in a fashion to taking this position in six months time if "no unforseen obstacle has arisen". He decides to fill this six months with a visit to Ruritania, a fictional German speaking country in Central Europe, despite the longstanding Rassendyll tendency to avoid it. The Rassendyll's were actually descended from the royal line of Ruritania due to the dalliance of a visiting Ruritanian Prince in 1733. Rudolf Rassendyll has the red hair and long noses that mark the House of Elphberg.

When the action got going I did find it reminiscent of The Three Musketeers at times. All that swashbuckling action (although not quite as much hard drinking, and womanising as our favourite musketeers).

'But what? -we're eating dry! Wine, Josef! Wine, man! Are we beasts, to eat without drinking? Are we cattle, Josef?'

I stripped off my boots, took a pull at a flask of brandy, loosened the knife in its sheath, and took the cudgel between my teeth. 

The whole premise of mistaken identity I found rather Shakespearean. I'm not clever enough to remember which plays, but I know I've seen a couple of his comedies where mistaken identity was the central plot feature. Hope himself was apparently aware of this connection. In the introduction to my Everyman edition it says that Hope had been thinking about a story of mistaken identity in 1893 and then he walked past two men one day who looked uncannily alike.

The Prisoner of Zenda actually spawned a whole Ruritanian romance genre! It was a phenomenal success on both sides of the Atlantic, so much so that lawyer Hope gave up his day job, and became a household name. The Prisoner of Zenda became a schoolbook in Egypt and serialized in Japan, turned into a play, and there have been at least 5 movie versions- 4 of these before 1952. I don't think I've ever seen a movie version- I'll have to seek one out at some stage.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I liked it a lot. It struck me as funny. Here you have this idle young man who sets off for a foreign country on a lark and ends up as the ruler!

skiourophile said...

I have seen a very camp B&W version. It is a cinematic book. He's a proper Englishman, isn't he - gives up everything for his honour. ;-)