OK, first off, I need to start this post with a confession.
I found out about the Prisoner of Zenda from a comment on this blog. Yes, up until a few months ago I had never heard of it. I don’t know how I (historical literature obsessed freak that I am) managed to miss it. It’s had eight film adaptions after all, launched an entire literary genre (the Ruritanian romance) and added the term ‘Ruritanian’ to our language!
Once I realised the dreadful gap in my literary knowledge, I was determined to fix it. No luck at the Wellington Public Library, no luck in any bookstore I popped in to in NZ. And then, in a secondhand bookstore just down the street from ThreadDen in Melbourne – success! And, best of all, it was the only book in the shop that wasn’t Au$20 (really, I thought that books were exorbitantly expensive in NZ, but Oz is even worse!).
So, here is my copy of The Prisoner of Zenda, read from cover to cover on the flight back from Melbourne to Wellington (in between writing blog posts and watching The Big Bang Theory).
It’s a British 1945 edition, published while wartime restrictions were still in effect.
Right. The actual review!
The Prisoner of Zenda isn’t high literature: it’s frothy escapism, late Victorian style. Its value today lies in its influence on late Victorian literature, and the way its popularity reflects the mores and desires of the time.
The Prisoner is a fantasy set in what might be called an alternative universe – late 19th century Europe just as it was, with the addition of one extra country: Ruritania, with its old fashioned monarchy, and a peculiar dependence on swordsmanship, though they clearly know what guns are. To Ruritania comes one Rudolf Rassendyl, a Englishman whose appearance causes some consternation among the populace – more even than his knowledge that his looks reflect an ancestresses dalliance with a king of Ruritanian should account for. His appearance on the eve of the coronation of a new king intertwines with kidnappings, crownings, romance, intrigue, sieges, and the inevitable swordfights.
Late Victorian it may be, but the writing feels very modern. It’s an easy read: fast paced, lively, descriptive without being over-wrought. The novel is set at a date roughly contemporaneous to its writing (1890s) but it might have been written in the 1940s, or the 1970s.
The plot is farfetched, laughable, fabulous, and launched a whole series of books set in fictional European countries featuring royal intrigues, mistaken identities, swashbuckling, honour, loyalty, the now-cliche good-and-evil twins, and unrequited love. Everything Hollywood could desire for dozens of film adaptions featuring daring swordfights and great costumes!
OK, the swashbuckling makes for great movie scenes, and fun reading, but in a way it’s the one really weak link in the book. The Prisoner is fantasy, but imagining Victorian gentlemen as accomplished swordsmen, thirsting for blood, is just ludicrous.
Funny it may be in a modern sense, looking back at the end of the 19th century, its probably one of the the things that made the books so popular at the time. It also gives the most revealing insight into the Late Victorian mindset.
Our hero is romantic, sentimental, stalwart, stoic, valiant, ruthless, not by turns, but all at the same time! The combination of strict adherence to honour at the cost of personal happiness and macho derring-do is a (perhaps unwitting) representation of the pull between the 19th century and the 20th century, between historicism and modernism, as the turn-of-the-century hero tries to cram it all in.
Or perhaps its just a silly but entertaining novel with a charming but completely unbelievable hero.