Saturday, August 16, 2014

Returning to Ruritania

Rupert of Hentzau, Anthony Hope

I enjoyed The Prisoner of Zenda from start to finish, so when I learned there was a sequel, I immediately added it to my reading list.  Where the first book is narrated by Rudolf Rassendyll, this book is "From the Memoirs of Fritz von Tarlenheim."  Fritz, a count and an army officer, together with Colonel Sapt, helped Rassendyll impersonate the King of Ruritania while the real king was held prisoner by his wicked cousin, Duke Michael of Streslau.  In the course of their adventures, Rassendyll fell in love with the king's beautiful fiancĂ©e Flavia, and she with him, but they nobly renounced their love for the country's good.

I was very frustrated when the introduction to my Oxford World's Classic edition of The Prisoner included a major spoiler about this book - though as it turns out, the information wasn't quite accurate.  This post will also have some spoilers, but at least I am warning you ahead of time!

Michael's right-hand man in all his schemes was Rupert of Hentzau, young, handsome, wicked and impudent. In one of my favorite lines, Rassendyll told him at one point, "Surely, while you're above ground, hell wants its master!" Rupert escaped the failure of Michael's plots, fleeing Ruritania.  For the past three years, he has been roaming Europe, his lands and income attainted, "making a living by his wits."  But now he wants to return home.  Thanks to Queen Flavia, he thinks he has found the means.  Every year, the Queen sends Rudolf Rassendyll a single red rose and a message of three words.  Fritz von Tarlenheim carries these to him, and carries back his three-word response.  If Rupert can intercept the messenger and seize the evidence, he can use the Queen's indiscretion to force the King to allow his return.  Unbeknownst to him, this year Fritz is carrying something even more dangerous: a love letter from the Queen, which also tells her lover that this is the last message she will send.

On the way to meet Rassendyll at Wintenberg, Fritz is decoyed and attacked.  Rupert robs him of the letter and the rose, and then sets off for Ruritania.  Rassendyll, who was waiting for Fritz in Wintenberg, learns of this and sets off himself, in pursuit.  He arrives at Zenda, where the King and Queen are staying, to ask wise old Colonel Sapt for help.  Meanwhile, Rupert goes to ground in the capital city of Streslau, waiting for his chance.

I have to say, I did not enjoy this book as much as The Prisoner.  I know I was supposed to sympathize with Queen Flavia, trapped in marriage to a weak and petulant King, consoling herself with her love for Rudolf Rassendyll.  Everyone around her who is in on her secret indulges her in this emotional wallowing, even though, as she admits more than once, she knows it is wrong.  She also has to know how dangerous it is to write that letter, but she does it anyway, and all the trouble flows from that.  I thought she was a much stronger character in the first book.  Here she is a weak woman, at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, who has to be rescued from the consequences of her actions, at considerable cost.**  And she weeps, a lot.

On the other hand, for a book called Rupert of Hentzau, we don't see much of the villain.  People talk about him constantly, and his actions are reported in detail, but he is absent for much of the book.  I think the story could have used more of his wicked energy.  And I must say that the Rudolf Rassendyll of this book, as seen through Fritz's eyes, while noble and heroic and manly, is a bit flat compared to the Rudolf who tells his own story in The Prisoner.  He has become The Hero, but he has a lot less fun doing it - probably because he has to keep consoling Queen Flavia.

I was lucky enough to find a 1916 edition of this book on-line.  It has the original Charles Dana Gibson illustrations, which are charming.  He certainly makes Rudolf Rassendyll look the hero!  I have also downloaded two of Anthony Hope's other books, not set in Ruritania: The Heart of Princess Osra, and Sophy of Kravonia.  From the titles alone, I am anticipating more High Romance - hopefully with less weeping.


**Final, major spoilers:
The death toll includes the King, Rudolf Rassendyll, Rupert, and a servant.  With the King's death, Flavia becomes Queen in her own right, as the King's cousin and next heir (they had no children).  She then apparently turns into Queen Victoria after Prince Albert's death: "[Her] only joy is to talk of Mr. Rassendyll with those few who knew him, her only hope that she may some day be with him again."  At that point I really wanted to Cher-smack her.

6 comments:

  1. I agree that it doesn't stick with one like the first book - and all that Must Die For Silly Woman As It's My Moral Duty, etc. A bit too Four White Feathers for me. "Cher-smacking"... perfect!

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  2. Oh, I remember loving these books as a teenager. One of the things I hoped I would have time to do when I retired was to re-read novels like this but somehow I just don't seem to have the time I thought I would. Perhaps this winter I should make a concerted effort.

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  3. I enjoyed the first book too, but still haven't got round to this one yet. I've only read the beginning of your post but will come back to read the rest later after I've actually read the book!

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  4. vicki, Moonstruck was just on TV the other night, so the Cher-smacking is fresh in my mind :)

    Alex, when I think of retirement, it's in terms of how much time I'll have to read! But I find myself re-reading much less these days.

    Helen, I know we agree on spoilers even for older classics like this. I remember that you enjoyed The Prisoner.

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  5. Oh gosh, I keep forgetting this book exists! I think I maybe possibly read it many years ago, right after I first read The Prisoner of Zenda, but I don't remember any of the plot details you're describing. I'm well overdue for a reread!

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  6. Jenny, I'd never heard of this book before I read The Prisoner, and now I'm discovering that Anthony Hope wrote masses of books! And one more set in Ruritania, though apparently not related to these two.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!