The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
I have lost my heart to Rudolf Rassendyll.
Ever since I saw part of the 1937 film on TV some months ago, the one starring Ronald Colman, I've been wanting to read this book. I guess I was just in the mood for swashbuckling adventure and High Romance, and nothing could be better for that than The Prisoner of Zenda. Originally published in 1894, according to my Oxford World's Classics edition, it put the fictional Central European country of Ruritania on our collective cultural map, and "It set the style of romantic adventure novels for at least thirty years after its publication." Or perhaps even longer; Wesley and Buttercup, Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen, and of course Inigo Montoya would have felt right at home in Ruritania.
I won't go into too much detail about the plot, which I'm sure is familiar to many people either from the book or the various film versions (there was also apparently a musical version at one point). Unlike the version I saw, though, the book introduces us to Rudolf in his family circle, at breakfast with his sister-in-law Rose, Lady Burlesdon. She objects to his idle life as a younger son with an independent income, alluding to an undesirable strain in the family. Rudolf then explains to us that both his red hair and prominent nose are reminders of a family scandal. In the reign of King George II, a prince of Ruritania named Rudolf, whose red hair and prominent nose marked him as an Elphberg of the Royal House of Ruritania, spent several months in England. His visit ended rather abruptly after he fought a duel with the 5th Lord Burleson, whose countess later bore a son with red hair and a prominent nose. Ever since then, the hair and the nose show themselves regularly in the Rassendyll family. But our Rudolf doesn't yet know how much he resembles the Elphberg who now holds the throne, who also shares his name.
On a whim, our Rudolf decides to visit Ruritania, where preparations for the coronation of the king are being rushed to completion. There are rumblings against His Majesty, from those who would prefer to see his half-brother Michael crowned in his place. Michael, the Duke of Streslau, is the son of a morganatic marriage, and thus not of the Blood Royal, a point underlined by his black hair. Yet his popularity - or his intrigues - could carry him to the throne, and marriage with their cousin the Princess Flavia would strengthen his hold on it. Our Rudolf, wandering around the countryside around the Duke's demesne of Zenda the day before the coronation, tumbles headlong into the intrigues. He finds himself constrained to play a part in them, in the course of which he proves himself a perfect knight and "the finest Elphberg of them all." Along the way, we get "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge . . . chases, escapes, true love, miracles," though sadly no Rodents of Unusual Size (unless you count Michael and his henchmen).
I do have a soft spot for one of those henchman, the wickedly impudent Rupert of Hentzau. At one point our Rudolf tells him, "Surely, while you're above ground, hell wants its master!" I am already looking forward to the sequel, named after this hellion. However, I am thinking of writing a strongly-worded letter of complaint to Tony Watkins, who edited my OWC version, for giving away the entire plot of Rupert of Hentzau in his introduction - without even a spoiler warning. (He could take a lesson from the editor of my Penguin Vanity Fair, who suggested reading his introduction as an afterword, to avoid learning too much about the story.) In addition to Rupert, I've found The Heart of Princess Osra via Google Books, and I'm looking forward to spending more time in Ruritania.