Nicholas Daly, “Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (April, 1894) and the Rise of Ruritanian Fiction”


Anthony Hope’s bestseller of 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda, inspired a subgenre of adventure romances set in imaginary, semi-feudal European countries, of which Ruritania is the original. English and later American protagonists stumble into plot-driven narratives that usually feature some combination of schemes against the throne, doubles or mistaken identities, swordplay, and love at first sight. Since the 1890s, Ruritanian backdrops have been reworked for a variety of purposes, from Balkan spy novels, to interwar operetta, to Cold War satires, in such fictional territories as Ixania, Krasnia, and Grand Fenwick.

The imaginary setting of Ruritania takes shape in the late–nineteenth-century imagination as a realm of romance and swashbuckling, a space for old-fashioned adventure in a modernizing world. The location of this semi-feudal territory is always a little vague, shifting from map iconGermany in the 1890s, to the Balkans in the early-twentieth century, to the French Alps in the 1950s.[1] Ruritania made its debut in Hope’s fast-paced bestseller of 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda, which creates a blueprint for dozens of similar narratives.[2] An idle English gentleman, Rudolf Rassendyll, visits Ruritania, a small, German-speaking, mittel-European state, where he becomes caught up in political scheming and falls in love with the lovely princess Flavia. He saves the day first by impersonating the abducted King (a very distant relation) for the coronation ceremony, and then by rescuing him from the Castle of Zenda. Ultimately Rassendyll and the princess must part, and he returns to private life in England. Much of the entertainment takes the form of clashes between the ever-resourceful Rassendyll and the henchmen of the King’s half-brother and arch-enemy, Black Michael.[3] The most impressive of these villains is the devil-may-care Rupert of Hentzau, who returns as a thorn in the Ruritanian side in Rupert of Hentzau (1898). Although the novel is set in the recent past, swordplay is more common than gunplay, adding to the curiously timeless, or more accurately heterochronic atmosphere, in which different time periods seem to coexist. The Times admired the way Hope “interpolates a medieval romance in the civilization of the nineteenth century,” creating in the process a “singular mixture of epochs “: “no tale of adventure in far-off, mysterious countries surpasses the strange excitements [of] this story of the three months spent by an English gentleman in the petty kingdom of Ruritania, in Germany” (“Recent Novels”). The Pall Mall Gazette likewise noted that the hero is a “modern young man … yet the adventures which befall him would put those of ‘Arthur’s Knights’ into the shade” (“Reviews: Two Novels”). Indices of the popular success of the novel include parodies and even a game. For instance, Bret Harte’s parody, “Rupert the Resembler, by A-Th –Y H-pe,” appeared in his popular Condensed Novels: New Burlesques (1902), and Parker Brothers produced a board game, The Prisoner of Zenda (1896), in which players competed for military advantage on a stylized map of Ruritania.

Frontispiece to Anthony Hope’s fast-paced besteller

As reviewers suggested, Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda is a patchwork of earlier material. Its swashbuckling aspect originated with such romans de cape et d’épée as Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers (1844); and the model for its colorful German principality probably include Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto (1885), set in tiny Grünewald, and perhaps even Jacques Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), the first of many operettas with Ruritanian settings. Hope’s tale appeared as part of a more general sea-change in late-Victorian fiction that saw the adventure romance vie with the domestic novel for popularity. This shift was a question of changing literary tastes, but it was also a question of gender politics. The work of such writers as Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weyman, and others offered visions of heroic masculinity and yielding femininity that were very different from those depicted in contemporary “New Woman” fiction, in the naturalist novel, or in the “problem plays” that followed in the wake of Ibsen’s success. Andrew Lang, for instance, in an attack on “New Woman” writers Sarah Grand and “Iota” suggested that readers would do better to turn to Hope and others who represented “the good old tendency to love a plain tale of adventure, of honest loves and fair fighting” (“Tendencies” 160). Ruritania was at least in part, then, a backward-looking, imaginary heterotopia for Britain, and an antidote to the supposedly hysterical strains of modern literature that Max Nordau had attacked in Entartung (1892; translated as Degeneration in 1895).[4] The novel’s celebration of an heroic English spirit was also, of course, consonant with the imperial and jingoist tendencies of the period (Dawson, Deane, Kestner 153-58).

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books whose success was tightly bound up with its adaptation for the stage (Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel is another from this period). Edward Rose’s four-act treatment kept fairly close to the text, while adding a prologue in which we encounter King Rudolf’s ancestor on a London visit, and witness a stage duel. (Thus the lead actor actually plays three roles: Rudolf Rassendyll; Rudolf III, and Rudolf V.) In London at the map iconSt. James’s Theatre, the actor-manager George Alexander transformed Rose’s Zenda into a lavish romantic spectacle, and turned himself into a matinée idol in the triple part. The St. James’s had long been a venue for the more progressive end of British theatre, including such plays as Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (May 27, 1893); in 1895 Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest had premiered there, before the first of Wilde’s three trials. We can, in fact, observe an interesting cultural shift taking place in January 1896, as George Alexander, the former Jack Worthing/Ernest, becomes Rudolf Rassendyll/Prince Rudolf/Rudolf V. While both plays depend on confusions over identity, the subversive playfulness of Earnest was out; the more “traditional” heroic masculinity of romantic melodrama was in. This turned out to be a profitable change of direction, with Alexander making some £18,000 from the Zenda production. When the St. James’s was refurbished in 1900 its new telegraphic address was “Ruritania” as a tribute to the play that paid for the lavish remodeling (Duncan 256). On the other side of the Atlantic, the stage impresario Daniel Frohman acquired the rights, and The Prisoner of Zenda opened in map iconNew York on 4 September 1895. With first E.H. Sothern and then the athletic James K. Hackett in the lead, it became a lucrative stage swashbuckler, and toured the country for years. Hackett, in particular, became identified with the triple part, rather as James O’Neill, father of playwright Eugene O’Neill, was forever the Count of Monte Cristo. Hackett’s dashing performance in Zenda and similar fare played no small part in the rise of the swashbuckler as hero: sword in hand “he first showed that the up-to-date hero must needs be able to exterminate a dozen enemies alone and single-handed” (“Extravagant Heroics”).[5] As with the novel, some critics saw this strain of melodrama as a healthy trend: “on the stage, as in the literary world, there is at present a great revulsion from the problem plays and problem stories of the past ten years towards a fresh and healthy romanticism” (“Music and Drama” 3).

Ruritania moved fairly seamlessly from stage to screen. Hackett’s performance in The Prisoner of Zenda was embalmed for all time in 1913, when cinema impresario Adolph Zukor of the Famous Players Film Company persuaded the ageing star to reprise his performance for the very first five-reel U.S. motion picture (Zukor 70-76, 82-85). A British version with Henry Ainley in the lead followed in 1915, but the most lavish of the silent-era films is Rex Ingram’s stylish production, which starred Lewis Stone as Rudolf, Alice Terry (Mrs Ingram) as Flavia, and Ramon Novarro as the wonderfully wicked Rupert of Hentzau. Sound-era versions have included the 1937 Prisoner of Zenda, which featured Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll; a 1952 adaptation, which is essentially a color remake of the previous film, with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr; and a 1979 comedy, featuring Peter Sellers and Lynne Frederick. There has been no significant film version since then.

Apart from adaptations, The Prisoner of Zenda has also inspired countless imitations. Dozens of novels in the Ruritanian vein were published in the 1890s and early twentieth century. In Britain these included Sydney C. Grier’s An Uncrowned King, Samuel Gordon’s The Queen’s Quandary (1903), Percy Brebner’s Princess Maritza (1906), and Louis Tracy’s A Son of the Immortals (1912). In the U.S. there appeared Richard Harding Davis’s The Princess Aline (1895); Harold McGrath’s Arms and the Woman (1899) and The Puppet Crown (1901); and, most successfully, George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark series (1901-27).[6] Ruritanian romances on the London stage included A.N. Homer’s Count Tezma (1901), Sydney Grundy’s The Garden of Lies (1905); and James Bernard Fagan’s Hawthorne, U.S.A. (1905).[7] The term “Ruritanian romance” was in use by the early 1900s to describe the new subgenre, in which protagonists found themselves happily ensnared in political and romantic intrigues in such territories as Gerisau, Ehrenfelberstein, Hohenphalia, Montara, Grimland, Montalba, and Scarvania. [8] In the Academy of October, 1906, a reviewer calculated that there were by then “probably a hundred” novels of this type, and as a result the trope had “become stale,” but despite, or perhaps because of this familiarity, they continued to appear for years to come.[9]

Easily the most widely read of these copy-cat Ruritanias were McCutcheon’s six Graustark novels that thoroughly Americanized the plot: Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne (1901), Beverly of Graustark (1904), Truxton King: A Story of Graustark (1909), The Prince of Graustark (1914), East of the Setting Sun (1924), and a sort of prequel, The Inn of the Hawk and the Raven (1927). In the first of these the wealthy but idle Grenfall Lorry falls in love at first sight with a mysterious young woman whom he meets aboard a train in the U.S., and follows her across Europe to the tiny country of Graustark. There he discovers that the lovely Miss Guggenslocker is really the beleaguered Princess Yetive, and he wins her hand by saving her from the machinations of her enemies. Beverly of Graustark revises the usual Ruritanian plot, placing a young American heroine at the centre of the action: the young outlaw who rescues her from danger on a visit to Graustark turns out to be really Prince Dantan of Dawsbergen, and they are eventually happily united. Subsequent novels take the history of Graustark as far as the 1920s, when the tiny country is menaced by socialists before another American hero saves the day. Once as well known as The Prisoner of Zenda, the series helped to make McCutcheon a wealthy man, with a collection of paintings by Millet and Corot, and a peerless library of first editions of Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. Adaptations ensured that the kingdom of Graustark was also known to many who had never read the books: these included multiple stage versions of the novels, and film versions of Graustark (1915 and 1925), The Prince of Graustark (1916), and Beverly of Graustark (1916 and 1926).

The original strain of Ruritanian fantasy became harder to sustain after the First World War, in part, as one reviewer noted in 1923 because “no kingdoms of Ruritania are left since the Great War, only republics without knee-breeches and gold lace”; but also, perhaps, because chivalrous heroes like Rudolf Rassendyll seemed out of place in the post-war world.[10] Nonetheless, variants continued to appear, and these more distant relations included the Ruritanian operettas of Ivor Novello (e.g., Glamorous Night [1935], set in Krasnia), and political thrillers such as John Buchan’s The House of the Four Winds (1935, Evallonia) and Eric Ambler’s Dark Frontier (1936, Ixania). After the Second World War Ruritanian principalities found a new use as the backdrops for Cold War comedies. Bob Hope’s Where There’s Life (1947) is an early instance, and others include the Ethel Merman musical Call Me Madam (1950; filmed 1953); Peter Ustinov’s play, Romanoff and Juliet (1956; filmed in 1961) and Carlton Browne of the F.O. (1959). These concern, respectively, Barovia, Lichtenburg, Concordia, and Gaillardia. Perhaps the most successful of the Cold War Ruritanias was the series of “Mouse” novels by the Irish writer Leonard Wibberley. The first, The Mouse that Roared was originally published as “The Day New York Was Invaded” in the Saturday Evening Post (December 1954 – January 1955) and introduced the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick which Wibberley uses to satirize post-war geopolitics and the arms race. Sequels covered, among other topical subjects, the space race, and the oil crisis. The Mouse that Roared was adapted for the screen in 1959, with Peter Sellers in multiple roles, and its sequel, The Mouse on the Moon (1962) in 1963.

That there has been no significant film or television version of The Prisoner of Zenda itself for more than thirty years may indicate that the original adventure formula really has become stale, and no longer performs the cultural work it once did. The name Ruritania now appears most often in legal, political and economic textbooks when an imaginary country is needed to map out a particular scenario, e.g., in a case study from a United Nations manual on the treatment of refugees: “Ruritania is a country whose population is 30 per cent Bulps, an ethnic minority, and the remainder ethnic Ruritanians”).[11] Elements of Hope’s Ruritanian fantasy do pop up from time to time, however, in different media. The 1993 screen comedy, Dave, for instance, republicanizes the impersonation plot with an American presidential lookalike. In a 2010 French bande dessinée, Son Altesse Honesty (Her Highness, Honesty), hero Wayne Shelton finds himself caught up in Ruritanian political intrigue, while his girlfriend, Honesty Goodness, stands in for the Grand Duchess of Würtenheim. And, perhaps most successfully, in Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries (2000), and its Disney adaptations (2001, 2004) an American teenager discovers that she is really the Princess of the tiny country of Genovia. There are echoes of Beverly of Graustark, but also an interesting difference: Beverly had to marry a European Prince to become a Princess; Mia simply is one.

published September 2017

Nicholas Daly is Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. His publications include Modernism, Romance, and the Fin de Siècle (1999), Literature, Technology and Modernity (2004), Sensation and Modernity in the 1860s (2009), and The Demographic Imagination and the Nineteenth-Century City: Paris, London, New York (2015). Currently he is completing a book on Ruritanian fiction, drama and film, from The Prisoner of Zenda to The Princess Diaries.


Daly, Nicholas. “Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (April, 1894) and the Rise of Ruritanian Fiction.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 2 October 2017.


Dawson, Graham. Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Deane, Bradley. Masculinity and the New Imperialism: Rewriting Manhood in British Popular Literature, 1870-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. Print.

Duncan, Barry. The St. James’s Theatre: Its Strange and Complete History. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1964. Print.

“Extravagant Heroics of New Stage Duels.” San Francisco Call 2 February 1902: 9. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984): 46-49. Print.

Goldsworthy, Vesna. Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination. 1998, reprinted Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Kestner, Joseph A. Masculinities in British Adventure Fiction, 1880-1915. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

Lang, Andrew. “Tendencies in Fiction.” North American Review 161.465 (Aug, 1895): 153-60. Print.

Milne, James. “A Regiment of New Novels.” The Graphic, Saturday, September 15, 1923, p.22. Print.

“Music and Drama.” Milwaukee Journal 1 September 1896: 3. Print.

“Recent Novels.” Times 21 May 1894: 7. Print.

“Reviews: Two Novels.” The Pall Mall Gazette 22 May 1894: 4. Print.

UNHCR Manual on Refugee Protection and the ECHR (2006), Part 3.1 – Case Study No. 1. UNHCR. Web. 29 Sept. 2017.

Wallace, Raymond. “Cardboard Kingdoms”. San José Studies 13/2 (Spring 1987): 23-34 (23-24). Print.

Zukor, Adolph. The Public is Never Wrong. New York: Putnam, 1953. Print.


[1] Vesna Goldsworthy argues that Ruritanian fiction is essentially an orientalist mode of writing about the map iconBalkans, but does not adequately explain the original German setting of Ruritania, and the subsequent variety of settings. Eastern European Ruritanias predominate only in the early twentieth century, roughly in line with the geopolitics of the period.

[2] Anthony Hope was the pen-name of Anthony Hope Hawkins, a Balliol-educated barrister, with a strong interest in Liberal politics. The success of The Prisoner of Zenda led him to become a full-time writer, though he also ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal Member of Parliament on several occasions.

[3] In his analysis of what he terms “Cardboard Kingdom” fiction, Raymond P. Wallace identifies seven recurring features: a fictitious country, usually a small monarchy; a threat to the state; a “Wicked Uncle,” or similar villain; an “intervening stranger,” our hero or heroine; a “remarkable coincidence,” here physical resemblance; a chase; and a duel. See his “Cardboard Kingdoms,” San José Studies 13/2 (Spring 1987): 23-34 (23-24). He sees George Meredith’s The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871) as the original of the type, but suggests that Hope established the formula.

[4] Michel Foucault describes a heterotopia as space set apart from the everyday world, in which the usual rules do not apply. See “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984): 46-49.

[5] “Extravagant Heroics of New Stage Duels,” San Francisco Call, February 2, 1902. The article mentions Alexander Salvini in Dumas’s The Three Guardsmen as a predecessor, and Kyrle Bellew as another contemporary stage swordsman.

[6] Grier was the pseudonym of Hilda Caroline Gregg.

[7] The Garden of Lies was an adaptation of a 1902 novel by the American writer Justus Miles Forman.

[8] The term “Ruritanian romance” appears in, for instance, “Amusements,” The Sphere, Saturday, May 4, 1901, p.28; and “Literature and Art,” Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, April 8, 1903, p.3.

[9] “The Uses and Abuses of Fictional Geography,” Academy, October 13, 1906.

[10] James Milne, “A Regiment of New Novels,” The Graphic, Saturday, September 15, 1923, p.22.

[11] UNHCR Manual on Refugee Protection and the ECHR (2006), Part 3.1 – Case Study No. 1. UNHCR. Web. 29 Sept. 2017.