Antony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda

Hope 1Antony Hope’s invention* of the cardboard kingdom in The Prisoner of Zenda is the subject of this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up. Hope was a respectable Victorian London lawyer, but he had a secret passion for the romantic and dramatic, and wrote many novels. His most famous is The Prisoner of Zenda, from 1894, in which Rudolf Rassendyll, a flaming-haired English gentleman, travels to Ruritania for a holiday, and discovers that he is the spitting image of that nation’s king. This is not a great surprise, because Rudolf Rassendyll is also descended from the Ruritanian royal family, after a dangerous liaison between Rudolf V and his married grandmother, earlier in the century. But Rudolf arrives at the moment of a crisis. The king, also a Rudolf, is about to be crowned, but he has also just been kidnapped, by his wicked half-brother Black Michael, and if he does not ascend the throne at the appointed time, Michael will take it, and his fiancée, their cousin, the impossibly beautiful Princess Flavia, from him. Step in, replacement cousin Rudolf, and take the throne, take the princess, and take out Black Michael. Just temporarily, you understand, until the real Rudolf is found and rescued. But what if the replacement Rudolf and Princess Flavia fall in love? What if during the duels and sword-fights to rescue the king, the king accidentally gets spiked? What if the will of the Ruritanian people, who are very keen on their king marrying the princess, rushes the impersonator to the throne? Could an English gentleman ascend the throne of Ruritania?

Hope 2This delicate political point is the reason for the long, long popularity of this novel. It is a terrific swashbuckler, full of action, and tense moments of physical drama. It is delightful to read so much dashing about on horseback and swimming across moats. The moments of passion between the English Rudolf and Flavia are believable because they’re so cinematic: we can reframe the Victorian melodrama into a nice period costume film. But they’re also believable because, at heart, every reader would like to think that they are as a good as a king, or princess, and could ascend a throne. And this is why Antony Hope invented what is now called the cardboard kingdom. It’s related to Arcadia, an invented country, a not-real place, to which the characters can go to have rollicking adventures in freedom, or retire from the world to sort out their problems. This is a very old literary trope. Shakespeare used it all the time, for instance in As You Like It. Hope developed the idea by making Arcadia a kingdom. It has to have a royal presence, and a throne to be fought over, and a dynasty to save. The whole point of the cardboard kingdom is that a gentleman outsider will arrive and sort out their problems. In the hands of Victorian English excursions to the cardboard kingdom, this was a way of affirming the superiority of the English, the world leaders at sorting out other nations’ problems. Hope’s Ruritania was the first of many similar fictional kingdoms, which is why the name of his cardboard kingdom has become the generic term for the concept.

Hope 3The kingdom also has to be located somewhere in middle Europe. In relation to Britain, it should not be as far east as Kazakhstan, but also not as close as Germany. The cardboard kingdom needs to be vaguely familiar: in the atlas, but not on a page we’ve looked at very often. That way, a gentleman traveller can be sure that the trains will run there (for there are always trains in Europe), and that he will be able to leave when he wants to, without consequences, to return to his own world. Sometimes the inhabitants of the cardboard kingdom come to Europe, and then go back into cardboard land. This happened with Elinor Glyn’s notorious and scandalous novel Three Weeks, in which a young English diplomat found himself having an affair with a glamorous foreign lady in her rented villa off Lake Geneva, only to find that she was the queen of a cardboard kingdom, and, later, that he had become a father. That’s the most interesting inversion of the idea that I’ve come across: most cardboard kingdom novels by Dornford Yates, or John Buchan, for example, just copy what Hope did, in different ways.

Hope 4What Hope did to make his novel so long-lasting, and so popular, was to distill the essence of romance and adventure into a very short novel. It won’t take you more than an evening to read. It begins at a late Victorian breakfast table. Rudolf’s sister-in-law is a slightly prissy Victorian lady, embarrassed at the very existence of an illegitimacy scandal in her husband’s family. But when Rudolf arrives in Ruritania, somehow he’s gone back a few more decades, to a way of life that feels more Napoleonic rather than Victorian. By the time that he and his accomplices are plotting their rescue of the king, and dealing with chamber maids and henchmen, their language has become positively Shakespearian. Time seems to slip in Ruritania, but a gentleman’s honour is timeless. The English Rudolf is the soul of honour, and this drives his conduct throughout the story. He will not betray or abandon the king by refusing to help him, or by allowing him to die in his prison, but, since the king has shown no interest in Princess Flavia, it’s perfectly fine for Rudolf to fall in love with her, and to woo her, to the great delight of the population. She, in turn, is pleased by his attentions, and finds that the new Rudolf is a much more attractive person than he had been before, until it’s too late and she is just as much in love with the new Rudolf as he with her. It’s an interesting point of behaviour, how not to betray your king by falling in love with his impersonator, but Flavia’s honour is strong: she will not renounce the king, and she will do her duty (probably through gritted teeth). However, every year, she sends the English Rudolf a red rose in a box, with the message ‘Rudolf – Flavia – always’. So romantic. Also very, very transparent, because it’s the interception of this box that brings about the sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda, the even more dashing and magnificent Rupert of Hentzau.

Peter Sellers in the Stewart Granger swashbuckling role?
Peter Sellers in the Stewart Granger swashbuckling role?

Rupert is the maverick in the otherwise perfectly ordered world of the Ruritanian deception. All the other Ruritanians seem not to notice the difference between Rudolf the king and the English Rudolf, which makes the set-up seem a little like a pantomime. But Rupert can see the marks of the English Rudolf’s shaved moustache and crown imperial beard, and the unaccountable difference in the king’s attitude towards Flavia after the coronation, and her blushes and generally infatuated demeanour which were simply not in evidence before. These, taken singly, might not add up to much. But Rupert also knows that the king is in prison, because he is one of the king’s noble guards, and potential murderers. So when he sees the English Rudolf play-acting as the king in Strelsau, he just laughs up his sleeve, and awaits developments with enjoyment. Rupert is fun. He is absolutely modern, utterly irreverent, has a wicked sense of timing, and is a terrific duellist. He and the English Rudolf battle with swords and revolvers, and both secretly swim across the same moat at midnight on the same night. They’re clearly the same kind of adventurous chap. But Rupert is amoral, not a bad chap exactly, but not at all the upright soul of honour that English Rudolf represents. It’s fine for a Ruritanian to have a flexible understanding of honour, but for an Englishman, this cannot be so. Rupert is Rudolf’s foil, his wicked alter ego, and he completes the enjoyment of this fine swashbuckling novel.

* Hope didn’t invent the cardboard kingdom: Neil Harvey points out that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto predates Zenda, and so does Meredith’s The Adventures of Harry Richmond. For more on the subject, see Raymond P Wallace, ‘Cardboard kingdoms’, San José Studies 13:2 (1987), 23-34.

Fast cars and the open road: Reading speed in Dornford Yates

Dornford Yates by Bassano, 18 February 1935 copyright The National Portrait Gallery
Dornford Yates by Bassano, 18 February 1935 copyright The National Portrait Gallery

Brief toot on my academic trumpet here: I had another article published, on how the intensely middlebrow and thriller / comedy novelist Dornford Yates used techniques and ideas from avant garde thinking when writing about fast cars, car chases, driving at speed, and the thrill of speed on the open road (clue: it’s all from Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto). You can read it as an open access pdf on Advanced Access for a little while here.

I started talking about these ideas in a paper to the Modernist Studies Association back in 2013, had written the article by June 2014, and then spent a long time trying to get an academic journal to pay it any attention. One US journal, which shall be nameless but it specialises in modern fiction, had me rewrite the thing three times before they finally rejected it. I’m not sure what I feel about that now. At the time, I just had my head down, rewriting and rewriting, and was happy to have their feedback. Now, while I’m still grateful for the process that made a better article, and made me tackle what I mean by ‘modernist’ properly, I’m bemused as to why they strung me along for so long, if they didn’t want the article in the first place. Perhaps the thought of publishing work on an author not considered modernist was too much for them. In the meantime my book on Yates, Buchan and Thirkell came out, which might have given my ideas more respectability.

The Review of English Studies, a much more open-minded journal, also put me through three revisions, but these were straightforward, and led to the article they wanted to publish, so I’m very happy with that. Perhaps they were more open to the subject because they’re published by a British publisher, and Yates is a British author. Whatever: it’s finally out and I can file that research under ‘published’. I’ve posted reviews of a couple of Yates novels elsewhere in this site: find them via the Search box at the top right.

Rampaging in the Pyrenees: Dornford Yates’s Adèle and Co.

Yates 1Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is Y, and today’s author’s name really begins with M, but his pen-name, by which he was made famous from the 1920s, begins with Y. Dornford Yates was the pseudonym of Cecil William Mercer, and he was famous for two kinds of fiction. The first were his comic short stories which are, frankly and honestly, laugh-out-loud funnier than anything his contemporary P G Wodehouse ever wrote. The second are his tough, gritted teeth, stiff-upper-lip thrillers, which specialise in two-chapter car chases and episodes of ludicrous physical endurance. There is a third category in his fiction, the conservative melodrama of tight-lipped passion (see my post on one of these from April), but he wrote these less often when he realised how much better his readers liked the comic stories and thrillers. The short stories were populated by a family of five cousins, and various friends, and the book I‘m talking about today is the first full-length novel Yates wrote featuring these characters.

Yates 2They are known as the Berries, because the head of their family is Berry, Bertram Pleydell, who is married to Daphne, his cousin. Her brother is Boy Pleydell, and these three live together with two other cousins, Jonah and Jill Mansel. Berry is a comic buffoon of genius. Daphne is his foil with quite a lot of spirit of her own: she throws bread rolls at her husband when he is being socially appalling. Boy is a suave ladies’ man, a lawyer and a novelist, and Yates’ alter ego. Jonah is the hero of most of the thrillers, where he has a more dictatorial character, but in the comic fiction he is their action man. Jill is the baby of the family, and is persistently portrayed as infantile even in her middle-aged widowhood, deep into the 1950s. The really strange thing about these cousins is not that they live together as a tight family unit, but that no-one else is allowed to join for very long. After innumerable flirtations, Boy finally marries the American girl Adèle, but she leaves him some time in the late 1920s, for no apparent reason (though if I were Adèle I’d have been driven off by his pompousness years before: I probably wouldn’t even have married him). Jill marries an Italian Duke and has twins, but all three conveniently die in a plane crash leaving Boy to marry Jill, thus completing the circle of near-incestuous relations. Jonah doesn’t marry, but he did have a heavy affair with Adèle in at least one of the novels, so that’s OK. There’s nothing like keeping it in the family.

Yates 5You’ll have noticed that for such a scenario to be accepted by readers, realism is not part of the deal. This set of characters live in a fantasy world based on Edwardian and Victorian nostalgia but set in a very glamorous present-day with fabulous cars and lovely houses. The stories are wish-fulfilment fantasies where the women are beautiful and obedient, and the men are witty and powerful. They all live on country estates, or move to France when the weather, the Labour government and income tax make life unbearable. The characters are ageless. Their servants are almost all silent and obedient. Jonah’s servants loyally risk their lives in every book they appear in. Their friends all marry and are beautiful. These friends do not include anyone who is not white, English, or American, from the gentry class and upwards. Children simply do not happen, apart from Jill’s twins, and, as I said, they’re killed off early. Yates must have realised that her children were simply not a plausible part of Jill’s life, since she routinely left them with the ducal nurse in another country while she spent long summers with her cousins doing nothing but have adventures and fall about laughing. One can see the appeal, of course, but it is a bit of a shock when Yates disposes of toddlers so callously. He does this in the thrillers as well, to get rid of a hard-won wife so his hero can start the flirting game all over again. The winning of the women must have been much more fun to write than life with a wife. When you read Dornford Yates you are certainly reading high-quality entertainment, but you are also reading a curious variety of fantasy fiction where the values of the present are consistently inferior to a very selective view of chivalry and romance.

Yates 3So, this novel is called Adèle and Co. I recommend it to you not just because it is screamingly funny in many episodes, or because the action sequences are nail-biting and brilliantly told. I think it is an excellent Yates taster, a good way to try him out. You can experience the full glory of Berry’s outrageous behaviour, Boy’s driving, and Jonah’s tactical planning. There is an audacious theft of fabulous jewels; there is a terrifying master villain; there is a fascinating scene in a thieves’ bar called The Wet Flag where Jonah enquires about some missing emerald bracelets and is told, ‘Sweaty knows them cuffs’. There are also some immortal sequences: where Boy and Berry case a joint and have scatologically foul water thrown at them from above; where Berry is forced to entertain a bishop for three hours unaided; and where Berry, Boy and Piers dress up in drag with crude make-up to diddle a villain. We are given exciting racing scenes in the Normandy countryside, where cars are hijacked, and dips in the road give cover to rapid changeovers. An incriminating letter is found in a hollow tree, and is joined by a wasps’ nest, which makes the later retrieval of the latter quite difficult. We do a lot of sightseeing in the northern Pyrenees, where the dips in the road allow traps to be set and more showdowns to take place. The novel is a riot of journeys and witty conversations, and an awful lot of white-knuckled driving.

Yates 4Underlying all this action are the fascinating social norms of the day. Boy, Berry and Jonah are desperately chivalric towards women, and the women are perpetually dainty, well-turned out and plucky. The women also have glorious hair, huge eyes, and tiny feet which are perfectly shod. Yates had a particular thing about small feet and grey eyes in his heroines. Not being properly dressed was a dangerous situation in many of the stories, since this would risk social chaos. The laws of hospitality are extremely important. In Adèle and Co the principal crime of the villain, Casca Palk, is not that he engineered the theft of the women’s jewels and the men’s cuff-links, but that he was offered hospitality by these women and repaid them by taking the jewels off their necks. Somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d merely stolen the jewels from the bank: the fact that the thief was in the women’s private sitting-room, and that the thief’s hands had been around their necks, makes Yates incandescently angry. In the Yates world, the physical violation of women, even by just a touch or a look, was a more serious crime than murder. In a later novel, Perishable Goods, Adèle has been kidnapped, and Jonah leads her rescue party. As a reminder that time is getting on and that the ransom hasn’t been paid, Adèle’s hair is sent to Boy in a box. When her white blouse is offered (and it would be white, wouldn’t it?) as a more urgent reminder of the ransom, Jonah hangs the man who brought it. His servants dig the grave. Yates’ characters played for keeps, and had no compunction when they thought they were in the right in terms of their own rules of civilisation. When Yates wanted to circumvent the law as well, he just invented a new country and their laws as well.

Yates 6One of the joys of reading Yates is his spectacular inventiveness with names. He invents personal names that not so much suggest that person’s character, but wave that person’s character around on a banner. His heroes and heroines all have old English names suggesting antiquity, royalty, heritage, medieval values, and country manors. Their names are Bagot, Festival, Madrigal, Crecy, Fairie, Willoughby, Malory, Persimmon, Bohun, Rage, Medallion, Pendragon, Pomeroy and Seneschal. The names of characters of whom he does not want us to approve are similarly descriptive: Pump, Mrs Drinkabeer Stoat, and Warthog. His place names are even less restrained, and are mostly heavy-handed metaphors for a similar ancientry, including Holy Brush, Chancery, White Ladies, Hammercloth Down, Castle Breathless, Peering Gap, Garter Spinney, Stomacher Gap, Sweeting Valley and Witchery Drive. It’s very heady stuff.

One caveat before you plunge into Yates: in revisiting the 1920s, you are also leaving the cultural value system of the twenty-first century and entering a different world, where racism, anti-Semitism and sexism was a completely normal part of the cultural environment. Every writer of that period thought and wrote in those terms, to a greater or lesser degree: you simply can’t avoid it, and it is incorrect to demand the standards of our day to fiction written nearly 100 years ago. Yates is no better than most of his contemporaries, by our standards, and he is certainly not the worst. But if you’re not used to this kind of thing, you may need to take a deep breath before diving in. Just don’t shoot the messenger.