Prisoners of Zenda
Anthony Hope's minor Victorian classic, The Prisoner of Zenda, is great fun to read and hugely entertaining. This novel from 1894 exudes no Victorian fustiness but instead impresses me as extremely well-written and engaging. The most notable of its many dramatizations include films made in 1937 and 1952. Although I enjoy the 1952 color remake, mostly because I like Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason, the 1937 version in black and white is much better. The excellent performances of Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., are those of actors, not merely of movie stars. Both films portray Hope's fairy tale for adults, set in a mythical Central European kingdom, with a royal romance, many references to honor, and extended, vigorous swordfights.
Problems we will never have
Long ago, an Eastern European prince while visiting England had impregnated an English countess. After Prince Rudolf dueled with her husband, the fifth earl, and departed for home, the faces of the next earl, and of some of his descendants, bore the royal features. In Rassendyll portraits, "you will find five or six, including that of the sixth earl, distinguished by long, sharp, straight noses and a quantity of dark-red hair; these five or six have also blue eyes, whereas among the Rassendylls dark eyes are the commoner."
Rudolf Rassendyll, the rootless younger brother of an English lord, decides to visit his ancestor's kingdom, Ruritania, where he encounters another of Prince Rudolf's descendants, the uncrowned King Rudolf V. Rassendyll and Rudolf V are near-doubles: "the King of Ruritania might have been Rudolf Rassendyll, and I, Rudolf, the King….The likeness was certainly astonishing."
When the king's brother tries to prevent the coronation by drugging Rudolf V into a stupor that will make him, a chronic drunkard, seem unfit to be crowned, Rassendyll impersonates his royal friend at the coronation. Besides finalizing the ceremonial accession to the throne, Rassendyll advances the king's courtship of his cousin Princess Flavia, who had always detested the king but feels surprised by his apparent reformation. Rassendyll, for his part, surprised by his growing passion for Flavia, finds it challenging to control his love for the princess. The king's brother secretly holds Rudolf V prisoner in the castle of Zenda. Rassendyll distracts himself from the temptations presented by Princess Flavia by seeking to rescue the king from eventual murder and then to restore the king both to his throne and to his intended royal bride.
This story's many attractions include its twinning/doubling theme, the romance between a princess and a commoner who is a better man than her royal suitor, Rassendyll's adventures as he attempts to find and then release the king, and the renunciation of their love by Rassendyll and Flavia after the king's restoration. With regard to his difficulties adjusting to his unaccustomed role among strangers and traitors, Rassendyll comments, "A real king's life is perhaps a hard one; but a pretended king's is, I warrant, much harder." The virtuous fraud of substituting himself for the king as a crowned head and as a suitor of a woman whom Rassendyll really does love makes Rassendyll a second prisoner of Zenda, just as much as the king himself.
He seeks to free the king, but he cannot free himself, especially after Flavia learns of the deception and realizes why she feels passion for a man whom she previously disliked: "Somehow love gives even to a dull man the knowledge of his lover's heart. I had come to humble myself and pray pardon for my presumption; but what I said now was: 'I love you with all my heart and soul!' For what troubled and shamed her? Not her love for me, but the fear that I had counterfeited the lover as I had acted the King, and taken her kisses with a smothered smile. 'With all my life and heart,' said I, as she clung to me. 'Always, from the first moment I saw you in the Cathedral! There has been but one woman in the world to me—and there will be no other. But God forgive me the wrong I've done you!' 'They made you do it!' she said quickly; and she added, raising her head and looking in my eyes: 'It might have made no difference if I'd known it. It was always you, never the King!' "
Honor binds me
Separated by the king's restoration and by his imminent marriage to Flavia, these star-crossed lovers both pledge and renounce their undying ardor. Although tempted almost beyond endurance by their mutual affinity, Flavia will enter into the marriage arranged for her when she and the king were children, but Rassendyll will marry no one at all.
" 'Is love the only thing?' she asked, in low, sweet tones that seemed to bring a calm even to my wrung heart. 'If love were the only thing, I would follow you—in rags, if need be—to the world's end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing? But if love had been the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell. Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my House. Your ring will always be on my finger, your heart in my heart, the touch of your lips on mine. But you must go and I must stay. Perhaps I must do what it kills me to think of doing'." And Rassendyll replies, "My part is lighter; for your ring shall be on my finger and your heart in mine, and no touch save of your lips will ever be on mine."
They simultaneously renounce and declare their undying passion in a platonic, genteel, and sinless adultery. This renunciation seems "romantic" but actually is anti-romantic; the romantic temptation to run away together is overcome by their unromantic dedication to duty and obligation. Honor binds both Rassendyll as an English gentleman and Flavia as a Ruritanian princess.
The English gentleman
While the romantic hero, overcome by ardor, would persuade his lover to elope and defy the world, as well as to abandon their obligations, the English gentleman, a pre-romantic ideal, rejects being controlled by his passions and chooses the guidance of reason and custom. He values himself and his lover, but he also values society's traditions and mores. If morally challenged, he musters the inner strength needed to meet those challenges as they should be met, with "the moral excellence that defines a gentleman and is called 'integrity'." Central to the ideal of a gentleman is his sense of responsibility. Erotic love that violates the gentleman's code is a madness because unbridled passion disregards reality. Responding according to his social code and the dictates of reason, the gentleman does not repress his passion but chooses to mold it in another way, to find a different satisfaction of his love.
Once every year, Rassendyll and Queen Flavia secretly send each other little boxes. In each, "lies a red rose, and round the stalk of the rose is a slip of paper with the words written: 'Rudolf—Flavia—always.' That message, and the wearing of the rings, are all that now bind me and the Queen of Ruritania. Far—nobler, as I hold her, for the act—she has followed where her duty to her country and her House led her, and is the wife of the King, uniting his subjects to him by the love they bear to her, giving peace and quiet days to thousands by her self-sacrifice. Shall I see her face again—the pale face and the glorious hair? Of that I know nothing; Fate has no hint, my heart no presentiment. I do not know. In this world, perhaps—nay, it is likely—never. And can it be that somewhere, in a manner whereof our flesh-bound minds have no apprehension, she and I will be together again, with nothing to come between us, nothing to forbid our love? That I know not, nor wiser heads than mine. But if it be never—if I can never hold sweet converse again with her, or look upon her face, or know from her her love; why, then, this side the grave, I will live as becomes the man whom she loves; and, for the other side, I must pray a dreamless sleep."
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope is available in many editions. The quotation about integrity and the general understanding of the English gentleman come from the well-known study TheGentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct by Shirley Robin Letwin.