blog asked the question: What book has been on your to-be-read pile the longest?
For me, it had to be Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. That one was on a shelf behind my desk for – I don’t know how long.
Last week, looking for a fun summer read, I took it down and gave it a try. It grabbed me right from the start and I sped through it in no time. That last is not hard to do. The paperback was 159 pages. The adventure tale was a pure pleasure as told by Hope in a brisk, exciting style. He kept the story moving on every page, and even had his first person narrator, Rudolf Rasendyll, apologize to the reader when he felt the need to provide a bit of background before pressing on with the action.
Rasendyll, an English gentleman, travels to the fictional kingdom of Ruritania, a small, German-speaking state, curious to see where a distant part of his family came from. Generations back, the then king of Ruritania visited Britain, had an affair with an English woman, and ever since an occasional descendant of the lady inherits the unmistakable looks of the Ruritanian royal family. Rudolf Rasendyll, inherited those looks, and once in the country, finds that he is a dead ringer for the new king.
By chance, English Rudolf meets King Rudolf and, delighted, the king invites him to dinner at his country lodge along with his faithful companions, a loyal old soldier, Colonel Sapt, and a young nobleman, Fritz von Tarlenheim. These two men are astonished by the identical looks of the two Rudolfs.
That night, the king’s evil half brother, Michael, springs a plot to seize the throne of Ruritania by kidnapping the king and holding him prisoner at his castle in the country’s region of Zenda. But Fritz and Sapt counter Michael by coaching English Rudolf and convincing him to impersonate the king until they can rescue royal Rudolf. These events send the adventure into high gear as Michael and his gang try to eliminate both Rudolfs. English Rudolf, is successful in his impersonation, and for weeks takes on the role of the king and does it well. But thrown together with the beautiful Princess Flavia – whom the king, through long arrangement, is to marry – Rudolf falls in love with her himself. Rudolf even considers remaining on the throne of Ruritania. But he is a high-minded Englishman, and his code of honor will not allow him to follow his heart. Instead, he carries out his task and risks his own life fighting to rescue the king.
Even though I knew the story well, having seen three movie versions of it – the 1922 silent, a 1952 MGM remake, and best of all, the 1937 David O. Selznick production – I still enjoyed the novel. Where the movies had to streamline the story, reducing the amount of action and behind the scenes intrigue, the novel was free to plunge Rudolf into many more situations.
Reading The Prisoner of Zenda, I found the time period a little hazy. The independent kingdom could have been one of the German states of the mid-19th century, before unification. But that is a minor point.
Another small point that intrigued me came at the beginning when Rudolf Rasendyll explains to his sister-in-law that he sees no need to work since his late father set him up with a comfortable annual income of £2,000. Wondering how much that would be in today’s U.S. dollars, I used some on-line conversion sites and figured £2,000 in 1894 would now be more than $265,000 a year.
The Prisoner of Zenda was the most enjoyable book I have read so far this summer, and I look forward to reading Anthony Hope’s sequel, Rupert of Hentzau.
(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)