The Prisoner of Zenda
by Anthony Hope
She was tall, slim, beautiful, and royal. She suffered from eating disorders and a deteriorating marriage. And she died in an incident of bizarre violence.
I’m writing, not about Diana, Princess of Wales, but her nineteenth century precursor as a celebrity royal, Empress Elisabeth of Austria -- my pick for inspiring the character of Princess Flavia in Anthony Hope’s 1894 adventure story, The Prisoner of Zenda.
The unhappy empress’s family, in fact, ran a veritable sideline in inspiring improbably romantic tales. There was Elisabeth’s eccentric and extravagant cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria, who died mysteriously after being deposed from his throne. Any consideration of the character of “Mad King Ludwig” makes him an obvious forerunner for the impetuous king of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
Empress Elisabeth’s only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, made international headlines in 1889 by dying in a murder-suicide pact with lover Baroness Mary Vetsera. The incident would give rise to numerous film adaptations, including a reference in the 2006 movie, The Illusionist.
Elisabeth herself died at the hands of an assassin in 1898, as would her husband’s nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914, precipitating the First World War.
Fortunately, none of these shadows darken the operetta-like story by English barrister Hope (actually Anthony Hope Hawkins), itself the inspiration for numerous plays and movies.
In The Prisoner of Zenda, Hope conjures the fictional kingdom of Ruritania, whose new ruler bears an uncanny resemblance to his distant cousin, Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll.
When Rassendyll visits Ruritania on the occasion of the new king’s coronation, the cousins meet delightedly, only to be parted by the intrigue of the king’s evil half-brother. In the course of the story, Rassendyll finds himself wooing his cousin’s bride to be, Princess Flavia. And wondering whether life as a king -- and as lovely Flavia’s husband -- wouldn’t suit him better than England.
Along the way, Hope also created charismatic villain, Rupert Hentzau, played in the movies by actors as dashing as the lead. A publicity still of Ramon Novarro as Hentzau, from the 1922 movie adaptation, illustrates this post.
So popular was The Prisoner of Zenda that Hope (or Hawkins) gave up his legal career to write full time. He wrote more than thirty more novels, had a large following during his lifetime, and received a knighthood for his propaganda work during the First World War. Nothing else he did, however, became him as well as Zenda.
(Next Friday -- Adventure classics begins a month of mysterious adventures with a look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s breakout Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of the Four.)