Sunday, April 5, 2020

Nicholas Daly's "Ruritania"

Nicholas Daly is Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. He has also taught at Wesleyan University, Dartmouth College, and Trinity College Dublin. His publications include Modernism, Romance, and the Fin de Siecle (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). He edited Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel for Oxford World's Classics, and he is completing a new edition of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda.

Daly applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Ruritania: A Cultural History, from The Prisoner of Zenda to the Princess Diaries, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my Ruritania: A Cultural History, is a full-page illustration, showing an advertising postcard for a stage adaptation of George Barr McCutcheon’s 1901 romantic bestseller, Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne. It shows a scene in which the American hero, Grenfall Lorry, clad in a splendid military uniform, kneels to kiss the hand of Princess Yetive, the ruler of the fictional European kingdom of Graustark.

In this case the page 99 test might not give a reader all they need to get a sense of the overall project. The various versions of Graustark are important for the book, but most readers would need a little more context to recognize Graustark as the most successful American example of the “Ruritanian romance”, a formula for popular novels, plays, musicals, and films, which flourished between the 1890s and WWII. The book charts the rise and decline of Ruritania and suggests some reasons for its popularity.

The “Ruritanian romance” comes from Anthony Hope’s bestseller of 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda, in which the English hero visits the somewhat behind-the-times Germanic statelet of Ruritania, where he has to impersonate the king in order to foil a coup. Through daring and a strong sword arm our hero prevails, but when he falls for the king’s fiancée, Princess Flavia, he must choose between love and honour. Inspiring stage, film, radio, and television adaptations, and even its own board game, Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda was also the model for countless stories by other authors, in which ordinary heroes and heroines find royal romance and swashbuckling adventure in chocolate-box kingdoms such as Alasia, Hohenwald, Sylvania, and Wallaria. On both sides of the Atlantic mistaken identity, court pageantry, and plenty of swordplay, characterize the genre, which attracted talents as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.G. Wodehouse, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Writers in other forms, from detective stories (Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger) to science fiction (Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star) have also borrowed elements of the formula.

At different times versions of Ruritanian have underpinned operettas and musicals (Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, the Marx Brothers Duck Soup), Cold War comedies (The Mouse that Roared), and young adult fiction (The Princess Diaries). In the last few years, the formula has been dusted off a for a whole slew of made-for-TV Christmas movies, set in tinsel Ruritanian territories with names like Castlebury and Belgravia, including A Princess for Christmas (2011) and The Princess Switch (2018).

Though their originals are not as familiar as they once were, versions of Ruritania and Graustark may be with us for some time yet, chaneling both our lingering fascination with royalty, and the escapism of the pocket kingdom.
Follow Nick Daly on Twitter, and read more about Ruritania: A Cultural History.

--Marshal Zeringue