The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope is an adventure novel in which the King of Ruritania is drugged on the eve of his coronation and thus is unable to attend the ceremony. Political forces within the realm are such that, in order for the king to retain the crown, his coronation must proceed. Fortuitously, an English gentleman on holiday in Ruritania who resembles the monarch is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an effort to save the unstable political situation of the interregnum.
Anthony Hope (1863-1933) was a prolific writer, especially of adventure novels but he is remembered predominantly for two books: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau (1898). These works, "minor classics" of English literature, are set in the contemporaneous fictional country of Ruritania and spawned the genre known as Ruritanian romance.
(1894) A series of sketches that first appeared in the Westminster Gazette. Dolly was Anthony Hope's first major literary success. A.E.W. Mason deemed these conversations "so truly set in the London of their day that the social historian would be unwise to neglect them," and said that they were written with delicate wit and a shade of sadness."
In his speech at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy in 1894, among many other good things, Mr. Andrew Lang said: "The thrifty plan of giving us sermons, politics, fiction, all in one stodgy sandwich, produces no permanent literature, produces but temporary 'tracts for the times.' Fortunately we have among us many novelists-young ones, luckily-who are true to the primitive and eternal, the Fijian canons of fiction. We have Oriental romance from the author of 'Plain Tales from the Hills.' We have the humor and tenderness-certainly not Fijian, I admit-which produces that masterpiece 'A Window in Thrums'; we have the adventurous fancy that gives us 'A Gentleman of France,' 'The Master of Ballantrae,' 'Micah Clarke,' 'The Raiders,' 'The Prisoner of Zenda.'" The last of these books was by Anthony Hope Hawkins, whom Mr. Lang thus classed among potential immortals. This romance has made him within the last three months fairly famous. Walter Besant, too, has stamped it with his high approval, and the English and American press have been unusually unanimous in their praise. Its hero is a rare and striking figure, and thoroughly represents the ideal soldier of our Anglo-Saxon race. He faces great dangers and does brave deeds, quietly and quickly. He suffers and loves deeply, but says little. In his portrayal, the possibilities of "repressed emotion" have been startlingly indicated. He appeals to Americans and English far more than the swaggering and loquacious, though more historic heroes of Dumas and his school ever can. Much curiosity has been excited regarding "Anthony Hope." The author's methods of composition and what may have suggested the very original plot are as yet unknown. Besides what we may get from his portrait, we are told that he is "a tall, thin, dark man, with a face that would be ascetic if it were not bubbling with humor." He is a lawyer, as other good romancers have been before him, and has chambers in the Middle Temple, a place made famous in fiction by Thackeray and on the stage by Pinero. His profession and politics are his chief concerns, and literature a diversion in his leisure hours. He is an extremely modest man, and in response to a request from his American publishers for autobiographical matter, gave the barest facts of his life. He expressed absolutely no opinion on literary canons or on his own work. There was, however, a rare sincerity and cordiality in his letters. Anthony Hope Hawkins was born in 1863, his father being the Rev. E. C. Hawkins of St. Brides, Fleet Street, London. He was educated at Marlborough, and at Balliol College, Oxford, of which he was a scholar. At Oxford, he was a hard worker and obtained first classes in Classical Moderations and in the School of Litter Humaniores, commonly known as "Greats." At this university, where he attained the degree of M. A. some eight years ago, he began to show an aptitude for public life, was a striking figure among his contemporaries, and became president of the Union. In 1892 he stood as a Liberal candidate for a seat in Parliament from the southern division of Buckinghamshire, but was defeated by Viscount Curzon. His first book, "A Man of Mark," was published in 1890, and was followed next year by "Father Stafford," an interesting study of an Anglican priest's struggles between love and sense of obligation to his vow of celibacy. The pictures of his cheerless ascetic life are marked by the sincerity conspicuous in Mr. Hawkins' later books. Some very thoughtful conversations on art and on religion are introduced. In 1892 appeared "Mr. Witt's Widow, a Frivolous Tale" of a lady who had "harmonious contrasts," such as dark eyes and golden hair. It foreshadows the power in plot-making that characterizes our author's later works. In the spring of 1893 appeared "Sport Royal," a collection of Mr. Hawkins' short stories, mostly from the St. James' Gazette. In "Half a Hero," published last year, there are several foreshadowings of "The Prisoner of Zenda." In both stories the scene is imaginary, but given realism by characteristics respectively of New Zealand and of Germany; in both intrigues and heroism are conspicuous, though in the latter the author did not adopt the old device of giving his hero some bad qualities to make him human. "Half a Hero" contains much firm, crisp character-drawing, and a strong love interest, but has the slight taint of the "purpose novel," already noted in Father Stafford; in this case, the discussion being politics, especially the "labor" element. Anthony Hope inherited refinement through a father in an exalted calling; he used his college advantages to the utmost, and now his interests are in living public affairs, and in his chosen calling as a lawyer, he has good opportunities to study life, and seems already to have well mastered the best elements of Anglo-Saxon character. From his work, he appears to have read widely and with a sympathetic eye for the merits of markedly diverse writers, which he seems to make his own. His style has the terseness and suggestiveness characteristic of Kipling, but without his harshness, and at times he shows a sense of beauty almost worthy of our own Hawthorne, and withal the military dash and snap of Lever. It would be strange if the foundation for the remarkably life-like colonists of "Half a Hero," and the German officers of "The Prisoner of Zenda," had had not been laid by travel and the observation of their more or less remote prototypes. "A Change of Air," while containing much of its humor and snap, furnishes a marked contrast to "The Prisoner of Zenda," and is in a more serious vein, having a strong and tragic undercurrent, and not without an element of peril. Confining its occurrences pretty severely to the possible and generally probable, it nevertheless is highly original. Dale Bannister, the wild young poet, who commences by thoroughly scandalizing Market Denborough, is a most picturesque and uncommon character. The effect of his early principles on his later life is deftly indicated. The story moves on steadily, and while it teaches a lesson of moderation and charity, it does so entirely by the acts and thoughts of the characters without any sermonizing on the part of the author. Some good authorities that have seen this book place it even above "The Prisoner of Zenda," which we probably shall see on the stage next year, as the author has a friend busily engaged on its dramatization. R. H. July, 1894.
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