January 2017
Have Your Say! What Do You, The Reader Think?
An interesting topic to be discussed or pondered over 

 by Alison Morton

Frontispiece to The Prisoner of ZendaCharles Dana Gibson
Rudolf Rassendyll (Sigh)
Princess Flavia (Aaah!)
Duke Michael (Grrrr!)
Rupert of Hentzau (Wow but grr!)

When I picked up The Prisoner of Zenda at age 12, I was enraptured. It was a torch under the bedclothes job. When it ended I cried, partly from the denouement, partly because it had finished. You know that sense of deep loss when you say goodbye to beloved characters.

Then I discovered Rupert of Hentzau. Thank the gods. I was plunged back into the thrills, romance, courage and sacrifice of Ruritania. And the high moral choice of the hero and heroine.

The stories set between the 1850s and 1880s have been updated and revised; they’ve been made into a BBC television series and feature films, notably the one starring the fabulous Stewart Granger, but what’s between the covers still grabs my mind and emotions.

Ruritania itself is an imaginary country in central Europe, a ‘placeholder kingdom’ and is used in academia and the popular mind to refer to a hypothetical country. The author, Anthony Hope, depicts Ruritania as a German-speaking Catholic country under an absolute monarchy, with deep social, but not ethnic, divisions reflected in the conflicts of the first novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.

Hope’s novels resulted in ‘Ruritania’ becoming a generic term for any small, imaginary European kingdom used as the setting for romance, intrigue and the plots of adventure novels. It even gave its name to a whole genre of writing, the ‘Ruritanian romance’.

Such stories are typically centred on the ruling classes, almost always aristocracy and royalty, or as in Winston Churchill’s novel Savrola the dictator in the republican country of Laurania who is overthrown. The themes of honour, loyalty and love predominate, and the works frequently feature the restoration of legitimate government after a period of usurpation or dictatorship.

The Grand Hotel,Budapes
The genre has been much spoofed, mined and copied: GB Shaw’s Arms and the Man, Dorothy L Sayers’ Have his Carcase and Nabakov’s Pale Fire parody elements. In the satire The Mouse That Roared, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (the title role played by the brilliant Margaret Rutherford) attempts to avoid bankruptcy by declaring war on the United States as a ploy for gaining American aid.

Sci-fi writer André Norton borrowed many elements and Ursula K. Le Guin set a number of short stories and a novel in the fictitious and essentially Ruritanian East European land of Orsinia. The Grand Budapest Hotel, a 2014 comedy film is set in the fictional nation of Zubrowka, a central European alpine state teetering on the outbreak of war.

Why does the idea of Ruritania persist and why do the books still attract readers?

Let’s unpick the themes behind the stories…
–  There’s romance – the heaviest read genre on the planet – and the ‘world lost for love’ vs. ‘love lost for the world’ conflict
–  Thrills, tension, mixed motives, dark plots and evil schemes, turning the screw on our emotions
–  And as for action adventure, apart from the storyline of the books, there are chases, sword fights, gun duels, escape by night, dungeons and secret stairways
–  The ‘noble Englishman’ idea which we may think is dead – I suggest Jonathan Pine in The Night Manager or even our old friend James Bond keep this one on the front burner
–  Exaggerated nature of fictional characters who can be more noble or dastardly than we are

Jonathan Pine – the ‘noble English hero’
Of course, Ruritanian stories have to be plausible by having a good number of connections to our world while maintaining that essential difference, and they have to be consistent within their own world. Nobody likes being jolted out of a fictitious world by sloppy writing.

Now, there are plenty of imagined other worlds, often projecting an existence hundreds or thousands of years in the future or one here on Planet Earth, but after a massive disaster. Both can be pretty grim. But do alternative existences have to be dystopian or post-apocalyptic to be authentic?

Enter Ruritania. The stories are hopelessly old-fashioned, somewhat sexist and rather naive, but they are essentially optimistic. But more than anything they are an escape from the dullness and stress of everyday and emphasise the good guys winning in a morally acceptable way.

My Roma Nova series is a world away from Ruritania but it does use its core concepts of adventure, romance, honour and taking tough moral decisions. While its stories are set in a small European country, the small state’s Roman-ness, intense struggle through history and egalitarian social system separate it from Ruritania, making it unique, possibly the centre of a new genre even?

While often patrician, its characters are more fallible, yet more robust and are ready to step over any moral line set by Anthony Hope.

They would eat Rupert of Hentzau for breakfast.

Alison Morton
Read the #DDReva Review HERE
Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017.

Article originally posted on Alison Morton’s Writing Blog 12th December 2016

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  1. I do think that there is a place for 'Ruritania' in a modern novel, but it has to have the scent of authenticity: I remember when the TV programme 'Dynasty' introduced Michael Praed (previously Robin Hood) as the Prince of somewhere-or-other, but it didn't quite ring true. Writers often introduce an English Duke or Duchess into their (usually romantic) tales but again, so often the Dutchy created isn't reasonable - a little more care wuith place names could help. Growing up, my favurite books were the 'romances' (yes, they called them Romances despite there being little or none of that sort of thing!) of H Rider Haggard - Allan Quartermain, the grizzled old hunter taking us into parts of Africa that hadn't - at the time of writing - been fully discovered or developed. Thus it becomes more difficult to find a 'small country/republic' etc in todays world, but it can be done, but needs to be done skillfully. Your own Roma Nova have that ability because they have credibility...

    1. You've hit the nail square on the head there Richard with just one word.... "Credibility"

    2. Thank you Helen!! I have severe problems with 'The Duchess of Melchester', the 'Duke of Poldovia' and the like. A little care with 'locations' can make all the difference!

    3. Yes, understanding the (for instance) Central European nobility rules is a labyrinth in which many writers get lost.

      Ruritania's legacy more than anything is to give us permission to go all out with our imaginations when writing high adventure. But, a big but... It has to look, sound and feel possible. Could it just possibly be real? And people have to live naturally in a carefully built world, yet their characters have to stand out.

      Perhaps Ruritania was after all the perfect training for writing Roma Nova! :-)

  2. Alison hits the nail on the head with her list of reasons "Why does the idea of Ruritania persist and why do the books still attract readers."

    Running through her list one realises that these are all experiences and adventures we would ourselves like to have, and that characters are involved whom we'd like to be, or would like to know.

    Hope's characterisations in both "Prisoner of Zenda" and "Rupert of Hentzau" are anything but shallow and one has met Colonel Sapts, and Fritz von Talenheims and others of the characters in real life. There's far more clean-cut honour and courage and loyalty about than commercial media today would ever hint at. And it one has got to deal with an out-and-out villain (scoundrel, blackguard, reprobate) let it be a Rupert.

    And finally, let's give credit to the late Sir Harry Flashman for inspiring Anthony Hope by telling his own story, on which the POZ was based. The real events can be found in "Royal Flash."

    P.S. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delight. I've watched it twice already and suspect that I'll be doing so far in the future/

    1. Good points Antoine. I personally was not a fan of PoZ - but - I'm saying that from my view in my younger days when I was into sci-fi and fantasy not historical adventure. I think I might look for the DVDs...

    2. Antoine,
      I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel last week with my (24 yr old) son. We both absolutely loved it!

    3. I've only just realised that Caius Tellus, the villain of the AURELIA trilogy. does share certain characteristics with Rupert of Hentzau. Eek!

    4. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the most absorbing as well as cleverest films I've seen for ages. Its seemingly light touch yet deadly targeting is perfect.

  3. Thinking laterally, it seems to me many readers and cinema-goers will overlook blatantly false details if the story romps along fast enough - or they want to believe for personal extraneous reasons. Last night I was watching 1941 b/w movie 'Suspicion' (Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine) - they are living in a Hollywood mansion in a rural Sussex village, sleep in bedroom with en-suite bathroom & satin sheets etc, etc - wholly unbelievable, but the story cracked on and actors were so convincing I stopped getting cross and got swept along as I'm sure cinema-goers wanted and needed in wartime Britain.

    1. To an extent, I agree - thinking of films like The Vikings and Spartacus and, yes, even Braveheart! But I do think that we would all prefer a higher degree of accuracy - whether it be historical accuracy or such as that you cite. With the money they spend on making films, an extra bit of research for accuracy wouldn't take much out of their budget.....

    2. Movies are more about entertainment than factual accuracy - although for the life of me I can't see why factual can't also be entertaining!

    3. Agreed! As an author, you know that sometimes it is necessary to 'adjust' the factual to fit in with the fictional when it comes to storyline, but you research and describe the clothes/armour etc that they wore in that period as well as any other relvant details. This, tpo me, is when films often lose their credibility...

  4. In modern films, I think they pay a great deal more attention to period detail than they used to be. There will be exceptions. :-) 'Foyle's War' is a great TV example as is 'The Man in The High Castle'.
    If they made The Prisoner of Zenda now, they'd have to go to Prague or Budapest at least and get their rapiers correct!

    1. They do, Alison - and I wonder if it is the influence of people like 'us' who have caused it! One thing they invariably get wrong is...trains!! Yes, I know I can be an anorak and they often use preserved locomotives, but they take them as they are and don't look into the company that would have served the station/route they are setting the story in - any old loco will do!!!

    2. Not my area of expertise, Richard, but they're getting better with Romans!


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