The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel by Anthony Hope, published in 1894. The king of the fictional country of Ruritania is abducted on the eve of his coronation, and the protagonist, an English gentleman on holiday who fortuitously resembles the monarch, is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an attempt to save the situation. The villainous Rupert of Hentzau gave his name to the sequel published in 1898, which is included in some editions of this novel. The books were extremely popular and inspired a new genre of Ruritanian romance, including the Graustark novels by George Barr McCutcheon.
The narrator is the Hon. Rudolf Rassendyll, twenty-nine year old younger brother of the Earl of Burlesdon and a distant cousin and look-alike of Rudolf V, the soon-to-be-crowned King of Ruritania, a "highly interesting and important" Germanic kingdom somewhere imprecisely between the German and Austrian Empires. The reason for this was because a great-great grandfather of both Rudolfs—also named Rudolf—had an affair with an English noblewoman. He acknowledged the son that resulted from this union and provided for them.
Ruritania is, like Germany and Austria-Hungary at that time, a monarchy. The red-headed Rudolf Elphberg, the crown prince, is a hard-drinking playboy, unpopular with the common people, but supported by the aristocracy, the Catholic Church, the army, and the upper classes in general. The political rival to this absolute monarch is his younger half-brother Michael, the dark-haired Duke and Governor of Strelsau, the capital. Black Michael has no legitimate claim to the throne, because he is the son of their father's second, morganatic marriage —in other words his mother was not of royal blood, and the next in line of succession is the beautiful and popular Princess Flavia. Michael is regarded as champion of Strelsau's working classes, both the proletariat and the peasants, and of what Hope refers to as the criminal classes. The novel seems sympathetic, however, with those who would support the dissolute monarch, King Rudolf.
When Michael has King Rudolf drugged, Rassendyll must impersonate the King at the coronation, and then when the King is abducted and imprisoned in his castle in the small town of Zenda, until he can be rescued. There are complications, plots, and counter-plots, among them the schemes of Michael's mistress Antoinette de Mauban, and those of his dashing but villainous henchman Rupert of Hentzau, and Rassendyll falling in love with Princess Flavia, the King's betrothed. In the end, the King is restored to his throne—but the lovers, in duty bound, must part forever.
The novel has been adapted many times, mainly for film but also stage, musical, operetta, radio, and television. Probably the best-known version is the 1937 Hollywood movie. The dashingly villainous Rupert of Hentzau has been played by such matinee idols as Ramon Novarro (1922), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1937), and James Mason (1952).
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