8 Return to Ruritania
by Malcolm Redfellow
After that long slog with Dr Foreman, Malcolm felt a need for instant gratification.
In the days when Malcolm taught and, towards the end of term, suffered the ailment, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, were sure-fire reading-block busters. What prompted this re-read , though,was partly convenience (thinning out a shelf), and partly a small tiff in the Times.
The latest Tory “reforms’ for the armed services were accompanied by a typically thunderous Times leader, all bangs and crashes — not many hurt — and thoroughly wetting, had included the paragraph:
The immunity of the top brass to the cuts that have taken place lower down the ranks has reached Ruritanian proportions. We now have more generals than battalions, more air marshals than fighter squadrons and more admirals than ships. A bit of trimming would surely be healthy.
Harrumphings off followed as a matter of course. Ian Olson of Aberdeen had protested:
It is most unfair to describe Britain’s plethora of admirals, air chiefs and generals as “Ruritanian” (leading article, June 28), when that noble country’s king had the service of only a single senior officer, and a mere colonel (the splendid Sapt) at that.
A curious letter, to say the least, which promptly conflated Colonel Sapt with George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Bluntschli, the chocolate-cream soldier.
As can only happen in The Times, that had to be squelched by an ultimate authority:
Sir, The defence of Ruritania (letter, July 5) was not left to Colonel Sapt alone. He was assisted by his nephew Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim, and both were very involved in politics.
Anthony Hope, my grandfather, wrote it thus because he was well versed in military and political affairs. He was knighted for his work writing military tracts to support the allied cause in the First World War.
Were that not enough, (Sir) Anthony Hope (Hawkins) has a walk-on part in George Macdonald Fraser’s Royal Flash. Fraser has his magnificent creation, Harry Flashman — the ultimate harrumpher (who will surely appear in this catalogue eventually) — bemoaning how his story was the original for Zenda:
I’ve only once been back to Germany. Indeed, I don’t include it even among the garrulous reminiscences that have made me the curse of half the clubs in London — those that’ll have me. Only once did I tell the tale, and that was privately some years ago, to young Hawkins, the lawyer—I must have been well foxed, or he was damned persuasive—and he has used it for the stuff of one of his romances, which sells very well, I’m told.
He made it into a heroic tale, of course, but whether he believed it or not when I told it, I’ve no idea; probably not. It’s a good deal stranger than fiction, and yet not so strange, because such resemblances as mine and Carl Gustaf’s do happen. Why, I can think of another case, connected with this very story, and I saw it when the Duchess Irma came to London in the old Queen’s diamond year—they were related, as I’ve said. It’s the only time I’ve seen Irma since—I kept well in the background, of course, but I had a good look at her, and even at seventy she was a damned handsome piece, and set me itching back over the years. She was a widow then, Carl Gustaf having died of a chill on the lungs back in the ’60’s, but she had her son with her; he was a chap in his forties, I should say, and the point is that he was the living spit of Rudi von Starnberg—well, that can only have been coincidence, of course. It gave me quite a turn, though, and for a moment I was glancing nervously round for a quick retreat.
Hope-Hawkins, according to his auto-biography, conceived his tale is the young barrister was walking back through London, warm in having won his case at the Westminster Crown Court.
What Malcolm had not realised was that Hope-Hawkins was a cousin of Kenneth Grahame (of The Wind in the Willows). Or that Grahame rose to be Secretary of the Bank of England, and that Wind in the Willows was originally a family story for Grahame’s only son, Alastair. Or that Alastair Grahame was probably mildly autistic and certainly erratic (which may be the basis for the morality of “Toad”). Or that Alastair, then a second year student at Oxford, died on the railway line at Port Meadow, probably as a suicide. Or that was one reason why the Grahame parents then removed to Italy.
The conceit of Ruritania is so powerful that it has remained in the popular consciousness, and common reference, this last century, not least because of the likes of Ronald Colman (1937) and his facsimile, Stewart Granger (1952).
It was resurrected by Nicholas Meyer in 1974 for The Seven-per-cent Solution, his addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Holmes and Watson on a train meet Rassendyll, returning from Ruritania:
… a tall, very redheaded Englishman opened the door of our compartment and asked, in a distracted mumble, if he might share it with us as far as Linz. He had got on the train at Salzburg, but it had filled up while he was in the dining car. Holmes urged him to be seated, with a languid wave of his hand, and appeared to show no further interest in the man. I was left to attempt a desultory conversation, which, for his part, the new arrival conducted in vague monosyllables.
“In the Tyrol? Surely not,” said he. “Doesn’t the label on your baggage state that you have just returned from Ruritania?”
The handsome Englishman turned almost as pale as Holmes. He got to his feet, repossessed his bags and, mumbling apologies, said he was going to have a drink.
The BBC drama department revisited Ruritania twice. First was a David Fisher script for The Androids of Tara, a 1978 Tom Baker Dr Who. Then came a James Andrew Hall serial adaptation of the original story in 1984.
More recently still, John Spurling gave us After Zenda (1995). This has the previously unknown (and, in Anthony Hope’s account, impossible) great-grandson of Rudolf and Flavia, Karl Marx Rassendyll (it needs some explaining), returning to a post-glastnost Ruritania, fighting with a popular uprising, and being restored as the new monarch. It is all desperately thin, and politically distasteful.
Froth upon froth.