rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)
[personal profile] rymenhild
(I began this post in November. See, I can finish posts I promise myself I'll write! Sometimes!)

The year is 1910*. You are an Englishman or -woman of no particular importance. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, a small principality has mislaid its rightful prince. Because you are both insatiably curious and lucky enough to be connected to this principality in some way, you find yourself on your way to the principality, about to restore order!

*Or 1890, or Sometime Before 1914.

If this is happening to you, congratulations; you are living in a Ruritanian romance. You are likely to encounter dastardly uncles, alluring spies, personages of rank traveling incognito, and a full chorus of bandits, freedom fighters, shepherds and priests. (All Ruritanians are Catholic. It adds to the atmosphere of incense-scented mystery.) You will probably engage in swordfighting sometime in the near future. You may be shot. If so, you will probably survive, unless you have the poor luck to fall in love with the Rightful Prince or his betrothed bride, in which case the odds are fifty-fifty that either you or your True Love will die tragically.

This genre, being simultaneously monarchist and imperialist, is ultra-conservative. In the world of the Ruritanian romance, the royal heir is necessarily the best person to take the throne. The royal right trumps any other forms of authority. Even when, as in Zenda, the English impostor seems to be a better ruler than the Rightful Prince he impersonates, no one would think to depose the king and vote the impostor in as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, you, o Englishperson, stand for the entire British Empire. Your British levelheadedness and loyalty to principles of honesty (except when speaking to dastardly villains, in which case you are encouraged to mislead them while speaking the exact truth), courtesy, good behavior and solid government will be the salvation of Ruritania. That's because, as we all know, the British Empire is the fount of all civilization, and it can bring its civilization to the primitive (but still white!) people of Eastern Europe. See? Britain has the truly enlightened people, and Ruritania has the delightful aura of unsocialized danger. It makes for an excellent story, as long as you don't bother to deconstruct imperialist rhetoric.

Despite all the dangers inherent in a visit to Ruritania (you know, stab wounds, gunshot wounds, broken heart, hangover from deliciously rustic beer), the journey is essentially safe. The concerns of Ruritania are limited to Ruritania; it is possible to return home again to England, and find England comfortably unchanged. The date of 1910 means that World War I hasn't happened yet, and it can't and shouldn't happen. Inside the story, we assume that the prince, once seated on his throne, will maintain a dynasty; that's the happy ending.

I wonder if certain people fighting in World War I actually expected to be playing by the rules of the Ruritanian romance, and were surprised to be wrong.

I also wonder whether Ruritanian romances written after WWI are actually meant to be read as quasi-Arthurian tragedies, in which the Rightful Prince, having been placed on his Predestined Throne, will inevitably be dethroned, and the plucky little kingdom will, equally inevitably, be swallowed up by the Soviet Union.

Anyway, that's why you ought to read the following examples of the form.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), Anthony Hope.
This is, of course, the first and best example of the trope, although I'm sure it must be picking up materials from earlier sources. Rudolph Rassendyll, English gentleman of leisure who owes his name to an illegitimate connection to the Ruritanian dynasty several generations back, is bored. Obviously, the way for him to stop being bored is for him to get on a train to Ruritania, discover that he's identical to his distant cousin the King, impersonate the King, fall in love with a beautiful Princess, encounter some wicked gentlemen, and engage in a great many wacky hijinks!

There is also a sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, which I have not read.

The Lost Prince (1915), Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Marco Loristan lives in dire poverty with his father Stefan. Stefan is secretly a Samavian patriot loyal to a long-vanished dynasty, and he has raised his son as another patriot. In the dingiest part of London, Marco meets The Rat, the disabled military-genius son of a decayed alcoholic English gentleman, and they team up to restore Samavia to its former greatness! I love this book very much, despite the fact that its plot makes exactly no sense, and despite the occasional and deeply bizarre excursions into pseudo-Buddhism. (Why pseudo-Buddhism? I have no idea.)

A College of Magics (1994), Caroline Stevermer
Faris Nallaneen is the Duchess of Galazon, or she would be if she were of age and she didn't have an interfering wicked uncle. Jane Brailsford is a bluestocking of good English family, with excellent taste in clothing and tea. They meet at a finishing school for witches, where they trade baked goods, gossip and novels (including The Prisoner of Zenda). Eventually they find themselves, with Faris's bodyguard and several other friends, back in Galazon and the neighboring kingdom of Aravis Aravill, where nothing quite goes as planned, and all the tropes of Ruritanian romance get extremely, wildly and hilariously confused. I especially like the revolutionary who misguidedly attempts to support Faris's claim to the throne of Aravill.

The Tin Princess (1994), Philip Pullman
Loosely associated with the Sally Lockhart books, this story of an English street waif who marries the Prince of Razkavia is generally referred to as one of Pullman's weaker books. I love it, but then I always love stories of plucky young women who defend tiny countries against all threats. Pullman's aware of the problematic politics underlying the Ruritanian romance, and he does gesture towards the class and social issues usually obscured by tales of Noble Princes and Rightful Heirs.

Lois Bujold's Barrayar (1991) is distantly linked to the form, with Cordelia Vorkosigan playing the Betan equivalent of the helpful Englishwoman, and five-year-old Gregor Vorbarra as the Rightful Prince.

If I've missed any romances, please share; I'm in the market for more imperialist monarchist wacky hijinks.


Edit: I was wrong about the name of the kingdom next to Galazon. It's Aravill, not Aravis. All those unpronounceable imaginary foreign names are the same to me. ;)
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rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)

January 2017


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