Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Prisoner of Zenda is a cult classic. First and foremost a piece of light fiction meant to thrill and entertain casual readers, Anthony Hope Hawkins' debut adventure novel became an instant success, becoming extremely popular almost immediately upon publication. The story has been adapted uncountable times on stage and screen and even fathered an entire sub-genre of stories set in fictional Eastern European countries during the nineteenth century.
Named for Hawkins’ own made-up country, the Ruritanian Romance is a subsection of romantic adventure novels centered around royal or aristocratic genres and set in equally romantic, if imagined, environments. Such tales borrow the thematic flows of The Prisoner of Zenda, turning on the complex interactions of loyalty and intrigue, love and loss, and deception and honor. While the genre bears the name of Hawkins’ invention, part of its popularity stems from the comforting familiarity of its themes and style. Indeed, The Prisoner of Zenda drew on genre tropes with deep roots in English literary traditions. The central conceit of the book—that an English gentleman must impersonate the king to preserve the political order—is based on a very old plot device, that of mistaken identity, and the story is very formulaic, which is in keeping with its light tone.
Another aspect of the novel, however, is its view of the English gentleman and the sense of natural superiority the ruling class assumes. Just as there is no question that the rightful heir to the Ruritanian throne must be restored in the end, there is no question that Rassendyll, the English cousin who impersonates the king, thereby saving his throne, is—by virtue of his Englishness—morally superior to the king. The book is a celebration of the chivalrous values of honor, truthfulness, courage, modesty, and kindness toward women. These set values call on tropes found as far back as Arthurian literature, which conjures ideas of chivalrous men, courtly love, and delineated virtue.
Rassendyll embodies these values because he is a gentleman, and it is because his villainous counterpart Rupert does not embody these values (and isn't English) that he is not a gentleman. This finds its fullest expression in Rassendyll's love for Flavia, who is betrothed to the king. Although the two love each other, each realizes that duty requires them to separate, and it is this very denial of their love that raises Rassendyll in Flavia's eyes: she finally tells him that he is "as good a gentleman as the king!"
Indeed, the novel is an effort in reprised tradition, a nostalgic look at the romanticized, “less-civilized” world of Eastern Europe that, to the British eye, must be filled with fantastic kingdoms filled with drama, beautiful women, dashing heroes, and dastardly villains. It is a comforting if misguided look into the past, one which takes root in the nineteenth and twentieth-century British values. As such, the book can be read as an unintentional expression of British elitism. Written at the height of the British Empire, the book can be seen as a kind of fable of British exceptionalism and an argument against self-rule and democracy that was gathering force in many parts of the Empire.