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A visit to Ruritania February 8, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, travel.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
This Flavia was drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator who created the "Gibson Girl"

This Flavia was drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator who created the "Gibson Girl"

Prague---possible model for Strelsau?

Prague---possible model for Strelsau?

Ruritania is a nation in Central Europe whose capital is Strelsau, located between Saxony and Bohemia.  But you already knew that if you are familiar with Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau.  I picture Strelsau as looking like Prague, a city I visited in 1992, when western tourism was so new that my friend Pam and I stayed in the home of a Czech family and shared our restaurant table with a couple from Sweden for lack of hotel and restaurant capacity.  We visited the medieval castle on the hill and watched marionette shows on the bridge.  But as far as Strelsau is concerned, I could also be persuaded that it looks like Dresden in its pre-fire-bombing days.

Dresden ca. 1910

Dresden ca. 1910

My family’s love of The Prisoner of Zenda goes back three generations.  I have an 1896 edition (not a first edition—that would have been 1894) inscribed in the beautiful flowing handwriting of my great-grandmother, Minnie Webb Johnstone.  (Underneath her name and the place— Estherville, South Carolina—are also inscribed the mysterious words “In memory of  Hopping John.”)  When I was growing up, my mother would gather us around the television to watch the occasional rerun of the movie.  That was the 1937 Ronald Colman version, not the inferior 1952 Stewart Granger one, even though we were watching in the sixties.  My grandmother had idolized Colman, along with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn, and my mother inherited the feeling.

I have a 1963 edition of Rupert of Hentzau—nothing really special, except that the illustrations help me to understand why Ruritania is such a magical place.  There were castles in the forest, men fighting strenuous duels while keeping their jaunty brimmed caps neatly perched on their heads, palace guards with plumes in their helmets, people swimming at midnight in castle moats (as in Zenda), and of course the beautiful Flavia (princess in Zenda, now queen in the sequel).  Unfortunately, Flavia has a bit too much of a 1963 hairstyle for my tastes.


The black shadow of World War II

Here in the US, our imagination tends to range toward the British Isles and the western end of Europe,  and not to extend as far as Central Europe.  Certainly Britain can give us a good example of pomp (why else do we have that silly royal family?), but as far as I can figure out, Central Europe did it better, had more gold braid, more curlicues, more patent leather, more plumes, and superior castles.  I think one of our problems with Central Europe is that a big part of it is Germany, and most Americans just can’t get past the notion of Germany in its world war identity, especially World War II.  This is understandable, but it means that most of us don’t know a thing about German literature or about pre-20th-century German history.  It’s as if something was destroyed during the wars and will have to struggle to come back— like Dresden itself.

I wrote recently here about Boer fighters who passed time in camp reading about moss-trooping in Walter Scott.  In a memoir of the 1899-1902 war, a Boer named Roland Schikkerling describes his strange existence in the last months of the conflict, when the Boer guerillas had been pushed into out-of-the-way places by Kitchener’s blockhouse lines and “drives,” and they didn’t actually have much to do (apart from trying to find something to eat) except to emerge from their lairs every now and then to blow up a train or raid a garrison.  Schikkerling is poking around in the village of Pilgrim’s Rest, and he finds a copy of Rupert of Hentzau.  (It had just come out four years before.)  He is delighted.


1. Roon Lewald - February 8, 2009

Hi Jenny,
I had the same Strelsau associations with Prague when I visited it in 1978 – a Strelsau fallen under the sway of a wicked ruler. The Czechs then were furtively mourning the suppression of the Prague Spring on the officially ignored, 10th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion. Prague had such a tragically romantic air about it then. Your taxi-driver might turn out to be a former university professor, fired for dissident sympathies. A perfect stranger in a bar identified me as a rare western visitor, seized me by the lapels and, heedless of the secret police, poured out his bitter memories of Red Army tanks roaring into Czechoslakia – come not to liberate their cheering fellow-Slavs from Nazi oppression this time, but to crush their brief liberty. The beautiful city seemed to me an enchanted citadel of western civilisation, lost in the shabby gloom of Real Existing Socialism but never ceasing to yearn for the evil spell to break one day; as it finally did in the Velvet Revolution. Thanks for reminding me of Anthony Hope’s Ruritarian novels, which ranked with Percival Wren’s “Beau Geste” among my favourite books as a child.


2. Barbara Johnstone - February 16, 2009

This is nice, Sue. I have never read “The Prisoner of Zenda.” My dad didn’t tend to recommend books from his childhood to us, after we graduated from Uncle Wiggly. His favorite movies were Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Bros. You mom seems to have had more elevated taste!

I don’t have any association with Hopping John, except that it’s a dish people eat on New Year’s in the South. It actually seems to come from the Charleston area, where Estherville was. (But of course Minnie Webb wasn’t from there.) But it’s spelled “Hoppin’ John,” usually. So, who knows?

3. Jim Hackenberger - May 29, 2009

I think Strelsau is inspired by Breslau (Wroclaw), not so far from Dresden!

4. Jenny - May 29, 2009

Certainly, by the sound of the name, your assertion sounds very convincing! Do you have any other reason for believing that Breslau = Strelsau? I have done no serious research on the subject. I wonder if, apart from the chiming resonance of the name, it might be considered too far east to fit Anthony Hope’s description. But I am willing to listen to points of view on the subject…

5. Jim Douglas - September 10, 2010

………..nice, indeed. Have nothing to add.
Except, Ronald Colman’s last name has no “e”.
Would welcome more reflections on that charming
world east of France, even Germany, nestled against
maybe Austria-Hungary? All pre-1914.
Did read only the other evening, on some eBay listing’s item description, that actually calls for
Ruritania to be found in place of Saxony!
Thanks for your Intuitions.

Jenny - September 10, 2010

Thank you very much indeed! Glad you enjoyed it. I will fix Ronald Colman’s name. I had a lot of fun writing about Ruritania, and perhaps I will return to that magical land.

Jim Douglas - October 18, 2010

……..finally found your “site” again,
having lost it weeks ago. Ruritania is a
happy recurring thought for me, at work, in
moments of stress. A place to go and wake up.
Like Ronald Colman’s nap by that sylvan
trout stream, with the pines and distant vista. Wonderful pre-1944 Dresden, and even
beautiful Prague, still seem a bit too familiar, too conspicuous, to be Strelsau.
(Surely elements of both cities are welcome.)
Ruritania would have to be smaller, more
concentrated, almost overlooked. And the chap
who tucked it away somewhere in, or very close to, Austria-Hungary, seems nearer still. “Hidden” is a word that comes to mind.
But accessible to those seeking it. And it
would be perpetually 1890 to 1913.
I’d want to wake up there….and spend a
so-called vacation. And like your site here,
it might not be so easy to find Ruritania
a second time……Jim

Jenny - October 21, 2010

Thank you, Jim. I myself have found it difficult to get into my own site in recent days–a technical glitch caused by acquiring a new computer that did not remember my old passwords. Hence the delay in responding to your inventive and interesting comment. I love your image of “a place to go and wake up.” I would like to wake up next to a trout stream where I could also see the towers of a castle in the distance. I’ve always been drawn to both “nature” and “culture” and would like to discover a paradise that combines the two in novel ways.

6. Alex Stringer - October 5, 2010

YYour penultimate paragraph puts the whole German thing very eloquently. You have to get over the ‘wall’ of the Third Reich before you can begin to understand Germany. (I’m British, but even at our closer proximity, it’s much the same.) When you do, of course, a rich world awaits you.

In many parts of Europe they did monarchy far better than the Brits ever did. In England, a deep suspicion of Counter-Reformation baroque, an emasculated monarchy and the growth of the penny-pinching attitudes that came with economic modernity meant that any kind of state sponsored architectural bombast would have a difficult passage through parliament. London is after all, an architectural hotchpotch of a capital that compares poorly to many provincial cities in continental Europe.

Compare also Conan Doyle’s caricature of a European monarch in’ Scandal in Bohemia’ (pretty much contemporary with ‘Zenda’):
‘His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste…the deep blue cloak …was lined with flame-coloured silk … Boots …trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur… completed the impression of barbaric opulence…’

Jenny - October 5, 2010

Very interesting. Having a special interest in South Africa in the late 1800s, I start thinking of the trappings of power as practiced in the Transvaal Republic just before the Boer War: Paul Kruger’s big sash with an embroidered eagle with spread wings–something closer akin to central European style than that of the British style of that period. Victoria’s court certainly had lots of fancy dress, but there is something different from central European royalty in the aesthetic, and I’m not knowledgeable enough about the subject to put my finger on it. I recall my childhood ideas about royal dress. Somehow these styles seemed not pretentious or artificial, but just glorious. I think this is a concept that doesn’t fit in the present day!

Jim Douglas - October 22, 2010

…..yes. That “wall” of the Third Reich. Might as well toss in the whole anti-German sentiment.
Surely it was already in place long before WW2.
Even many years before WW1. Books and magazine
articles I’ve come across on eBay, especially- –and surprisingly—the American ones of the early 1900s, have a negative tone that quite leaps off the page. It was not such a big step by 1917—even with all the wartime propaganda—to launch young men into sacrificing themselves for “Democracy”. And how they did! (Was it really about 85,000 U.S. dead?) Now we can see the larger picture, the longer view. Surely American foreign policy was keeping a close eye on European developments, particularly the newly developing German Empire. By 1914,the Germans were poised to dominate the Continental economy, and a possible victorious war would literally put the Germans at America’s doorstep, so-to-speak. “Intervention” came when it looked like Germany was about to actually defeat all her opponents, what with the English and French on the verge of collapse. Defeating the Victor was entirely
in America’s favor. A continent in ruins, and
needy. And their strongest competition now out of the running. There was in reality only
one victor in 1918—The United States.
And what’s more, they’ve successfully played it
down in all subsequent “history books”.
>The so-called FORGOTTEN WAR.<
(Think of the Boom now known as the "Roaring 20s").
The Germans new what it was, and let it be known then………."Stabbed In The Back".
And has American Foreign Policy changed any
since way back then? You bet. "Freedom &
Democracy" continues to tolerate no competi-
tion. And if Germany had not been defeated
by formal American "intervention" in 1917,
one can imagine a show-down between these two
superpowers sometime later into the 20th
Century. Still, it was a dastardly act, and
how it was pulled off with German immigrants
constituting the largest ethnic count in the
U.S.A., and German-American money being so
central to the flow of American military might,
could—and should—be the topic of major
studies—aka: well written and readable books.
Anyway, my point should've been made way back.
Pre-1914 German Kulture, in all its breadth and
depth, has all but vanished from our awareness.
And it is a great deal more than just "forbid-
den fruit", more than a mere re-discovery.
The last near half-century of Imperial Germany
is only now, almost a full century after the
"lights went out" in 1914, re entering the
stage of World Culture. A true Lost World.
Its re-appearance will enrich us all………

Jim Douglas - October 22, 2010

….I should’ve added to that lengthy airing of
pre-1914 Germany—we have to fess up and accept
the blame for the ensuing disasters that arose
from the insidious—and that’s putting it mildly—“Treaty Of Versailles”. Even before
it was enacted in 1919, the “Victorious Allies”
were turning the screws on their “defeated enemy”. And there is information already out there that graphically describes the punishment
inflicted on Germany well before the official
disciplining set in motion in Paris just a year
after the Armistice. America’s share of the
spoils included many German steamships, includ-
ing what they called “The World’s Largest Ship”. Others were moth-balled in naval
reserve. Small wonder Germany sought revenge
in such a savage manner. It was a measure of
appalling treatment inflicted by her exhausted,
and jealous, adversaries.

7. Jim Douglas - November 26, 2010

Have been the typical Baby Boomer…in that I’ve
been more than merely entertained by the dynamics
of American Culture. It’s amounted to enthrallment.
But lately, something different has set in, and I’m beginning to see it from a clearer perspective.
It’s apparent that the spectacle of 2oth century
America is not unlike watching a “THIEF PROFIT FROM HIS CRIME”. The 2oth century would’ve been,and should’ve been, the German Century.
Imagine how different Europe, and the Western
world, would’ve been without American “intervention” in 1917/18. Fighting what has to
be acknowledged as a superbly conducted war, on
two fronts—the might of the British and French
global empires, the shear immensity of Russia,
Italy, Romania—all the while with America
supplying these nations with armaments—and
Germany defeating one after another. It’s when
America began to send over hundreds of thousands
of fighting men, the strain was overwhelming.
There were thoughts, or even serious plans, for a
round-the-world Victory Cruise! The German Navy,
spearheaded by the great liner IMPERATOR, as the
Royal Yacht no less! Imagine that—without any
precedence. Surely the Great War was to be followed by the Great Peace—negotiated by a
triumphant German Empire. Europe would not’ve
had to face the dreadful consequences of that
Peace imposed by the so-called Allies…

———–oh, I can’t finish this off tonight!!!
Maybe never in type. It’s clear enough in my

Jenny - November 30, 2010

Jim, sorry for the delay in replying—I’ve been away the past week. I’d be interested in knowing where the emotional force comes from in your various discussions. Is it something personal, such as being of German descent or having spent time in Germany, or does it come purely from a reading of history? I hope you do conclude your argument.

Jim Douglas - December 17, 2010

Jenny, your reply unexpectedly warmed me up. Cautious, sensitive….and I’m not really
prepared for any sort of reply, but here goes….
No time spent in Germany—that language is
so intimidating, I figure Chinese would be
easier to adopt—the descent thing is far enough back to be of zero/no effect, I think. And I didn’t know a thing about it
till just recently. (Almost a family secret).
I’m only finding out about pre-1914 Germany
and its powerful attraction, in bits & pieces
over many years. And especially from Acid trips in the 1970s—the old Teutonic religion with their winged helmets, the “look” of the pre-1914 Kultur, and most profoundly, German Music. The
terror & beauty of Beethoven & Wagner, while
tripping out…beyond words. (Is there anything closer to Heaven-on-Earth than even the briefest passage to the opening of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony?) Beyond Life.
And there’s the splendor of German royalty,
that incredible “Kaiser”. Something truly
Promethean, even Dionysian, in the German
“mind”. A deeper honesty, whatever that
means. And then there’s Nietzsche……..

What’s more, the most wonderful thing that
ever happened anywhere in this Cosmos, that
most astonishing of civilizations, the
Ancient Greeks, became the consuming passion
of Romantic Germany. The kernel so-to-speak.
Cocooned within a burgeoning 2nd Reich.
And what those mad Germans were intuitively
uncovering, exposing, revealing about long
ago Arcadia—well, it also died on the
battlefields of 1914-1918. Hellenism has
more or less slumbered since, despite the
eloquence of Oxford & Cambridge “scholars”.
Tame indeed, contrasted with the intrepid
insights of Nietzsche. Imperial Germany
is a template for Ruritania. There’s also
the visual arts—Bocklin and his progeny,
those raging centaurs. What could be more
German than Greek Centaurs!
Who has suffered more in the 20th Century
than the Germans? Maybe the Jews. And there’s that obvious link/bond(?) between
these two cultures. What really brought
about the awesome Holocaust, in a nation as
accommodating as pre-1914 Germany? The notion of “scapegoat” is really far to simple
and definitely misleading. We have to look
far deeper into the events we’ve been told
are the facts of history…and that “Forgot-
ten War”. We’ve been living our modern lives
with grand lies. The Victors, the champions,
have to give us the real facts—if they’re
still to be uncovered. I’m told so much of
the events leading up to 1914, and the en-
suing struggles, have been tampered with in
the very archives themselves. Things “lost”,
voices silenced……..History re-written,
distorted by the “good guys”, the winners.
The Great War remains a watershed. I’m only
just now beginning to realize—with no help
from our educational system—that the so-
called Second World War, wasn’t just an evil
Germany returning to it’s old ways, but some
kind of revenge for what can only now be said
to be one of “history’s” most distorted….

……….no, I’ve lost it here. Can’t go
any further right now. I shouldn’t’ve
started this tonight……….sorry. Jim

P.S. We have to reverse the Treaty of Versailles, and have a mere decade left to
do it in—before the 100th “Anniversary”.
“…a reading of history?” as you put it,
would result in me concluding as so many
others have—namely, “we should’ve wiped
that country right of the map”, & “I’ve
never met a German I liked”, & “We didn’t
bomb them enough”. Still, a clearer and
unprejudiced look/overview of the Imperial
Era of German Kultur events & transformations
can provide revelations and intuitions not
found in the current-(meaning the last
century of education)- curriculum.
We have to welcome back and integrate a
lost world, one we ourselves, we “Allies”,
distorted and believe we profited by.
Our modern age has been based on a Great Lie.

8. Jim Douglas - December 18, 2010

………that photo you’ve got posted up above—
of Dresden, circa 1910. Amazing! What a colossal
disaster for world culture a city of such beauty
was bombed to rubble. Everything I find on eBay,
and the W.W.W. of Dresden, is wonderful. In fact,
from the endless postcards offered up of pre-1914
Germany, I’m now convinced that Kultur was even more beautiful than any of us know. I’ve seen so many images of glorious train stations—like things out of “Oz”, or even a Ruritania. I doubt
any survived 1945. Wonder what it would’ve been
like to visit Imperial Germany in 1913, the 25th
anniversary of the Kaiser’s reign. It would’ve
been notable for other centenaries—of a Leipzig
victory over Napoleon, with a splendid and massive
monument dedicated, and still surviving! It’s huge
in the truest meaning….
And the German Forest…what can I say? The tree
under which Ronald Colman naps, by that trout stream, Earth & Sky the perfect setting. The
dark and dense woods harboring all sorts of unseen
apparitions—is that possible? Satyrs & Centaurs.

And Beethoven the air one breaths. Not long ago,
an acquaintance sort of challenged me unexpectedly
with “…what is this German thing with you!”.
Without forethought, I heard this quiet voice peep
out—from what part of me I don’t know—“It’s the earth beneath my feet”. I could hear it as if
it came from some others lips. Certainly Germany
is nothing if not the height of the Romantic.
And I can amount to nothing more than an admirer,
from the outside. A visit now—well, my Germany
vanished in 1918. Like the last page of a book,
the end title of a movie, the fade out before sleep. Watching Ronald Colman ride off to the
horizon in “Prisoner Of Zenda”, can squeeze a tear
from me. Even Ancient Greece had its beginning, middle and end. But Germany’s demise was insidious, an unprecedented cultural homicide,
and not of some minor adversary, not some quickly-
to-be-overlooked far off “foreign” race, as we
Westerners view most of the non-Western cultures.

Now I’ve got to find out where these insights will
lead me, beyond 1918/1919, into the twisted and
distorted mind of a “Stabbed In The Back” Germany.
The next two decades that were shaping a revenge
with really terrifying goals….and why the Jews?
Scapegoats doesn’t cut it, there’s more to be
found out here. And why is it we get such Grand
Lies in our school Histories, even our adult
information sources? America’s involvement in
1917/1918—the so-called Intervention, which was
a long time shaping up, was purely self serving.
As I said earlier, a Europe in ruins, with no
victor, played perfectly into American ambitions,
something they skillfully and covertly worked at
as they watched a swiftly mounting German adversary emerge after the Franco-Prussian War.
European events played-(manipulated)-into American
far reaching future “security”. And I can just
hear someone saying to me “…well, wouldn’t’ve
Germany done the same thing?” I don’t have the
America, love her, and hate her………

Jim Douglas - May 9, 2011

……..forgot to add: The U.S.A. “had to”
stage an invasion of Europe. What with the
looming shadow of Bolshevik Russia now taking
hold. 2 million American troops shipped off
to Western Europe to defeat the victorious
Germany—killing two birds with one stone.
Germany was already America’s strongest
competition. “The Forgotten War”, as Americans
soon called it, and fill the history/education
textbooks with stories of how England & France
together beat Germany. The U.S. boom of the
1920s. Is it any real wonder why events in
post 1919 Germany turned so ugly?
The new map of a new Europe, with its buffer
zone of patched-together states along its East
flank, to “protect” Americas’ Europe.
Germany was the victim, and we need look no
further for that answer to “…how could such
events happen in a once civilized nation…?”
Rather than co-operate with the imminent
German victory, and its’ new European order,
America The Good chose instead to “stab them
in the back”, hand the so-called victory to
the Allies, and in effect wash their hands
of it. But the real perversion of all this
is the lies. Telling ourselves, and our
children, for generations throughout the
20th century, that “…Germany should’ve been
wiped right off the map.” That Germany was
bad, evil—and as I said earlier, all this
anti-German “sentiment” was rooted in American
culture long before 1917—another clear
indication of a foreign policy that demonized
Germany, allowing a virtual viaduct of action
on countless levels of U.S. culture.
The popular media of the day, that is pre-1914,
is laced with nasty references to German
developments and progress. (AKA: competition).

It’s the twisted, warped, insidious deception
of the real events that needs to be cleared up
and revealed at all levels, especially where
it counts most—common education.
We are living Big Lies, and that phrase I read
one time—“…like watching a thief profit
from his crimes…”, fits the story of America
and the entire west, for the last near century.

It’s not up to the rare unfettered author/
historian to publish a book with honest
info. We have to redeem ourselves, if that’s
possible, from the crimes we’ve committed
against a once proud and superb Germany……

unable to do this stuff the justice
it deserves, right now. Need time to revise,
and expand these lines of insight/”thought”.
How about someone out there? Jim

9. Jim Douglas - May 9, 2011

Maybe Germany has a case for some “World Court”.
So much of the evidence is self-evident, exposed
already. Come on……….or is it far too late?
Generations have already come to be and passed on,
who lived their lives with this monstrous deception.
And what difference will it make to modern Germany?
At least the history books could be cleansed of
the blood, the embarrassing lies…………
and I know history is already full of self-
promoting distortions of victor and victim.

It’s so wrong to pass on untruths to our kids.

10. Fed_Up - July 11, 2012

If you like the Colman Zenda (& really, who doesn’t?), you might also like Lewis Stone’s “Prisoner of Zenda” – yes, the same “Judge Hardy” – he did a silent version in ’22: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013515/ The main criticism seems to be that “he’s too old”, but he carries it off credibly! & I’m sure that’s the reason he got the role as the prelate in the Granger version.

Jenny - July 12, 2012

Thanks for the link—I plan to watch that soon. I like the still of Alice Terry as Flavia. Hard to believe that film was produced 90 years ago!

11. Jim Douglas - September 4, 2017

……….wow ! It’s been more than 4 years since I last visited your
unique and charming website. And I just had a gander at my
forgotten “contributions”…….sort of embarrassing now…….

Couple of years ago, I found an image on a “Prisoner Of Zenda”
Yahoo image search…………..it’s not there now.
A frame enlargement from the 1937 film…….early on, as the
camera has left the train station behind, and fades in on a plaque
sign, announcing our arrival at the royal game/hunting reserve.
And then continues to pan to the left……with forest trees, and
gently down over a flowing stream, to the far bank, with a man
reclining under a tree, and two figures approaching from the
(our) right side…..of course it’s Ronald Colman, and his companions.

But, this frame blow-up was from those few moments as the
camera pans over the stream……and it’s pretty damn nice.
We put it through PhotoShop, cleaning, balancing contrasts,
and discreetly toning it. And printed it up at 5 x 7.

I have it in a protective clear plastic slipcase, and enjoy all
its associations, often at breakfast, and even ‘ve taken it
to work to gaze at……..all of which tells me I’m still under
its spell…..and in the real world, I feel Saxony most closely
fits the template of Ruritania.

On eBay, last year, I was lucky to out bid others for a fine
1898 Medallion, for some sort of exposition, with King Albert
lending a finely rendered profile to one side……..but some
jerk filed off the pendant/loop at the top, not mutilating the
edge much, and I intend to have some jeweller spend whatever
time it takes to fit on precisely, a new loop/chain holder, one
that looks 1898 authentic. I can someday wear it, among
accepting friends, along with my custom made brown T-shirt
with “Ich Liebe Saxony” in small script, over my heart.

Life is good…………….Jim

P.S. Guess you’re already familiar with “My Own Story”,
Luisa of Tuscany’s account of her times associated with
Saxony…circa 1890’s to about 1910 (?).
The subtitle is “Ex-Crown Princess of Saxony” ! It’s more
than a little good, and doesn’t need much to translate it into a
film script………also from an eBay bid, in an original hardcover

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