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A visit to Ruritania February 8, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, travel.
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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_goodness_overlooking_dresden

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.