In this review, I feel the desire to draw something of a line under a rather odd fascination. “Something” of a line because I always like to leave doors open. Still, it is time to move on somewhat. To explain how I got here, I have to explain a little bit of how my mind works. Feel free to ignore me but I guarantee I do at least think I have a point.
Back in 2011, during one of my frequent binges on Golden Age of Hollywood trivia, I read a film described as a “Ruritanian romance.” I’d seen the term before but had never followed up on it. For some reason, my curiosity was peaked this time. I found out that the Ruritanian romance was a genre, originating in Victorian fiction, that concerned swashbuckling adventure and intrigue at the court of a small, imaginary monarchy. When this form of fiction first emerged, it did not seem particularly fantastic. There were many small, independent kingdoms and principalities in central and southern Europe. The name of the genre came from Anthony Hope’s bestselling novel The Prisoner of Zenda which took place in the Kingdom of Ruritania. I knew I HAD to read that book. This is where things get a little hard to understand.
While many might find the above information mildly interesting, I found myself practically obsessed. At that time, I was just finishing Arthur Machen’s Victorian horror classic, The Three Impostors. While I already knew and admired some of Machen’s work, that particular novel was one of the most important reading experiences of my life. For weeks, when I wasn’t working, eating, sleeping, or socializing, I was reading The Three Impostors. Every day, as soon as I could, I pulled it out and read it, my heart racing with joy. For the first time in years, I dreaded finishing a book. If you want a fuller picture of why, I refer you to my review of that amazing, unclassifiable work elsewhere on this blog. Part of what enthralled me about Machen’s novel was his ability to conjure up an entire world and force the reader right into the middle of it till nothing else really mattered. When I finally did finish The Three Impostors, I began a futile search for a similar book that would take me to another fabulously weird, Victorian-flavored realm of the imagination. Ruritanian romances ACTUALLY created fantasy nations! Surely I’d found my next love! Well…
As the curious can see from my review of The Prisoner of Zenda on this blog, I found that novel an entertaining, extremely well-plotted adventure story, nothing more. However, I was not ready to give up on the Ruritanian romance genre. I tried one of George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark novels that I’d stumbled across but couldn’t really get into it and never finished. Next, I remembered reading that, while Anthony Hope wrote the archetypal Ruritanian romance, the genre actually existed before him. The earliest recorded Ruritanian romance was Prince Otto by the renowned Robert Louis Stevenson. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of my favorite books and Stevenson, as I’d recently discovered, was a profound influence on none other than Arthur Machen! My heart was palpitating and that’s actually understating my excitement. Prince Otto is in the public domain and I could have read it instantly online but, in my opinion, there are certain non-negotiable attributes when it comes to reading an obscure Victorian novel properly. Print, preferably of the crumbling and musty variety, is one of them. I had to wait. My frustration was finally expelled, of course, at the world’s greatest bookstore, the Bruised Apple of Peekskill, NY. I finally had Prince Otto! So what of it?
To begin with, Stevenson’s novel is a far more satisfying read than Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. It tells the story of the (invented) Principality of Grunewald, a German-speaking mini-state and its clueless ruler, Otto Johann Friedrich. While Otto faces plenty of court intrigue, Stevenson’s focus is not on the politics of the Prince’s realm but on the development of his character as he gropes for a form of redemption. This makes Prince Otto feel like something of a parable. The external events, while diverting, matter less than the way Otto reacts to them. As such, the sturm und drang of the plot often fades into the background in a rather strange but beguiling way. You’ll never read a more laid back description of a palace being stormed by revolutionaries! Stevenson’s characterization is also a tremendous asset in this book. Otto should be unbearable but I quickly came to love him, if not quite root for him. His wife, Princess Seraphina, is hard to warm up to at first but comes together beautifully near the end. There are several engaging side characters including Otto’s brutally honest but loyal friend, the court librarian and a sharp-tongued but kindhearted English tourist. Another major plus is that, unlike Ruritania in Hope’s novel, Grunewald feels like a distinct society and a place that the reader can really visualize. This is aided by some lovely descriptive writing in the early and late chapters of the book.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of good reasons why Prince Otto is largely forgotten. According to some comments of Stevenson’s I read, he couldn’t quite figure out what this novel’s tone was supposed to be. That comes through in some very damaging ways. Occasionally, the tone coalesces around sentimental humor or gentle sadness and everything snaps into place. However, more often than not, Stevenson jumps around uncomfortably and tries to smother everything in endless dialogue. For an author who did description and interior monologue so well, it’s remarkable how often Stevenson resorts to tedious chatter in Prince Otto. According to a note at the beginning of my copy, this novel started life as a play. I wonder if Stevenson was trying to salvage lines from that abandoned project. If so, he should have let them go. As a result of these problems, even when the story is succeeding, the effect is badly muffled and our attention is pulled away from where it should be. The finale starts out quietly moving but runs into yet another block of annoying chitchat. Still, Stevenson redeems himself in an epilogue with dryly funny references to contemporary authors Victor Hugo and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
In the end, Prince Otto is a fascinating minor work by a major author. Was it my dream come true? Hardly. Did it sour me on Ruritanian romance? No, but I am starting to realize that my fascination with this curious genre was really about my longing for a repeat of the magic of The Three Impostors. That’s just not going to happen and I’m ready to move on. Although, if I happen to find a copy of The Mad King by Edgar Rice Burroughs, I might return. But I’m not really looking…too carefully.