The Ruritanian gambit

Olivia Waite

May 17, 2018

You write one blog post about how S. Morgenstern isn’t real and you have to disillusion strangers for the next ten years.

Many, many intelligent, hopeful, bookish people of all ages find themselves searching for a copy of the "original" version of The Princess Bride. William Goldman framed his book as an edited "good parts" version of a longer, realer, crueller story by Florinese author S. Morgenstern. I know because I searched for a copy myself before the penny dropped. Later, as a bookseller, I would in turn have to explain to customers — some of them heartbreakingly young and earnest — that it was all a joke and there was no original, there was no Buttercup’s Baby sequel, there was no more of this world that had brought them so much hope and happiness.

Romance so often dreams up European monarchies and African princes and Middle Eastern kingdoms and fictional islands, and if part of the reason is romance’s fairy-tale heritage, another part of the reason must be to open up a space for hope and happiness. Not a wholly alternate world, such as you often get in fantasy or science fiction, but someplace that’s just a border away. It’s why Marvel fans make semi-serious jokes about visiting Wakanda more than Asgard. (Hot take: Black Panther is Marvel’s most successful romance.) There is something narratively powerful about shifting borders and opening up imaginary places in the map — tiny little not-quite-theres, as carefully bounded and patterned as a chessboard.

Because a romance novel is not unlike a chess game. We have a set of familiar pieces with established behaviors (a queen, a heroine) and known moves (a meet-cute, the Sicilian Defence). Within the strict rules, there’s room for the most desperate struggles before the final triumph. And like chess players, who watch the replays of famous games over and over and debate how they might have gone differently, a lot of romance authors get started because they read someone else’s book and thought: But what if … ?

Take Anthony Hope’s lively adventure The Prisoner of Zenda, first published in 1894. Hope’s chessboard is the made-up, vaguely Germanic kingdom of Ruritania, where the red-headed Elphberg family reigns. The plot hinges on the uncanny resemblance between new King Rudolph V and his distant English cousin Rudolph Rassendyll, our witty hero and narrator. When the king is taken prisoner by his devious half-brother, Rassendyll impersonates the king to buy time to foil the conspiracy. Of course, he can’t help falling in love with the beautiful Princess Flavia, Rudolph V’s intended bride. (Here is a much neater poetical summary by Richard Wilbur.) It’s a fun, swashbuckly romp in the best comic style that spawned a whole spinoff genre.

It is also bullshit of a particularly English-literary kind. Rassendyll is a more capable and patriotic Ruritanian than many actual Ruritanians, in the grand tradition of stories where the white protagonist out-natives the natives; the two female characters are a virginal trophy (Flavia) and a jealous, vengeful sex worker (Madame Antoinette de Mauban), both of whom are mere accessories to the men; and the fact that usurping antagonist Black Michael is beloved by all the poorest Ruritanian citizens is presented as a mark against his character.

This constellation of weak points — and at least one cavernous plot hole — lets queer romance author KJ Charles get a hold on the borders of this fictional country and pull it quite beautifully apart.

Spoilers will abound from this point forward, so read on at your peril.

In The Henchmen of Zenda Charles retells the Ruritanian episode from the perspective of the villain’s henchman Jasper Detchard. Jasper states flat-out that Rassendyll’s account is “a pile of shit”; this new book aims to correct the record.

Jasper is one of the Six, Black Michael’s international squad of hired killers. Like Rassendyll, he’s English, and like Rassendyll, he falls for a Ruritanian noble: charming scoundrel Rupert of Hentzau. Rupert steals every scene he’s given in Hope’s original, and like Hans Gruber he’s so stylish in conspiracy that you’re kind of rooting for him to come around to the good side, even though you know he never will. In Henchmen his charm is given free rein to delight, and his faults are softened, if not cleaned up entirely.

As for Jasper himself, he’s gruff and weathered and cynical with just enough shine under the sleaze. His narrow-eyed realism is an absolute antidote to Rassendyll’s hail-fellow-well-met heartiness, especially since Jasper takes all this business of plotting and killing and deceiving much more seriously. He has a profoundly welcome friendship with … but I think it’s more fun if that’s the one thing I don’t spoil. Jasper would approve: he plays things close to the chest. The stakes are life and death for him and he never forgets that. You’d think this would puncture the adventure, but instead it gives events a solid grounding for the twists and turns that follow.

Queering a villain is an old trick, but queering a villain to make him a hero is something else. To succeed, you must simultaneously make a villain of the hero. Rassendyll is easily villainized: in the original he’s plenty mischievous and bold, and Jasper’s revisionist tale highlights his skill at deceit and his burgeoning self-interested ambition. And remember, we have only Rassendyll’s word to go on for the reality of events in the original text. If he were to, say, kill King Rudolph himself, marry Flavia, and rule in his cousin’s place, who would dare expose him?

It is a beautiful touch that turning the false king into the villain also completes the broken romance arc from the original book. In Hope’s text, the power and pomp of kingship were Rassendyll’s briefly enjoyed dream before a return to real life; Flavia’s dream was that she could have a partner she could sincerely love and respect. Instead she bows to duty and patriotism, marries the real king, and pines nobly and silently for the rest of her days.

This is, as Jasper says, a pile of shit. In Henchmen, Flavia is revealed as a political genius, sharp-eyed strategist, and spymaster. The queen is always the strongest piece on the board, after all.

Flavia, it turns out, is actually working with Antoinette de Mauban to undermine Michael and Rudolph both and claim the throne for herself. She sees through Rassendyll’s pretense at once, but plays along because a fake king is a useful pawn. Everyone in this mirror universe is playing to Rassendyll’s inflated self-opinion, skewering Hope’s vintage heroics with pinpoint accuracy. Antoinette has been transformed, too — the original Madame loved Black Michael to the exclusion of everything, including backstory, but this Antoinette has a complete past of her own, thank you very much, and is determined to eliminate Michael from her present and her future.

And Michael … his original caution masks a profoundly terrifying abyss of hunger for loyalty, adulation, and obedience. He is abusive and cruel and downright violent, and it is only because he is not yet secure in his power that he bothers to keep the mask of civility in place. Jasper is a criminal and a cutthroat by his own admission, but he knows the difference between a man who kills and one who enjoys killing. Michael is a shark in human skin: an ancient predator cold-eyed enough to send chills down the steeliest of spines.

It is a good thing our heroes are far too sly and slippery to be caught. The fake king isn’t the only character with an agenda, and the number of double- and triple-crosses is dazzling. In keeping with the faux-memoir tone — which is so classic adventure — Charles gives us only Jasper’s point of view, an unusual move for modern romances. It’s a nod to the original, sure, but it also has the effect of keeping Rupert’s true feelings hidden for as long as possible. This is perfect for the twistiness of the plot, but I was very sincerely worried that some great betrayal loomed in the later chapters. Weren’t we still somewhat limited by the boundary-lines set down in Hope’s Ruritania? After all, a chessboard with all the squares removed ceases to be a chessboard at all. How was Charles going to resolve the tension between the original text’s fixed moves and her story’s altered, de-limited perspectives?

This doubt is a feature, not a bug: Charles herself describes the book as more “pulp adventure with strong romantic elements,” and one early review from Love in Panels bluntly declares that “if you are expecting a historical romance, this book is not one.” It’s true the finale does not come with trumpets and weddings and blissful devotion. Neither Jasper nor Rupert are that kind of hero. Any happy ending would have to take their nature into account: Jasper is cautious and self-preserving, Rupert is impulsive and not made for settling. Devotion would unmake him.

So Charles doesn't compel him to be devoted. As the post-Ruritania years pass, Jasper and Rupert meet and part, and meet and part again. They adventure separately, and they adventure together, but their trust in and affection for one another is never again questioned. It's a rare kind of happiness, but it works for these two specific men.

I found it perfectly satisfying, not least because there is so much more happiness here to go around than in the original. After all the swashes have been buckled, Henchmen has taken a man’s kingdom — where women are sidelined and even heroic straight romance is denied — and found room in that space for queer happiness and friendship and women as active agents of their own lives. The end of Charles’ book sees Flavia alone as the unquestioned, much-lauded Queen of Ruritania: Rassendyll’s dream has become her reality. This is what a Ruritanian revolution looks like.

The two books are probably best read as a pair. I enjoyed Hope’s adventure, but I loved Charles’ improvements. We know Queen Flavia has daughters eventually, so I have hope that there’s a romance in there for her, too, between the lines. I find I like the thought of both Flavias’ dreams coming true, both the personal and the political. I like the thought of there being room for happiness, even if we have to rearrange some things (as the great moralist Cher Horowitz tells us).

If I’m leaning on the geography, it’s because the romance genre dreams itself as a country. A place called Romancelandia — you can search for it on Twitter — where authors and readers and reviewers are all participatory citizens. (Except for those who are crowned queens, like Beverly Elaine Hunter Jenkins, First of her name and Slayer of Words.) It’s shorthand for the industry and genre, of course — but it’s something a little bit more than that, too. People address Romancelandia by name, speaking out to their fellow citizens en masse on Twitter and Instagram and tomorrow’s soon-to-be-favorite social media networks.

We talk a lot about escapist reading in this genre. Romancelandia is where we all escape to.

Or at least, it ought to be. This imagined country hasn’t been as welcoming to some groups as it has been to others: like any monarchy, Romancelandia has its obnoxious imperialist tendencies. For authors working within this inherited tradition, Henchmen offers one possible map for decolonizing the space. Because unlike real-world geography, the genre is infinitely expandable. There’s plenty of room for all of us.

Books in this review:
  • The Henchmen of Zenda
    by KJ Charles
    KJC Books
    May 08, 2018
    196 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy
  • The Prisoner of Zenda
    by Anthony Hope
    Penguin Books
    May 27, 2008
    208 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy

About the writer

Olivia Waite writes romance and historical fantasy, mostly.

Follow Olivia Waite on Twitter: @O_Waite

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