Ruritania: A Cultural History, from The Prisoner of Zenda to the Princess Diaries, by Nicholas Daly, Oxford University Press, 253 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0198836605
In 1970, not long after he got his foot in the door, President Richard Nixon decided to redecorate the White House police in new double-breasted, braided, and lanyard-sporting majorette-style uniforms. Public reaction was swift, sharp, and ought to have been foreseen. Critics likened the repackaged security detail at the people’s house to “a palace guard of toy soldier”’ or “old time movie ushers”. But there was more than sartorial folly at stake here. The new livery constituted an affront to the republican aesthetic. The Chicago Tribune condemned it as a “frank borrowing from decadent European monarchies, which is abhorrent to this country’s democratic tradition” – and despite the fact that, ironically, it was the French Republican Guard that inspired the president’s brief foray into costume design, the point may be allowed to stand. The New York Times dubbed the new house style “Ruritania on the Potomac”. Promptly mothballed, the uniforms were subsequently sold, fittingly enough to a high school marching band in Iowa.
What and where is Ruritania? It is in the first instance a small fictional Mitteleuropean kingdom, invented by Anthony Hope in his 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda, and inhabited mostly by chivalrous (or intriguing) royal courtiers and hardy peasants, racy of the soil. There are trains but no factories, moustaches are de rigueur, and appear to come in two kinds only: Prussian Handlebar or Montenegrin Bandit. The plot ‑ which quickly became the loose template for a thriving subgenre of “romance” or “adventure” fiction ‑ involves doubles, political machination, star-crossed lovers, and lots of swordplay. The original Ruritania exists in an “arrested time” zone, borders Saxony and is situated explicitly in the German-speaking lands. But interestingly it began to drift eastwards. In the big budget 1922 silent film version of Zenda, the signage in the capital city, Strelsau’s, train station is, as Nicholas Daly astutely notes, in Cyrillic script, and by 1935 Hope’s Times obituary located his imagined pocket kingdom in the Balkans. Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (1998, republished 2013), is a study of “western”, especially British, literary constructions of “Balkan identity”.
The Prisoner of Zenda achieved immediate and enduring popular success, remaining on the bestseller lists for around thirty years. It is still in print today. The first stage adaptation premiered in New York in 1895 and came to London in 1896. Films followed in 1913, 1922, 1937, 1952, and 1979. Hope’s story inspired numerous imitations in fiction, theatre and cinema, including the now vanished kingdom of Graustark (the word Graustarkian does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary) in the American novel series of George Barr McCutcheon, Krasnia in Ivor Novello’s musical play Glamourous Nights (1935), and Freedonia, in the Marx Brothers’ classic film Duck Soup (1932).
The original Ruritania is highly fanciful but not intentionally satirical. Uniforms of sorts, ranks, titles, medals, and accolades, feature in almost every walk of life, organisation, profession, bureaucracy, or hierarchy, military, ecclesiastical, sporting or academic, and so on and on. They are unavoidable, sometimes indispensable, and serve practical as well as symbolic purposes. Children are awarded gold and silver stars in primary school. But Napoleon Bonaparte did not have the ubiquitous or quotidian in mind when he declared “you call these medals and ribbons baubles; well, it is with such baubles that men are led”. He meant pomp and spectacle. “The people clamour for distinction. See how the crowd is awed by the medals and orders worn by foreign diplomats.” It is a matter of taste and degree. Judges wear gowns to project the dignity of the court, even in the American republic, where the head of state is addressed as Mr President. But when a chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, avowedly modelled his own gown on that of the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado, he stepped boldly into the realm of Ruritania.
The adjective “Ruritanian” intimates a place, a “chocolate box” kingdom, frothy romance and improbable adventure, but its primary attribute is visual; and that brightly coloured confection stems, as Daly points out, from the stage and screen rather than the book. The sets of theatrical adaptations are routinely described as “lush”, “lavish” or “sumptuous” – though The Daily Telegraph scoffed at “cardboard and tinsel”. Eighty thousand dollars, or over one and quarter million in today’s money, was spent on uniforms for the 1922 – black-and-white – film production. In fact, the uniform fetish defines Ruritania, as Groucho Marx illustrates in the closing sequence of the brilliantly subversive Duck Soup, when he appears in scene upon rapidly following scene in different, but equally preposterous, hats and tunics. Grandiose costumes and arcane flummery are not to be taken seriously of course, and yet Anthony Hope’s fantasy kingdom has been read as a “refracted” depiction of late Victorian Britain. And, after more than 125 years, it may still, remarkably, be read as such. As the historian David Cannadine observes: “with the possible exception of the Papacy, no head of state is surrounded by more popular ritual than Queen Elizabeth II”.
The British monarchy’s rich repertoire and adroit deployment of pageant and ritual was most recently on display at Prince Philip’s superbly executed funeral – a masterclass in the new art of ceremonial in a time of pandemic. The staging of public spectacle is one vital resource at the disposal of the crown; the disbursement of patronage, in the shape of the honours system, is another. For lofty-sounding titles are as important as fine plumage on their bicorne hats to all self-respecting Ruritanians. But while it is true that the great majority of recipients are honoured to be honoured, the need felt by others to excuse their acceptance suggests that something not wholly commendable may be afoot. As many worthies have accepted “a K” or knighthood on behalf of their mother, dead or alive or ‑ as in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s case, his dead father ‑ as disgraced politicians have resigned to spend more time with their families. Sir Ivan Morrison bent the knee because “the people wanted it”. Why plead such extenuation? Then there are those wily supplicants who turn down an offer because they are holding out, sometimes successfully, for a better, even shinier, gong.
The select minority who have genuinely declined honours and titles tend to fall into three broad categories. First, those, like John Cleese (though not Basil Fawlty) who find the whole carry-on “silly”. Second, political objectors, who refuse honours on socialist or democratic grounds. And third ‑ and increasingly – people who do not want the letter E (for Empire) after their names. There are myriad other reasons, to be sure, for saying no, some undoubtedly of an entirely personal nature, but what is striking, if not surprising, is that so few of the refuseniks cite republican principle. The actress Honor Blackman, and the historian of political thought (including the history of republican values) Professor Quentin Skinner, both belong to that Spartan band.
This particular peculiarity – the fact that conscientious objectors repudiate imperialism more readily than monarchy – is not a function of residual royalist sentiment; rather it suggests that monarchy is so thoroughly baked into the British national psyche that it is, in a way, almost invisible. In spite of a half-century’s worth of tabloid scandal, only its initial mishandling of Princess Diana’s death seriously dented public support for the crown. In the twenty-first century opinion polls record on average a 70 per cent approval rating, rising to 80 per cent in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, 2012. The impact of the most recent Harry and Meghan episode of the royal soap opera, which has been running longer than Coronation Street, is still too close to call. There are substantive arguments in favour of monarchy to do with political stability, continuity and national unity, but it is safe to surmise that the ordinary punters who crowd the Mall to cheer on a horse-drawn gold state coach are there for essentially Ruritanian reasons. Nevertheless there has not been, since Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy (1988), any serious abolitionist critique of this culturally significant, archaic and unelected, tax payer-funded, branch of government.
In 1976 Nairn’s fellow New Left luminary Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. The words selected for analysis include Anarchism, Capitalism, Communism, Democracy, Imperialism, Nationalist, Radical and Socialist, but not Republican. Christopher Hill, Marxist historian of the seventeenth century, is concerned more with the dogmatics of the “Puritan Revolution” than with the rhetoric of the English Republic. Monarchy, it seems, is so intricately woven into the fabric of English society that it simply does not appear on the radicals’ intellectual radar or register on the radical political agenda. What sort of communist, beyond the shores of the United Kingdom, would refer, as Hill’s old comrade in the Communist Party Historians Group, Eric Hobsbawm, did, to “our monarchs”? Hobsbawm and the novelist, former communist, and CND activist Doris Lessing, both ended their days as Companions of Honour – but no title attaches to that particular award, so that’s alright then … And while British communists were generally absentminded about hereditary monarchy, the SNP aspires not to a Scottish republic but to an independent polity which retains the queen as head of state.
It is easy to mock in a Ruritanian way, but one would be ill-advised to underestimate the resilience, adaptability and public appeal of British monarchy in its modern iteration. The antediluvian heraldic outfits of the Garter Principal King of Arms and sundry other royal flunkies which appear patently ridiculous to some fans of Monty Pythons Flying Circus signify imperishable “tradition” and national identity to most of Her Gracious Majesty’s loyal subjects. If, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum on the European Union, a discerning bookie had cast his mind back to 1997, the death of “the people’s princes” and the scenes of England’s nervous breakdown on the Mall, he would have promptly shortened his odds on a leave vote. Brexit, breakdown, and the gorgeous trappings of monarchy are each and all expressions of an overwrought English exceptionalism. Ruritanianism, it turns out, has real world consequences.
Jim Smyth is emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. His Henry Joy McCracken was published last year by University College Dublin Press.