Ruritanian romance is a genre of literature, film and theatre comprising novels, stories, plays and films set in a fictional country, usually in Central or Eastern Europe, such as the "Ruritania" that gave the genre its name. The popularity of the Graustark novels led to this type of story also being called Graustarkian romances.
Such stories are typically swashbuckling adventure novels, tales of high romance and intrigue, centered on the ruling classes, almost always aristocracy and royalty, although (for instance) Winston Churchill's novel Savrola, in every other way a typical example of the genre, concerns a revolution to restore rightful parliamentary government in the republican country of Laurania. The themes of honor, loyalty and love predominate, and the works frequently feature the restoration of legitimate government after a period of usurpation or dictatorship.
History of the genre
Romantic stories about the royalty of a fictional kingdom were common in fiction, for instance Robert Louis Stevenson's Prince Otto, prior to Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda. But it was the great popularity of that 1894 novel that set the type, with its handsome political decoy restoring the rightful king to the throne, and resulted in a burst of similar popular fiction, such as George Barr McCutcheon's Graustark novels and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Lost Prince and other homages. Another example is The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) by Eric Ambler (titled A Coffin for Dimitrios in the US), which was made into a 1944 film version.
The genre was widely spoofed and mocked. George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man parodied many elements. Dorothy Sayers's Have His Carcase featured as the murder victim a man deceived by his murderers because of his foolish belief in his royal ancestry, fed by endless reading of Ruritanian romances. In Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the main narrator has the delusion of being the incognito king of a "distant northern land" who romantically escaped a Soviet-backed revolution. The Marx Brothers film Duck Soup is set in a bankrupt Freedonia. In the satire The Mouse That Roared, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick attempts to avoid bankruptcy by declaring war on the United States as a ploy for gaining American aid.
The popularity of the genre declined after the first part of the twentieth century. Aside from the change in literary taste, the royalist elements of Ruritanian romances became less plausible as many European monarchies receded even from memory, and their restorations grew less likely.
Many elements of the genre have been transplanted into fantasy worlds, particularly those of fantasy of manners and alternate history. The science fiction writer Andre Norton first reached success with a 1934 Ruritanian novel, The Prince Commands. Although "Ruritania" originally referred to a contemporary country, the idea has been adapted for use in historical fiction. A subgenre of this is historical romance, such as Jennifer Blake's Royal Seduction and its sequel Royal Passion; both are set in the nineteenth century and feature Prince Rolfe (later King) and his son Prince Roderic respectively, of the fictional Balkan country of Ruthenia. (It must be noted, though, that an area of eastern Europe somewhat to the north of the Balkan peninsula, in the Carpathian mountains, is known as, among other names, Ruthenia.)
Other Ruritanian settings in fiction
The countries of Syldavia and Borduria, in The Adventures of Tintin are clearly literary descendants of Ruritania, this origin especially accentuated by the classical Ruritarian plot device of identical twins—one good, the other bad—used to resolve a mystery in King Ottokar's Sceptre.
John Buchan's The House of the Four Winds (1935), in which Scottish adventurers help in the overthrow of a corrupt republic and the restoration of the monarchy, is set in the fictional Evallonia.
Eric Ambler's 1936 novel The Dark Frontier, taking place in the fictional southern European country of Ixania in the Balkans, both uses and parodies the main elements of this subgenre. And its influence is also evident in the first scenes of Charlie Chaplin's 1957 movie A King in New York, where King Igor Shahdov is dethroned and escapes his unnamed country for America. The sinister Crown Prince Rudolf, whose country is never named and who confronts Simon Templar in several books of the 1930s also has Ruritanian overtones.
Ian Fleming's Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (1964) is (partly) set in the fictional mid-European Vulgaria, and deals with a typical Ruritanian theme: the necessary overthrow of wicked tyrant Baron Bomburst and his child-hating Baroness.
Latveria, ruled by Doctor Doom in the Marvel Comics Universe, is a recognisable late addition to the genre—with the manifest anachronism of the series placing an absolute monarchy in post–World War II Europe.
In the 1938 story Biggles Goes to War, the eponymous World War I pilot Biggles was approached by Maltovia to set up an air force to protect them from their neighbour Lovitzna, both Ruritanian-style central European countries.
In the 1967 story The Mystery of the Silver Spider, the Three Investigators befriended Prince Djaro from Varania, a Ruritanian-style central European monarchy, during his visit to the United States. To ensure successful coronation of the prince, and hence prevent Varania from falling under the Communist Bloc, the United States government despatch the Three Investigators to Varania.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, a 2014 comedy film written and directed by Wes Anderson, is set in the fictional nation of Zubrowka, a central European alpine state teetering on the outbreak of war.
In 2015 James Dunford Wood's Continental With Juice imagined a scenario in which the modern Ruritania (a recent ex-soviet republic) is bankrupt after the credit crunch. Refused a loan by Chancellor Merkel, they are forced to consider resurrecting the monarchy through the long defunct Elpherg dynasty, in order to earn tourist dollars.
- John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p. 826 ISBN 978-0-312-19869-5
- Prisoner of Zenda
- Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2007), p. 113 ISBN 019157869X
- McCarthy, Mary (June 4, 1962). "A Bolt from the Blue". The New Republic. Revised version in Mary McCarthy (2002). A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays. New York: The New York Review of Books. pp. 83–102. ISBN 1-59017-010-5. Retrieved 2006-09-25.
- John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy p. 827 ISBN 978-0-312-19869-5