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.
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, for instance Robert Louis Stevenson's Prince Otto (1885). But it was the great popularity of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) which 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 (1901–27) and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Lost Prince (1915), and other homages. In children's literature, the 1938–39 The Adventures of Tintin comic King Ottokar's Sceptre eschewed literal romance, but is an adventure about foiling a plot to depose the king of Syldavia. Literary critic John Sutherland says Eric Ambler brought the Ruritarian romance to "its highest pitch" with his 1939 novel The Mask of Dimitrios.
The genre was widely spoofed and mocked. George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man (1894) parodied many elements. Dorothy Sayers's Have His Carcase (1932) 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 (1962), 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 (1933) is set in a bankrupt Freedonia. In the satire The Mouse That Roared (1955), 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. (Ruthenia is a genuine geographic name, identifying an area of eastern Europe somewhat to the north of the Balkan peninsula, in the Carpathian mountains, but is not an independent country.)
Other Ruritanian settings in fiction
The King Lives?, a 1967 episode of the Get Smart television comedy series parodying The Prisoner of Zenda, was set in the fictitious Eastern European country of Caronia.
In 2015 James Dunford Wood's Continental with Juice imagined a scenario in which the modern-day Ruritania (a recent ex-Soviet republic) is bankrupt after the European debt crisis. Refused a loan by Germany's Chancellor Merkel, the country is forced to consider resurrecting the monarchy via the long-defunct Elpherg dynasty, in order to earn tourist dollars.
Ursula K. Le Guin set a number of short stories and a novel in the fictitious Eastern European land of "Orsinia", which has been identified as being simultaneously Ruritanian and naturalistic.
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