Many Golden Age books have a plot (or subplot) involving an imaginary European kingdom, often on the brink of revolution. The inspiration for this subgenre was ‘Ruritania’, the setting for the 1894 best-selling novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. Author Anthony Hope Hawkins’ ersatz Germanic kingdom is a short train journey from Dresden, diminutive in size, backwards in outlook and a place of swashbuckling adventure. It has never been out of print, sponsored successful stage plays on both sides of the Atlantic and film adaptations have appeared with regularity, in 1913, 1937, 1952 and 1979.
Ruritania became the basis for hundreds of imitations (Lutha, Graustark, Ixania, Riechentenburg, Vulgaria and Evallonia to name but a few) as well as parodies — the Marx Brothers’ film, Duck Soup, features Groucho as the dictator of mythical Freedonia. It was sometimes a German-speaking country and sometimes in the Balkans, and usually had an aristocratic ruling class in danger of usurpation or revolution. Although such stories were typically adventure novels, Golden Age crimes writers were not immune to the lure: Margery Allingham made a foray into the world of Ruritanian adventure with Sweet Danger and Agatha Christie with The Secret Of Chimneys, while Dorothy Sayers’ mocked the genre with Have His Carcass (1932) which featured a murder victim whose endless reading of Ruritanian romances contributes to his demise.
The Ruritanian setting became so broadly known that Christopher St John Sprigg played on it directly in Death of a Queen. When his detective, Venables complains ‘This place sounds dreadfully like Ruritania’, his colleague replies ‘There’s nothing Ruritanian about Queen Hanna.’
History Today: A Traveller’s Guide to Ruritania