The Subsequent History of Ruritania: A Narrative Meant to Be Taken Seriously, but Not Too Literally

Article excerpt

AMONG the many happy results of the political convulsions in Central and Eastern Europe from 1989 onwards has been the restoration to the map of the ancient name of Ruritania. Although the great popular demonstrations in what was then officially the Ruritanian People's Socialist Democratic Republic (RPSDR) were overshadowed by those in Prague and Leipzig, and less accessible to Western camera crews, they were no less fervent and decisive.

It remains uncertain whether some branch of the ancient Elphsberg dynasty will eventually be restored. There is already a monarchist party but the Cardinal-Archbishop is non-committal. However, the crowds which in those December days thronged Revolutionary Prospekt (which has since reverted to being Flavia Square) displayed an emotion unmatched in the country since the turbulent times of King Rudolf V in the 1890s.

By the time of the subsequent elections, at which the hurriedly constituted Democratic Hope movement won an overwhelming victory, Western attention was already distracted by the first signs of disintegration in the Soviet Union and civil war in Yugoslavia. So many old flags had already been unfurled again that few people in the West recognised the Ruritanian tricolour, one of several flags current after the dynasty reached its compromise with the rather half-hearted revolutionary gestures of 1848. The |Elphsberg yellow and red' was also much seen in the Ruritanian streets, and both in the country and abroad the old name of the country was again in universal usage long before the formal dissolution of the RPSDR.

Even by Communist standards Ruritania had for many years been isolated from the mainstream of history, almost forgotten in the West and best known through the various motion pictures based on the popular histories by Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau. Admirable though these histories are -- it has been justly said that they almost read like romantic novels -- and although they have recently been used in hard-pressed Ruritanian schools after the rejection of Communist text-books, they inevitably tell us nothing of twentieth-century history in this area of Central Europe.

There was no one cause of this isolation and neglect of a country which until the recent revolution seemed far more remote than at the turn of the century. It was possible then to reach it the same day by a morning train from Dresden. Suspicion of |capitalist romanticism' and the barriers to trade and personal contact even between |Socialist democracies' played a major part, with only Albania adopting a harder line. Certain freak atmospheric conditions in the Ruritanian frontier ranges also made instant TV and even radio contacts extremely difficult.

Indeed during the Communist era almost as little dependable news emerged from Ruritania as got in. Fleet Street lost interest after some problems with the Queen Flavia diaries marketed by emigres -- the authentication by an eminent Oxbridge historian proving premature, to say the least -- and the Ruritanians themselves made the best of matters with the help of the local schnapps, jokes, and ill-founded rumours. Perhaps one of the few occasions when the country's affairs were reported in the West followed the ill-concealed excitement and hope of imminent liberation which swept Ruritania in 1980 after the American Presidential elections. This stemmed from a misconception among a people notoriously confused in their comprehension of foreigners' names. They mistakenly believed that it was not Ronald Reagan who was moving into the White House, but Ronald Colman, so well remembered for his joint roles of Mr. Rudolf Rassendyll and the last Elphsberg king. The subsequent Stewart Granger version of Hope's history was not, of course, allowed to cross the Iron Curtain.

It may be that the abdication of the dynasty after Ruritania's nominal but wholly passive alignment with the Central Powers in the First World War was one reason for the loss of British interest. …