Long Live the King!April 14, 2012
These days I mostly come home from work and sort of collapse. Which doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading — just that I haven’t taken the time to write down anything about the books. I’m trying to knock out my backlog this week, though. If you don’t see a post from me every day from now until Friday, that means I’ve failed. First up is Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Long Live the King!
Even knowing all the other things that Mary Roberts Rinehart can do — the funny short stories, the romantic ones, the adventurish novels, the suspenseful ones, the “had-I-but-known” mysteries, the novels that deal with social issues and modern society, the screwball comedies, etc. — I honestly never thought I’d see her try Ruritanian romance. But Long Live the King! exists, and is set in a vaguely Germanic country called Livonia, where our nine year-old main character, Ferdinand William Otto, is the Crown Prince. His grandfather is a) the King, and b) dying, and the country is probably on the verge of revolution, notwithstanding the fact that everyone kind of loves Otto. The King and the Chancellor suspect that the revolution is going to happen when the King dies, so they’re rushing to cement an alliance with their neighbor/traditional enemy Karnia by letting him marry Otto’s cousin, Princess Hedwig. Which would work, probably, if Hedwig wasn’t already in love with the adorable Captain Nikky Larisch, and if he didn’t tragically worship her in return. As it is, things get a bit complicated.
Seeing as this is Mary Roberts Rinehart and not, say, George Barr McCutcheon, this isn’t exactly a traditional Ruritanian romance. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that the difference lies less in the fact that Livonia feels more like a place I’ve visited with G. K. Chesterton than Anthony Hope than in the composition of the cast of characters. I think Ruritanian romances mostly adhere pretty closely to the Zenda model in that there’s a protagonist from an English-speaking country, a princess, a villain who wants to rule or annex the kingdom in question, and a grizzled old warrior who acts as an advisor. And then, occasionally, there are the revolution-hungry masses, although, again, that’s more of a Chesterton thing than a Hope one. And Rinehart’s got the princess and the villain and the advisor and the masses, but not only is Nikky very much a Livonian and a part of the Livonian system, he doesn’t exactly fill the traditional hero role. And with these four, I’ve introduced only about half of the major characters.
The Royal family of Livonia is properly a family, if a dysfunctional one. Otto’s parents were assassinated when he was a baby, but there’s still his grandfather, his aunt Annunciata, and her two daughters, Hedwig and Hilda. And they don’t always get along, in both dealing-with-royal-mandates ways and regular squabbling family ways. And then there’s old Adelbert at the Opera, struggling with his patriotism. And American Bobby Thorpe and his parents, who are only distantly interested in the politics of Livonia, although they’re more involved than they think they are, and the student Haeckel, present for a few pivotal moments, and Olga Loschek, present in the Zenda model but given a lot more attention here.
Long Live the King! isn’t Rinehart’s best novel, or even close, and mostly I wish we’d gotten to see Otto spend more time with his grandfather, and that Hedwig was more likable. But I love how Rinehart takes the Ruritanian romance format and makes it…less mythical, I guess. Less about a collection of archetypes with the destiny of a country in their hands and more about the country itself, and the people who happen to be in it, none of whom are completely evil or completely praiseworthy. It’s pretty cool.