Swashbucking European Romances: The Prisoner of Zenda, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Man in the Iron Mask

When we decided to have a Reverse Crossover Month, my first thought was of all the oldie goldies written over the past two centuries or so. You know the ones: Little WomenTreasure Island, Robinson CrusoeAnne of Green Gables and the like; books written not for children but for the whole family, read enthusiastically and unabashedly by adults (shame would never occur to them), now relegated to the children’s and YA spheres as though to tame and passe for adults to read.


Then it occurred to me that there were other books, classics even, that are no longer read quite so widely as they used to be and yet do not show up on children’s or YA reading lists. Not, at least, on any children’s or YA reading lists that I’ve seen. Books I’ve seen mentioned in a generous handful of more modern books of all genres and aimed at all audiences that were highly influential in their day and comparatively neglected in the present. It was time to unearth (or re-disinter, in some cases) these 19th and very early 20th century  swashbuckling tales and see how they hold up.

Swashbuckling, by the way, suggests romance. Not quite Romance, nor romance (swoon), but somewhere in between in a rosy-tinted chivalric setting where True Love runs rampant, if not triumphant.

The Prisoner of Zenda

Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda was published in 1894. Rudolph Rassendyll, an idle 29-year-old English gentleman visiting Europe winds up in Ruritania and meets the king the night before the official coronation. However, the king, with whom Rudolph share an uncanny resemblance due to a remote ancestor, is drugged and unable to attend the coronation. In order to prevent Black Michael, the king’s villainous half-brother, from usurping the throne, Rudolph is persuaded to impersonate the king.

Also [SPOILERS] in order to consolidate the king’s hold on the throne, Rudolph pays court to the king’s very popular cousin, Princess Flavia, another heir to the throne, and finds himself in the horrible position of loving deeply – and of having that love returned – when he knows he must return the real king to the throne. The problem is, of course, that the real king has been kidnapped by Black Michael in a rather impregnable castle, guarded by six stalwart men, one of which is a thorough-going villain of less conscience (and far more dash) than Michael himself. The other problem is that Rudolph would make a much better king than the real king, and yet honour demands that he sacrifice love and (possibly) the good of the country by restoring the real king to his throne, even if the attempt costs him his own life.

Why you might like this: I’d expected a lot more melodrama and anguished breast-beating. Although there is both of these, they are subordinate to Rudolph’s devotion to honour and – just as important – to Princess Flavia’s determination to do her duty, i.e. to honour. The love story has a double: adventuress Antoinette de Mauban loves Black Michael, and he her, although with less honour on both parts: Antoinette knows what Michael’s character is, and he is determined to marry Flavia and thus become king; consequently, they use and struggle against each other despite mutual affection. Unsurprisingly, this love affair ends unhappily. Rudolph’s narrative voice has humour as well as pathos; he is disgusted by some actions he is forced to take, such as killing a sleeping enemy, yet recognizes their necessity. The sentence structure is varied and pleasurably complex. The final two paragraphs are the crowning triumph of the story and its chivalric ideal.

Why you might not like this: The cast is (nearly) all male and all white. You don’t like characters who grapple with the contrasting demands of inclination and honour? You prefer novels that are more immediately applicable?

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1905 (gasp! so modern!) yet set during the early stages of French Revolution, called the Terror, when hundreds of aristocrats were sent to Madame la Guillotine. Baroness Emma Orczy’s tale follows Lady Marguerite, “the cleverest woman in Europe,” once a

“fascinating young actress of the Comedie Francaise, [who] glided through republican, revolutionary, bloodthirsty Paris like a shining comet with a trail behind her of all that was most distinguished, most interesting, in intellectual Europe” (p. 59),

now wife to an intolerably foolish fop, the English Sir Percy Blakeney. Marguerite is terribly unhappy: her husband has lost the love with once he worshiped her, and all her clever barbs cannot sting him out of placidity; worse, her beloved brother and sole family member, Armand, is heading back into Paris, where even the most devoted servants of the revolution have no guarantee of safety.

Meanwhile, all England and all France is mad for (or mad over) the exploits of the English gentleman known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and his band of followers, who have snatched dozens of families destined for execution out of France and into the safety of England. English society adores this unknown hero; France is determined to destroy him. When a French agent called Chauvelin discovers that Armand, far from serving the revolution, is one of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s League, he offers Marguerite a choice: find the Scarlet Pimpernel and reveal his identity to Chauvelin – for which her reward is the letter which incriminates Armand; or fail and send her brother to the guillotine.

“[The Scarlet Pimpernel is] France’s bitterest enemy, citoyenne…. all the more dangerous, as he works in the dark.”

“All the more noble, you mean…. Well! – and you would now force me to do some spying work for you in exchange for my brother Armand’s safety? – Is that it?”

“Fie! two very ugly words, fair lady,” protested Chauvelin urbanely. “There can be no question of force, and the service which I would ask of you, in the name of France, could never be called by the shocking name of spying.”

“At any rate, that is what it is called over here,” she said drily. “That is your intention, is it not?” (p. 110-111)

Marguerite is desperately afraid that she has failed to save her brother. She cannot turn to her husband for help; he mistrusts her. (SPOILERS) Then she discovers – too late – that she has been all too successful. With a member of the League as her sole companion, Marguerite sets out for France, determined to save the Scarlet Pimpernel as well as Armand.

Why you might like this: sibling love!!! You like twisty plots and deceptive characters. You find stories set among the insane luxury of the upper classes of England and France in the 1700s amusing. Dialogue that reveals character makes you smile. You like scenes set in pubs and ballrooms. You like characters who are torn between pride and love; between republicanism and privilege; between Scylla and Charybdis. You like swashbuckling characters who are darned good with disguises. You like love stories (there is a very cute side-love-story between a rescued French aristo and one of her noble English rescuers). You like protagonists who can act unconcerned despite a breaking heart.

Why you might not like this: It is a novel of its time, which means its portrayal of Jews is less than flattering.* The cast is all-white and largely male. You don’t like drama and (kinda absurd, kinda sweet) love stories.

* SPOILER: although this is partly mitigated: the “Jewish” man who appears is not a Jew but a man in disguise who deliberately acts out the worst of then-French stereotypes in order to deceive our villain; the (off-stage) actual Jew who lends him the clothes and equipment is implicitly a decent man. However, it is still an uncomfortable scene to read, and no Jew appears on-stage to balance the portrayal.

The Man in the Iron Mask

And now we come to Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask, first published in 1844. I didn’t realize, when I began reading, that this was the third and final of Dumas’s stories about the three musketeers. It is also the most depressing. May I subtitle this work?

The Man in the Iron Mask: The Book in Which Everyone Dies.

The Man in the Iron Mask: In Which France Goes to Hell.

The Man in the Iron Mask: In Which Everyone Sees Their Doom Approach And Yet Does Nothing About It.

The Man in the Iron Mask: The Book in Which Everyone Dies Horribly For Very Stupid Reasons.

The Man in the Iron Mask: Who is Actually the Least Important Character in the Story and the One With the Fewest Scenes.

As you can tell, I wasn’t thrilled with this book. Which makes sense: Dumas wrote it, in part, as an elegy for the age of chivalry; the characters who act chivalvously, therefore, have a bleak time of it and die miserable deaths. Such as Raoul, Athos’s son, who goes off to war determined to die because he is disappointed in love. Raoul dies; his father wilts while he is away and dies as soon as he receives the news of Raoul’s death.

I can’t review this book fairly, so if you like it, you have my apologies. Pointless death makes me so angry that I have no perspective on the actual story and quality of narrative.

But seriously, I think my subtitles are more accurate than the actual title. The man in the iron mask shows up in the beginning, is speedily re-imprisoned, and spends the rest of his life in a new jail cell with an iron mask soldered onto an iron helmet. Even his death is off-stage and unconfirmed. So don’t get attached to him; he doesn’t matter and he doesn’t last.

The Musketeers, as aspects of chivalry embodied, die off too: big, friendly, slightly brainless Porthos (all heart) unwittingly becomes a traitor and dies helping the friend who got him in the mess escape; Raoul dies because he wants to; Athos dies because he loves his son; D’Artegnan is humiliated then reconciled to a jerk of a king and dies four years later. Aramis, that shrewd plotter, alone survives; being all head and no heart, without his friends he is nothing but uncontained ambition.

Why you might like this: you like depressing wastes of lives; you like the young Sun King; you like angst and death. More seriously, you appreciate Dumas’s wordplay and the glimpse into different circles of society during France’s rise to power (there are some comical scenes of misunderstanding and intellectual humour early on); you appreciate individual foibles; you are interested in Dumas’s representation of this period of French history as a foil for his own. You like stories with characters (friends, family, servants) so devoted to each other that they die when bereft. You like stories where characters are torn between obedience to their oaths and obedience to their personal codes of honour.

Why you might not like this: there’s no hope in this story. The cast is all white and primarily male. You don’t like long stories largely devoid of happiness.


The Prisoner of Zenda is a fun, fairly quick read with plenty of sneaking around and strategizing. The Scarlet Pimpernel gives a delicious taste of danger and multiple kinds of love. The Man in the Iron Mask… I’ll pass on that one. But I would like to give Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo a try.

Your thoughts?