Romantic Fiction Rescued

Another long-gone, but not forgotten, work of romantic fiction has been brought back into print: The Heart of Princess Osra (1896) by Anthony Hope. This hard-to-find book has been resurrected by The Paper Tiger, which is offering a reprint of the original edition, complete with period illustrations.

Set in the invented European country of Ruritania, this thematically unified collection of short stories analyzes and acclaims the motivating power of romantic love. The universe is the same as that of the novels for which Hope is best known: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and its sequel, Rupert of Hentzau (1898). Ruritania is rich in picturesque scenery, fierce in nobility, valiant in spirit.

One might expect a country of castles and counts to be stiflingly traditional, and such incidental qualities as "birth," "rank," and "station" are indeed regarded as important. These qualities, however, are not all-important. Anthony Hope portrays the people of Ruritania, virtually without exception, as colorful, assertive, and surprisingly defiant of stereotypes. A bishop is capable of passionate love and expert swordsmanship. A soldier, dedicated to fulfilling meticulously his assigned commitments, also exercises independent judgment. Even a sneaky conspirator—"reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered" (from The Prisoner of Zenda)—has qualities that make him a worthy antagonist. The reader who visits Ruritania learns to expect the unexpected.

The Heart of Princess Osra, chronologically speaking, is a prequel to The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau. It takes place in the early eighteenth century, a century and a half before the events of the other novels. And while the better-known novels concern who is to be king of Ruritania, this book is concerned with the question of who is to be the romantic partner of the kingdom’s famously beautiful princess, the sister of King Rudolf.

Osra’s physical beauty is a metaphor for spiritual beauty. Her name, the feminine form of "Osric," is not an invention, but it is sufficiently unusual to suggest that the character is herself extraordinary, separated from life’s routine. Who will best love Osra? He who best knows her, and matches her. In Ruritania, love is the appreciation of the beloved’s uniqueness, accompanied by the commitment to rise to one’s best. And because Osra is not merely a prize to be valued, but a human being capable of valuing, she herself can learn what her suitors learn: that romantic love inspires extraordinary action.

The nine individual stories follow a pattern. A man meets Princess Osra, and immediately develops a consuming romantic passion for this extraordinary woman. In loyalty to his value, he performs an extraordinary act of courage, ingenuity, or passion. He does not act in order to win the princess’s affection, or to prove to her his worth. He performs his act, in most cases, without expecting Osra to recognize his deed, much less acknowledge or reward it. Sooner or later, Osra does in fact recognize and acknowledge the act; she does not, however, requite the love that inspired it.

The pattern, however, is far from formulaic. Sometimes a man proclaims his love openly; sometimes the emotion (or the action) is concealed and must be inferred. Anthony Hope, moreover, depicts a range of men (not all of whom are equally admirable) and a range of extraordinary acts (not all of which are equally arduous).

The final three stories make it clear that the stories in The Heart of Princess Osra are not just a string of episodes, but have a narrative progression. First, Osra encounters a man who breaks the pattern: a miller who is blind or indifferent to her nature. Failing to recognize her as Ruritania’s princess, he refers to her by the ordinary name of "Rosa" (an anagram of "Osra"). Knowing nothing about love, he does not and cannot love her. Osra then meets the Prince of Glottenberg, a man with a secret. Knowing everything about love, he teaches her by example that ideal love is unique and reciprocal. In the third story, the princess at last experiences love, and begins to reconsider what she has taken for granted. Osra then discovers in herself the courage to perform her own extraordinary act.

The resolutions of the stories are satisfying, but not uniformly happy. In The Heart of Princess Osra, love is presented as worth living for—and worth dying for.

As a collection of short stories, this book does not provide scope for intricate characterizations or multi-twist plotting. The love-story plot lines pose limits as well. Although Anthony Hope offers exciting action stories, he does not depict in any detail such subjects as creative work or sustained ambition, or indeed any intense passion apart from love. Ruritania, too, has its limits; we would not choose to live in a world of duels and dukes. And the flamboyantly theatrical dialogue, while elegant, may not be to the taste of readers who prefer more unadorned realism.

Within its limits, though, and in spite of them, The Heart of Princess Osra supplies a wealth of pleasures: vivid scenes, dramatic dialogue, and a theme both poignant and noble. We are fortunate to have it back in print.—Shoshana Milgram


Two New Books by Frank Spearman: Also back in print, thanks again to The Paper Tiger, are two new books from Frank Spearman: Nan of Music Mountain (1916, with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth) and Laramie Holds the Range (1921).

Each novel features a competent, honorable man, in love with a woman who is innocently associated with a group or family of law-breakers. The hero is intelligent, brave, skilled, and tenacious. He must separate the woman he loves from her dangerous associates, including an unscrupulous suitor; he must win her respect while fighting her family. He is called upon to risk his life and to save hers. He confronts round upon round of savage attacks, compounded by unforgiving weather and topography. Given that he is a Spearman hero, however, the outcome is never in doubt.

The protagonists—Henry de Spain and Jim Laramie—have the stature and ability of the heroes of Spearman’s railroad books, the best of which have also been reissued by The Paper Tiger (see "A Country of Giants," tia, March 1997). Spearman even refers, in Nan of Music Mountain, to his most popular railroad hero: Henry de Spain’s best friend in Medicine Bend is none other than Whispering Smith.

The heroes of Spearman’s later fiction spend more time battling with human opponents than they do fixing trains and fighting floods. All Spearman heroes, however, are consistently resourceful, capable, alert, and courageous. In the later novels, moreover, Spearman depicts women with similar virtues and strength of character. Nan Morgan is not only a crack shot, but brave and outspoken. Kate Doubleday, similarly fearless, is passionately committed to justice and explicitly independent in her thinking. In both novels, the man and woman initially misunderstand and, to a significant degree, misjudge each other; they then improve their understanding, join forces, and proceed together to conquer near-impossible obstacles. The happy endings—wrongs righted, enemies routed, lovers united—are hard-won and satisfying.

It is exciting to follow the course of battles worth fighting. It is inspiring to cheer the victories of heroes who deserve to win. Nan of Music Mountain and Laramie Holds the Range supply, in abundance, these rewards of adventure fiction.

                                                             —Shoshana Milgram

Copyright 2001 Shoshana Milgram. Posted with permission. All rights reserved. This review originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of  The Intellectual Activist magazine



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