20 June 2023

Musings about royalty
in Montenegro and finding
imaginary parallels with
romantic revels in Ruritania

Ronald Coleman and Madeline Carroll in the 1937 Hollywood version of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’

Patrick Comerford

I have been writing in recent days about Prince Milo Petrović-Njegoš (1889-1978) of Montenegro and his ‘wingman’ Major Marko Zekov Popović (1881-1934), who are buried in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

I was being interviewed in Christ Church Cathedral last week by Montenegrin television for an historical documentary about these dashing, debonair and swash-buckling Balkan aristocrats, and how their escapades captivated society in London and Dublin in the 1920s and 1930s.

My interviewers wondered how many people in Ireland know even a little about Montenegro. I suggested it may be difficult for the ordinary person on the street in Dublin to distinguish between Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova and Moldavia. In a similar way, they might confuse or find it difficult to tell apart Budapest, Bucharest and Belgrade.

The common perception of Montenegro, until it recently became a desirable tourism and holiday destination, may have been of some Balkan Ruritania. Many might even have difficulty in pinning it on the map. Indeed, asking some people to place a pin on Ruritania might be as absurd as asking them to put their finger on Ruthenia.

As we talked about the comparisons between Montenegro and Ruritania, the crew decided to interview me separately about the meaning of Ruritania in English-speaking countries.

Ruritania first emerges in popular literature in 1894 as a centre of political and court intrigue in Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda, ‘being the history of three months in the life of an English gentleman.’ It is set in the fictional Balkan kingdom of Ruritania, and the name ‘Ruritania’ has since entered the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the novelist’s and dramatist’s locale for court romances in a modern setting.’

Ruritania came into existence on an overcast day in November 1893, somewhere between Saint Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden and Brick Court in Middle Temple. Anthony Hope Hawkins, a young barrister who wrote light fiction under the name Anthony Hope, was sauntering back to his father’s vicarage from court when the outline came to him of a story of lookalikes set in a fictional Central European kingdom.

Out of this grew The Prisoner of Zenda, which Anthony Hope completed in his father’s vicarage. It is an adventurous tale about an aristocratic English tourist who bears a strong resemblance to the King of Ruritania and who is persuaded to impersonate him in order to foil a coup by his half-brother, Michael, Duke of Strelsau.

The Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906): ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ was written in his vicarage

The novel captivated its first readers and became the publishing sensation of 1894. It went on to become a bestseller and inspired scores of tales of royal intrigue in pocket principalities.

The novel was a runaway success. Soon, stage versions of Zenda drew eager audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, it was made into plays that toured around for many years. In Britain, at St James’s Theatre, George Alexander transformed Edward Rose’s adaptation of Zenda into a sumptuous romantic spectacle and reinvented himself as a matinee idol.

By the early 1900s, Anthony Hope Hawkins’s street reverie had become the ‘Ruritanian romance’, an established subgenre on page and stage. It was well placed to conquer the new medium of film.

‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ was an instant success at its publication in 1894

There is a distant family connection, of course. Anthony Hope Hawkins was a son of the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), a journalists’ parson and a writer with a strong Irish background, and the only son of a Hertfordshire doctor. Dr Frederick Hawkins of Hitchin, his sister Anne, and their cousin Susanna Hawkins all married into the Comerford-Casey family of Cork and Liverpool, their spouses being two sons and a daughter of Edwards Casey of Cahirgal and Elmgrove Grove, Cork, and his wife, Jane Comerford.

The Comerford-Casey family fortune came from the soap industry in Liverpool, but medicine and the law became the main professions of the family members, who moved with ease between their homes in Cork, Hitchin and Liverpool.

The foundations for Zenda and Ruritania may be found in early family stories of how there had been so many look-alike Comerford-Casey and Hawkins cousins that they often played at passing themselves off as each other.

It came as no surprise when Edwards Comerford Hawkins entered the ministry of the Church of England – four of his first cousins were ordained too: the Revd Henry Ernest Casey, the Revd George Edwards Comerford-Casey, the Revd William Henry Casey, and the Revd Henry Hawkins.

Edwards Comerford Hawkins became the headmaster of Saint John’s Foundation School in 1861, and by 1872, when Saint John’s moved to Leatherhead in Surrey, Hawkins had transformed it into an English public school.

Hawkins was also a well-known journalist and writer, contributing to Smith’s Dictionaries and publishing Spirit and Form in 1881. An invitation from the Dean of Westminster in 1883 to become Vicar of Saint Bride’s, the journalists’ church in Fleet Street, had obvious attractions.

The youngest Hawkins boy, Anthony Hope Hawkins, went to Saint John’s while his father was headmaster, before going on to Marlborough and Balliol College, Oxford. The Oxford reformer Benjamin Jowett was then Master of Balliol, and Hawkins’s contemporaries included Lord Curzon, future viceroy of India, and Edward Grey, later a leading Liberal politician. Among his more immediate circle at Balliol were LT Hobhouse, who became an academic and theorist of Liberalism, JA Spender, future editor of the Westminster Gazette, Cosmo Lang, later Archbishop of York and of Canterbury, and Sir Charles Mallet, liberal politician and Hawkins’s biographer.

For a while, Anthony Hope Hawkins practised at the bar and shared chambers with a future Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. Despite a brief flirtation with politics – he failed as the Liberal candidate in Wycombe, South Buckinghamshire, in 1892 – young Hawkins found his real interest was in journalism and writing. He began contributing short stories and society sketches to the Westminster Gazette, and as he balanced wig and pen in Fleet Street Anthony lived with his widowed father at Saint Bride’s Vicarage.

From childhood, Anthony was fascinated with look-alikes and doubles. Later he followed the Titchborne case as his cousin, Sir Henry Hawkins, exposed the claimant to the title as a fraudster.

On the afternoon of 28 November 1893, after winning a case in Westminster County Court, Anthony was walking back to the Temple, playing in his mind with the word ‘suburb’ and the Latin phrase rus rur (countryside), entertaining thoughts of an unknown, unnamed foreign kingdom. As he walked on, two men passed him by separately, one after the other, both sharing uncannily similar features.

He wondered what might happen if they had the same name, swapped places and walked off, each in the other’s direction, passing himself off as his lookalike.

Back at his father’s vicarage, he began to create Ruritania, and within a month, using the name Anthony Hope, he had finished a new novel about two Rudolfs, The Prisoner of Zenda: being the history of three months in the life of an English Gentleman. When it was published in April 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda was an instant success. Hawkins made up his mind – he gave up the wig for the pen, and more Ruritanian novels followed, including The Heart of Princess Osra (1896), Rupert of Henzau (1898), The King’s Mirror (1899) and Quisanté (1900).

Hawkins married Elizabeth Somerville Sheldon, an American 22 years his junior, in 1903. A year later, Edwards Comerford Hawkins retired from Fleet Street, and died at 78 on 12 February 1906. Two years later, Anthony’s first cousin, Kenneth Grahame, published The Wind in the Willows in 1908.

For his wartime propaganda work, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins was knighted in 1918. His writing career was waning, but he lived comfortably on the film rights and royalties from new editions of The Prisoner of Zenda until his death on 8 July 1933.

The first film versions of The Prisoner of Zenda were produced in 1913, 1915 and 1922. But the finest screen version was made in Hollywood in 1937, four years after the author’s death, and starred Ronald Colman, David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks.

Anthony Hope, the author of the Prisoner of Zenda, lived at 41 Bedford Square from 1903 to 1917 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I wondered last week about the coincidences that mark the popularity The Prisoner of Zenda and the appearance of Prince Milo and Major Popović in literary and social circles in London and Dublin.

When Milo moved to London in 1926, he took up a job as a bank cashier and a renting a basement room at No 44 Bedford Square in Bloomsbury. Three storeys up, in much higher society, lived the celebrity hostess Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell (1873-1938), whose circle of literary and artistic friends included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Dora Carrington and Gilbert Spencer.

No 44 had once been the home of the former Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, with whom Anthony Hope Hawkins had once shared chambers. All must have known that Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda, had lived from 1903 to 1917 at 41 Bedford Square. He died on 8 July 1933.

Milo ran an antiques shop near Grosvenor Square with the half-Irish Doreen Powell. They spent many hours together in Claridge’s, the Ritz, the Connaught and the Savoy, and he even reacquainted himself with the flirtatious Wallis Simpson – they had first met in Shanghai.

When Milo moved to Dublin in the 1930s, The Prisoner of Zenda was finding popularity with a new generation through the release of the 1937 Hollywood version of the film starring Ronald Colman, David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks.

The film’s success may have been due in part to good timing: it was released only a year after the British abdication crisis, which also involved two look-alikes sitting on the throne within months of each other, Edward VIII and George VI, all because of Milo’s flirtatious friend Wallis Simpson. Continental Europe was beset by intrigues involving dark Teutonic forces, and Milo even claimed he had been offered – but declined – the throne of Montenegro when Mussolini tried to install a puppet monarchy.

Ruritania and The Prisoner of Zenda continue to conjure images of a romantic middle Europe and a mythical time when history wore a rose and politics still danced to the waltz. It could even be the Montenegro that Prince Milo wanted his social and literary circles to imagine.

But perhaps we should not forget the inspiration and motivation to write that the author first received from his father, the vicar-journalist Edwards Comerford Hawkins, or his Comerford and Casey family roots in Ireland.

Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins, author of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, had firm roots in the Comerford family

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