Beauty is a curse

200px-OsraA review of The Prisoner of Zenda on Calmgrove’s blog inspired today’s post. At his urging, I found a copy of The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope’s prequel to his dashing Victorian romance about Ruritania. Zenda is set in the late 1800s; Osra 150 years earlier. The prequel is the story of a beautiful princess (the ancestress of Zenda‘s hero, Rudolph Rassendyll) whose task is to learn about love.

Osra has two brothers, Rudolph and Henry. Their father, King Henry, rules with the temper of a lion — slow to anger, but wrathful when provoked. Rudolph is a wastrel, Henry in love with the wrong person, and Osra so beautiful that gentlemen of the aristocracy do the masculine equivalent of fainting whenever they first set eyes on her — they fall to their knees and kiss her hand. Although she’s unable to understand or appreciate their love for her, she does pity them (isn’t that just like a princess?); only when she finally falls in love herself does she understand the desire to enslave oneself to another.

A court painter driven mad by Osra's beauty

A court painter driven mad by Osra’s beauty
Illus John Williamson

This set of short stories, published in 1896, takes the Princess from about age 18 to about age 22, during which time several men die, or are driven mad, or make reckless wagers, or become devoted swains, all thanks to her charms (mostly of face, but she also has the Elphberg trait: red hair). She isn’t particularly kind (she orders a bishop to kill one man who has insulted her), nor sympathetic, so it can’t be her behavior that makes men want to die for her. Is it her eyes? or her blushes? or her slightly parted lips when she is trying to fathom each man’s curious behavior?

OK, so this is a bit of romantic (almost gothic) fluff with sword fights, swooning maidens (2 others besides Osra), courtly politicking, a kidnapping, disguises and mistaken identities, and one clenched fist smacked to the forehead (no gnashing teeth, however — I was disappointed). A dose of modern post-apocalyptic fiction is the prescribed counter-irritant.

So, is Anthony Hope just having a bit of fun here? Or are Osra’s trials a metaphor for something else? Why is her beauty such a lethal weapon? It slays a silversmith, a Ruritanian count, a foreign dignitary, and a painter; it ensnares a French marquis, a highwayman, and a bishop. Only two men are able to resist it: a lazy miller, and a prince whose heart is already promised elsewhere. One article (published, mind you, in a journal established by Ayn Rand) claims that “Osra’s physical beauty is a metaphor for spiritual beauty”.¹

I’m not buying it. “Spiritual beauty” would imply kindliness and thought for others, as well as self-awareness. The closest Osra gets to any kind of self-reflection is to post a reminder of the lazy miller’s indifference on every mirror in her castle.

The winner

The winner

But the reviewer asks “Who will best love Osra?”, and this is worth pondering. Which manifestation of love gives promise of future happiness and security? Is it the highwayman who gives up his freedom (and life of crime) to serve in the Princess’s guard? or the madman who kidnaps her and then watches over her as she sleeps? or the foreign Prince who loves another but will be loyal to Osra because his father demands their marriage? Turns out it’s the young student lounging in the grass and reading about Helen of Troy. Go figure.

Whatever. Anyway, if you want a quick afternoon read that takes you back to Ruritania, then this is just the thing for you. It’s available for free at various sites, and it’s a free download on Kindle as well. But don’t read it as an intro to Hope’s imaginary world; head first to The Prisoner of Zenda, which is more fun, more romantic, more everything — in short, more perfect.

¹Knapp, S. M. (2001). Romantic Fiction Rescued. The Intellectual Activist 15(3).

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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12 Responses to Beauty is a curse

  1. Dylan Hearn says:

    “Is it the highwayman who gives up his freedom (and life of crime) to serve in the Princess’s guard? or the madman who kidnaps her and then watches over her as she sleeps? or the foreign Prince who loves another but will be loyal to Osra because his father demands their marriage? Turns out it’s the young student lounging in the grass and reading about Helen of Troy. Go figure.”

    Or as is most likely, the author as he sees himself.

    One of the difficulties of reading anything from the past is that we view it through our own set of contemporary values. What may once have been seen as “the alluring behaviour of that most mysterious of species, the woman” is now seen as heartless manipulation. I’m having the same problem at the moment with Moby Dick, written in a style prevalent in the mid 19th Century which looks verbose and meandering to my eyes, so much so I feel like a gold prospector panning nuggets from silt.

    A lovely review but I may give The Heart of Princess Osra a miss.

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks, Dylan. I agree with you about the challenges of reading non-moderm fiction with modern expectations. But there’s a critical difference between Hope’s parfait and the substantial meal that Melville serves up in Moby Dick: the latter is worth the effort, with more value per calorie, so to speak.

      • Dylan Hearn says:

        From what you’ve said in your review I’m sure that you are right. I’ll keep going with Melville, though I have to stop occasionally and cleanse my palate with something a little lighter in style.

      • Lizzie Ross says:

        Melville isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I’d put it on my desert-island books list. Definitely top 20, perhaps top 10.

  2. calmgrove says:

    Far from being put off I find myself drawn to this like a moth to a candle flame — though I’ll probably view it free on Kindle at some stage rather than spending pennies on it. From your very thoughtful and detailed description it sounds nothing like Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales, which I must critique soon before I go on to Malafrena, her ‘prequel’ which is set in early 19th-century Orsinia. I doubt that it bears much resemblance to Ruritania, and Le Guin reportedly claims Russian literature as the main influence here.

  3. calmgrove says:

    Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:
    Lizzie Ross’ questioning review of this prequel of sorts to The Prisoner of Zenda brings out the challenges it has for us moderns. But I’m still looking forward to reading it, thanks to those questions!

  4. colonialist says:

    From your impression here, it seems that unlike some authors who kick off with some of their best work, Hope needed a trial run before entering the race proper.

  5. Pingback: Beauty is a curse | calmgrove

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