illustration by Charles Dana Gibson for the 1898 Macmillan edition of The Prisoner of Zenda – image: The Silver Whistle
Ruritania was originally the name of the fictional kingdom in central Europe which provides the setting of the adventure novels The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and Rupert of Hentzau (1898), by the English novelist and playwright Anthony Hope (Anthony Hope Hawkins – 1863-1933).
The name is composed of the Latin combining form ruri-, from rus/rur-, country (cf. English rural), and the suffix -tania, as in Lusitania, an ancient Roman province in the Iberian peninsula, corresponding to modern Portugal.
The name Ruritania and the adjective Ruritanian have been used to refer to romantic adventure and intrigue. In January 1896, in his review of the romantic play The Prisoner of Zenda, the Irish playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote, about the novel and its hero:
If it were not for Mr Hope’s light touch and sense of fun, the whole book would be as dull and mechanical a rigmarole of adventure as its last chapters. As it is, all the attempts to indicate the serious worth and rarity of the qualities which Rassendyl carries so lightly, bore and jar us by threatening to awake our common sense, which, if aroused, must immediately put a summary stop to the somewhat silly Ruritanian gambols of our imagination.
Very early, Ruritania came to be used to denote any imaginary or hypothetical country. The English Illustrated Magazine of March 1896 published The War of 1812, in which Harold Frederic wrote:
The reflection which is forced first of all upon anybody who sets out to understand the causes of this war of 1812 is one of doubt whether the world has really grown more peaceable in these days of telegraph and daily journalism and general progressive civilisation. In our own day we see nations stung into uncontrollable fury on an hour’s notice. We read in our morning papers that the President of Barataria has used this or that language in his Message; or we decipher from the tape the fact that the Emperor of Ruritania has dispatched such and such a telegram; and forthwith war-clouds darken the sky, and the air smells of sulphur.
Similarly, in The League of Nations, published by the Fabian Society in January 1929, George Bernard Shaw explained:
Take the case of the mandates. The Powers have not only their own dominions to govern, but countries which are placed under their tutelage until the inhabitants are able to govern themselves. Let us suppose that Ruritania is given a mandate to govern Lilliput provisionally for Lilliput’s good. Ruritania, neither knowing nor caring what a mandate means, but seeing a chance of extending its territory, grabs Lilliput eagerly, and proceeds to exercise all the irresponsible powers of a sovereign conqueror there without regard to the native point of view.