Graustark, by George Barr McCutcheon
I found an omnibus of two of George Barr McCutcheon's Graustark novels at an antique shop. McCutcheon was an American novelist and playwright. He was born in 1866. His most famous novels date to the first decade of the 20th Century, particularly Graustark (1901) and Brewster's Millions (1902). Graustark is set in a fictional Eastern European kingdom, and it spawned a number of sequels. The books were very popular, and indeed romantic fiction set in fictional kingdoms, usually called "Ruritanian" after the country in Anthony Hope's slightly earlier (and far far superior) The Prisoner of Zenda, is occasionally called Graustarkian.
I do have a weakness for the Ruritanian subgenre. So I went ahead and read Graustark. The story opens with a man, Grenfall Lorry, presented as something of a paragon, against the evidence ... He's an American with lots of family money, but he seems too lazy to do anything with it -- he is shown being a terrible lawyer. He bumps into a beautiful young woman traveling with an older couple -- Lorry and the young woman end up missing a train connection and Lorry arranges for a dangerous coach ride in the West Virginia mountains to reunite her with her Aunt and Uncle (as it turns out). He becomes obsessed with this woman, who has given her name as Sophia Guggenslocker (before checking, I wanted to say "Shickelgruber"). Eventually he decides to go to Graustark to find her, confident that someone named Guggenslocker must be the daughter of a butcher or something, and will gladly leap into his arms and return with him to the US.
Accompanied by his friend, the curiously named Harry Anguish, Lorry makes his way to Graustark. But there are no Guggenslockers in that tiny country. To no reader's surprise, we learn that Sophia Guggenslocker was a pseudonym for the Princess Yetive. Ahh, such agony for Grenfall Lorry. For of course the Princess -- the ruler of her country -- cannot marry a commoner. Worse, her country is threatened with ruin as the result of a disastrous war with their neighbor, Axphain, some time back. They owe millions of gavvos. The only way to pay back the loan is an advantageous marriage, either to the rather dull heir to the throne of Axphain, or to the caddish young prince of another neighbor, who will advance the money in exchange for Yetive's hand. She has agreed to marry the young prince of Axphain, but his character is revealed when Grenfall overhears him offering to share Yetive's favors once he's tired of her. Meanwhile the other prince attempts a kidnapping, which Lorry and Anguish foil. Yetive's presumptive fiance is murdered, and Lorry is immediately the prime suspect, and the dead prince's father agrees to delay payment of the indemnity in exchange for Lorry's head on a stake, but Yetive cannot bear to have him killed and tries to convince him to escape ... Well, we see where this is going, and we can all guess who the real killer is ...
It's all rather humbug, of course, and it simply pales next to The Prisoner of Zenda. It does bounce along nicely enough. The book is horribly sexist, of course, but in fact Yetive shows some real spunk and independence at times, almost in spite of the author it seems. She's the best part of it -- Grenfall Lorry is rather a cipher, or an implausible paragon. In the end, it is what it is. Easy to see why it sold well in its day, and spawned many sequels, but also easy to see why it's nearly forgotten now.
[Jacket pictures to come!]