Michael von Elphberg: An Appreciation
"Heaven doesn't always make the right men
Friedrich (Fritz) von Tarlenheim, c.
So - was Michael von Elphberg, Duke and Governor of Strelsau, as
'Black' as painted?
George Featherly (friend of Hon. Rudolf Rassendyll, on staff of
British Embassy in Paris) described Michael - who, it must be
recalled, was still extremely young (under 27) at the time of his
"a great man"; "An extremely accomplished man, I thought
Frau ____ (innkeeper at Zenda, widow, mother-of-two):
The old lady, indeed, did not hesitate to express regret
that the duke was not on the throne, instead of his brother.
"We know Duke Michael," said she. "He has always lived among us;
every Ruritanian knows Duke Michael. But the King is almost a
stranger; he has been so much abroad, not one in ten knows him
even by sight."
Hon. Rudolf Rassendyll (quoting Oberst Sapt's snobbish
establishment view of Strelsau's socio-economic and political
The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new.
Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and
embrace the narrow, tortuous, and picturesque streets of the
original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the
inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts,
lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a
poverty-stricken, turbulent, and (in large measure) criminal
These social and local divisions corresponded, as I knew from
Sapt's information, to another division more important to me. The
New Town was for the King; but to the Old Town Michael of Strelsau
was a hope, a hero, and a darling.
As Rassendyll observed the protests at 'Rudolf V''s coronation in
...the mass of the people received me in silence and with
sullen looks, and my dear brother's portrait ornamented most of
the windows - which was an ironical sort of greeting to the King.
I was quite glad that he had been spared the unpleasant sight. He
was a man of quick temper, and perhaps he would not have taken it
so placidly as I did.
One is left with the lingering suspicion that Rassendyll was
hijacked by the 'wrong' side. Who were Michael's enemies, when all's
said and done?
- The Court clique around the dissolute Rudolf
- The Cardinal-Archbishop of Strelsau, representing the Church (in
the era of Pius IX's notorious Syllabus
of Errors, no. 80 of which rejected any notion of the
Papacy coming to terms with "progress, liberalism, and modern
- The military
- The wealthy privileged classes of the Neustadt
...which suggests he was doing something right (or rather, Left)!
What seems to be implicit, then, is a conflict between reform and
absolutism in the years following the First International, the
foundation of the German Social Democratic Party, and the defeat of
the Paris Commune. We know from The Heart of
Princess Osra that there was significant political unrest
in Ruritania around the time of Rudolf V's infancy: the White Palace
was destroyed in the 1848 Revolution, and Strelsau Public Gardens
were laid out on its site. We also know that the preferred
replacement for Michael as Governor of Strelsau was old Marshal von
Strakencz. Yes: military rule for a city in which the working-classes
were already "turbulent"... (And when and where, one
wonders, did von Strakencz and Sapt win their medals? - Fighting
against their own people in '48?) In short, the Duke's plan to depose
Rudolf V in a fairly bloodless palace coup may well have been
intended to forestall a potentially more desperate and violent turn
of events. Had he led a popular uprising, the army would probably
have turned the Strelsauer Altstadt into a slaughterhouse, like
Information on the Elphberg dynasty in The Heart of Princess Osra raises
the possibility that Sapt (either from ignorance or by intent) may
have misled Rassendyll as to the nature of Michael's ambitions. The
Counts von Lauengram, as descendants of Rudolf III's younger brother
Heinrich, would have had a claim to the throne superior to that of a
merely morganatic line. Albert von Lauengram, last direct male heir
of this junior line of the Elphbergs, was one of the Six, and was
killed by Sapt's men at Zenda. It is surely possible that the initial
plan was to install Albert as King in place of Rudolf, and for
Michael to take over the Chancellorship (the post for which one
suspects his father had been grooming him), which would have given
him more political scope than merely being a King Consort to
The 2 Cities of Strelsau
There are disturbing undercurrents in the personal hostility
Rudolf's faction expressed towards the Duke. Michael - black-haired,
brown-eyed, dark enough to have gained the epithet 'Black' - did not
look like a 'proper' red-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned Elphberg.
His mother was of "good" family, but not sufficiently "exalted" to be
Queen, and there are hints that his parents' marriage was considered
a mésalliance in other than class terms: Rassendyll,
while in character as Rudolf, likened him (to his face!) to a
"mongrel dog" (mischling in German - a word with an ominous
future). Moreover, historically, the Elphberg dynasty tended towards
unambiguously Teutonic masculine names: Rudolf, Heinrich, Albert.
Michael's name, although popular among Catholics as that of the
Warrior Archangel, is Hebrew. Viewed in the social and
cultural context of late 19C Central Europe, cumulatively these
suggestions imply that Michael's mother was of a high-ranking,
converted Jewish family, and that the Ruritanian Establishment's
hostility towards the boy was partly driven by anti-Semitism. This
may have been a factor in his long-running dispute over precedence
with the Cardinal-Archbishop of Strelsau.
Hope ultimately jolts reader-preconceptions in giving Michael a
chivalrous, genuinely heroic death. Despite hints of failing health,*
he was fatally wounded fighting to save a courtesan he did not really
love from being raped by a treacherous ally. This overturns readers'
assumptions that the Duke's non-participation in previous fighting
was due to cowardice: in this crisis, he is shown to have been
physically courageous to the point of recklessness. Despite the
tremendous dramatic potential of a sword duel in a darkened room, his
last scene has never been depicted properly on film - presumably
because it would complicate viewer-loyalties.
*The fluctuating high colour in the cheeks, the burning brilliance
of his eyes, and air of intensity are ominous signs to any reader of
19C fiction. Rassendyll did not spend enough time with him to mention
a cough, but a 19C reader would perhaps pick up the hints that the
champion of the Altstadt had contracted the most common disease of
the urban poor: pulmonary tuberculosis. This would explain why he was
in such a hurry politically (after all, he could have gone abroad for
a couple of years, let Rudolf make himself unpopular enough to be
deposed, and then returned triumphant at the people's bidding), and
why he did little fighting in person.