Vesna Goldsworthy says British fictional writers became obsessed with the Balkans because their source material in Germany dried up. It became difficult to imagine Rapunzel's world among the dreadnoughts and smokestacks of Bismarck's modern nation, so writers descended like a flock of predatory crows on the smoke-free fields of south-eastern Europe.
Byron was a kind of Vasco da Gama in this literary exploration. But it was not until the 1870s, with Gladstone's denunciation of Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria, that the vogue for Balkan themes took off. A pile of books was accompanied by an army of travel writers, many of them women who there found a liberty of dress and behaviour denied at home. Had Edith Durham stayed in England she might have ended her days as a corseted and depressed lady's companion. Instead the author of High Albania became known as "Queen of the mountain people" and had streets named after her in Tirana.
But this explosion of interest also established "the stereotypical perception that the Balkans were dauntingly complex", one result of which was the West's muddled approach towards the Bosnian crisis in the 1990s. And it popularised damaging stereotypes about "martial" Serbs or "wild" Albanians. The ambivalent nature of this interest in the Balkans was reflected in The Prisoner of Zenda. This late-Victorian bestseller, and the plays and films it inspired, have cast a romantic glow on the region but left "Ruritanian" as shorthand for all the British find comic and pretentious in south-eastern Europe. In 1996, when Michael Portillo visited Slovenia - a land about as stable and prosperous as Austria - The Evening Standard could not resist using the absurd headline "Portillo hailed in Ruritania". To talk of inscrutable Orientals, or grinning picaninnies, would now be to invite instant condemnation. But, as Goldsworthy complains, "advanced exponents of European multicultural ideals [still] write about Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians with the sort of generalised open condescension which would appal them if applied to Somalis."
I would have liked more about the impact of these cliches on western policy. Did the cult of the martial Serb, which I found pervasive among British troops serving with the UN in Bosnia, delay attempts to lift the Serb siege of Sarajevo? And Goldsworthy's dogmatic insistence that the Balkan peoples were always passive victims of English literary "imperialism" imposes a rather dour straightjacket on her whole project. There is not much humour here and no discussion either of the degree to which the Balkan states generated these caricatures about themselves. Ruritania may have been a patronising English fantasy, but no one in England invented King Zog of Albania - or Elena Ceausescu, for that matter.