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2 August 2013

Comrade Baron - A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy


Following the resounding success of the Dutch original, Jaap Scholten’n Comrade Baron has been published in English, too. We are re-printing here a passage selected by the author from the new release by Corvina Press of Budapest. The archival photos are not taken from the Corvina edition.
 
 
AFTER HIS DEATH, WAGONLOADS OF BOOKS KEPT ARRIVING

 
Marosvásárhely, March 2009

I step through a large door into the Teleki Téka.(1) Count Sámuel Teleki (1739–1822) founded this library and donated it to the town of Marosvásárhely. A white, U-shaped building, it has an arched gallery on the first floor reminiscent of a cloister. I climb a flight of stone steps and knock on a door. Beyond lies a long room with tables covered in papers and books. There are three women and one man. The man seems disturbed by my arrival. A young woman with black curly hair hurries towards me when I tell her I’ve come for the Teleki Téka. She has a giant key in her hand, as if for a medieval town gate. She’s a specialist in medieval Transylvanian nobility.

In the 1950s several of Count Sámuel Teleki’s direct descendants lived somewhere in this building. I suppose it ought to be seen as evidence of the charitableness of the communist system that they were permitted a bolt-hole. The space was so small that one of the Telekis slept on top of a cupboard.

I ask the woman whether she’s heard of Gemma Teleki. Perhaps she knows where she lived? Certainly. She turns round and points to a side door, which opens onto a dark, dead-end corridor about five metres long and a metre and a half wide. It’s the kind of space in which you would store cardboard boxes that might come in handy one day, empty bottles for the deposit, or a bicycle with a flat tyre. Here Gemma Teleki lived with two other Telekis. People who knew her well have told me that Gemma was an exceptional person, very intelligent, perhaps too intelligent for her own good.

My guide opens a tall door. After crossing a hallway we find ourselves in a large room. She turns on the lights. Since 1802, the year the library opened, nothing here has changed, except that there is electricity now. An inner sanctum. The windows have shutters. The bookcases are painted white and their doors have chicken wire instead of glass. The space is two storeys high; the upper-level walkway is lined with bookcases on all four walls. At the far end of the room hangs a large portrait of Sámuel Teleki as chancellor of Transylvania, an ermine robe over his shoulders and a sceptre in his hand. He is flanked by portraits of the two other noblemen who founded large libraries in Transylvania: Sámuel Brukenthal and Ignatius Batthyány.

On the wall is a map of Europe showing the twenty-five cities from which Teleki assembled his collection. They include Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht and Rotterdam, as well as Zurich, Padua, Rome, Leipzig, Ulm, Budapest and Pécs. He had contacts in all those cities, dealers and buyers searching on his behalf. Over his lifetime Teleki compiled a collection of 40,000 books. After his death in 1822, wagonloads of books kept arriving in Marosvásárhely.

Ninety-one-year-old Erzsébet T. has told me that many Transylvanian nobles attended universities in the Netherlands. One of her ancestors studied at Utrecht and some of his letters have survived. From Transylvania and Hungary they usually travelled by boat along the Polish and German rivers to the Baltic, and from there they walked to the Netherlands.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, around three thousand Transylvanians and Hungarians studied in the Netherlands, including 1,233 in Franeker, 740 in Utrecht and 655 in Leiden. Among them were sons of the powerful Transylvanian families. Erzsébet says that the son of an aristocrat was usually accompanied by two capable but penniless students from the village or surrounding district. The aristocrat’s family would pay the two villagers’ tuition fees and living expenses. In
1692 Mihály Bethlen went to Franeker, as did Pál Teleki in 1696.

Wolfgangus Bánffy (known in Hungary as Farkas Bánffy) arrived in Leiden in 1747 to study theology and Joseph Teleki followed in 1760. Until the late eighteenth century, Protestants were not allowed to attend universities in the Habsburg Empire. If they studied there nevertheless, they would not be awarded a degree.

A few years ago I gave a series of lectures at the Dutch faculty of the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. At the first lecture I asked my students why they had decided to study Dutch. One of them, who was from Transylvania, said shed chosen the course because shed inherited her Transylvanian grandfather’s Dutch library.
 
The aristocracy was essential to the dissemination of culture in Transylvania, and indeed in Hungary, founding academies, opera houses, theatres, libraries, spas, museums and arboreta. Sámuel Teleki was the prototype of this kind of patron. He studied at Utrecht, Leiden, Basel and Paris, and for the rest of his life he was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. He developed an overwhelming desire to found a large library in Transylvania. The collection is still almost entirely intact, with fifty-two incunabula as well as rare works that include prints by Rubens, Dürer, Cranach and Holbein, and tomes featuring signed engravings by Giovanni Battista and Francesco Piranesi. He attempted to build up a broad collection in which both the humanities – theology, philosophy, jurisprudence – and the natural sciences were represented. The works range across time from Aristotle to Rousseau, including books by Luther and Calvin (as with most of Transylvania’s aristocrats, nine out of ten Telekis were Protestants), and by Thomasius, Kepler and Newton.

The aristocrats of Hungary and Transylvania were traditionally patrons to new poets and writers. In the seventeenth century the diaries and memoirs of the nobles themselves were the region’s most important literary expression. They alone had the time and opportunity to read and write. Virtually everyone else worked on the land.

János Kemény (prince of Transylvania from 1660 to 1662) was seized by the Tartars and taken to the Crimea. During his imprisonment there he compiled the first memoir ever written in Hungarian, and in it he says a great deal about Transylvania. The tradition of writing memoirs continues to this day. Ilona’s grandfather wrote an account of his life entitled Hier bin ich geboren (This is where I was born). The grandfather of one of the Transylvanians I spoke to had made three handwritten copies of his life story under communism, like a monk. He describes all the property confiscated from the family, with drawings of roads, railway lines, villages and family estates. Based on those drawings, his grandson was able to specify exactly which properties in Romania the state was legally bound to return to him.

For centuries foreign authors had a huge impact on Hungarian literature and philosophy, in part because Hungarian nobles living in exile produced so much literature, such as Ferenc Rákóczi II, whose autobiographical work was influenced by Fénelon and Rabelais. The aristocracy often took its lead from the French Enlightenment. Francophile Transylvanian Count László Haller translated Fénelon’s Télémaque and Hungarian Count Fekete corresponded with Voltaire.

Interest in French Enlightenment thought was even greater in Transylvania, where for centuries there had been a bond with France as an ally and financier in uprisings against the Habsburgs. The ideas of the French Revolution were adapted to local conditions. “Liberty” meant the nobles’ own freedom as defined by the constitution, “equality” meant the equality of all nobles, and “fraternity” meant being prepared to cooperate with nobles of a different religious persuasion. They had no intention of extending notions of fraternity and equality to include the non-aristocratic. Liberté, fraternité, égalité – but strictly for their own circle.

It was usual for the aristocrats of Transylvania and Hungary to attend Western European universities. They went on trips to France, England and the Netherlands, and since they were subjected to fewer controls at international borders they smuggled Western literature back with them into the Habsburg

Empire. Sámuel Teleki’s wife, Zsuzsanna Bethlen, built up an extensive book collection of her own. Miklós Bánffy at Bonchida and László Toldalaghi in Koronka were the last owners of large private libraries in Transylvania. Between the wars Baron János Kemény was the publisher of the literary magazine Erdélyi Helikon, with Miklós Bánffy as its editor-in-chief. Kemény made his castle in Marosvécs available for an annual gathering of Transylvanian writers. The beautiful Baroness Carola Bornemissza was a muse to them all, and indeed to the Zsigmond Kemény Association in Marosvásárhely, named after a writer, thinker and relative of János Kemény. Carola cooked for the writers and noted down her Transylvanian dishes in an exercise book (published as a cookery book in 1998). She was immortalised by both János Kemény and Miklós Bánffy in their written works. Bánffy had a barely concealed relationship with her for decades – before, during and after her marriage to Elemér Bornemissza.

In front of the bookcases in the Teleki Téka are low display cases with special editions from the collection. I walk past with my hands clasped at my back and look serious, as if I knew all about them. At each glass case I lean forward for a moment. The oldest exhibit in the library is Galeottus Martius’ Liber de homine, printed in Bologna in about 1475. Sámuel Teleki’s bookplate is on show too, with the family coat of arms stamped in gold and his motto deus providebit. One display case contains several volumes of Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, brought from Amsterdam in 1689 by typographer Nicolaus Kis (known in Hungary as Miklós Tótfalusi Kis).

After I’ve been round, my guide tells me they also have rare prints from Plantijn in Antwerp and Elsevier in Leiden. On my way out I cast another glance at the dark arched corridor where three Teleki descendants lived in the 1950s like mice in a bottle.

 
PURDEYS, PLUS FOURS AND WHIST

 
Marosvásárhely, March 2009

Stefánia Betegh, a woman of blue blood, shows me around the house where she lives with her sister. This kind of elongated, low white house can be found in all the villages of the former Dual Monarchy. It lies in the centre of Marosvásárhely, close to the citadel, a modestly furnished place with several beautiful cupboards and tables. This is where they took in Gemma Teleki after shed slept on top of a cupboard in the Teleki Téka and then lived in a cellar longer than any of the other aristocrats.

Stefánia: “I’m very attached to the old things. When I was six, irregular troops from Bessarabia, arriving in the wake of the Soviet Army, looted our house in Fugad. They loaded everything they could carry onto horse-drawn carts and they were planning to murder us. We were alone, just the women and children, and we hid behind the wine vats in the cellar while the pack marauded above us. I heard the heavy tread of boots. Mother put my youngest sister to her breast to keep her quiet, while the governess held her hands over the mouths of the other little ones. Father was taken away by the Russians. We hoped for years that wed suddenly see him standing on the front steps, but he never came back. We dont know how or where he died.

"These two glasses come from our house in Fugad. We have two or three things from there. Our governess, Erzsébet Biró, worked for us without pay for another twenty years. She hid the case of silverware under a mound of potatoes in the cellar. That’s why we still have a set of table silver, although incomplete. It’s ridiculous, but my sister and I always use that cutlery, just thetwoof us. We eat with it every day, even if it’s only a sandwich. We even use it to cook with. I cherish those few things from my childhood."

Stefánia stands straight as a rod and smiles modestly. Ah, now you’ll understand why possessions can lead to discord within families.”

The older Transylvanians were strictly brought up. Seventy-one-year- old Stefánia Betegh told me that as a child she had to stand at the table during meals and open her mouth only when spoken to. After the communists took power, Stefánia worked in a factory from the age of fifteen, making tin cups, knives, forks and spoons. There were a lot ofother children at home and they all had to live from what they could grow in the garden, which meant there was little to eat. As a result Stefánia became a fanatical sportswoman, so that she could go to canoeing camps where there was plenty of food.

Stefánia looks energetic and extremely fit. I’ve visited her a number of times in Marosvásárhely and I can’t avoid the impression that the discipline she learnt at an early age helped her to endure deprivation later. Decadence and spoilt behaviour were not tolerated. Practically all the aristocrats I spoke to in Transylvania had had the benefit of such an upbringing, with its patriarchal simplicity. Pista Pálffy, a friend in Budapest whose family is from Upper Hungary, told me he’d once heard his mother say that she didn’t particularly care how he got on at school as long as he behaved like a true gentleman. “That was the idea behind the way I was raised; you were to behave correctly and to be a good person. My mother had a strict, principled upbringing.” Her father was Count Albert Apponyi, the man who refused to sign the Treaty of Trianon and thereby became a Hungarian hero on a par with Winston Churchill. One time she took the train to Fót. She was too late to buy a ticket and no conductor came along, so she paid neither the fare nor a fine. When her father heard that, he made her go to the post office and buy stamps to the value of a train ticket to Fót, then bring them home and burn them. “My grandfather was a government minister at the time and he believed it was wrong to take money from the state. Can you imagine a minister in present-day Hungary or Romania doing a thing like that?”

Pista’s mother told him there hadn’t really been any writers who succeeded in properly describing their circle, by which she meant the titled nobility. The one exception was Tolstoy. He was born into it. The same goes for Miklós Bánffy, the Tolstoy of Transylvania. As well as being an aristocrat and the largest landowner in Transylvania, Bánffy was the author of a remarkable trilogy that focuses on the Transylvanian aristocracy. It was published in Hungarian before the Second World War.

His godchild (also called Miklós Bánffy) told me how the trilogy came to be written. A young author, Áron Tamási, had written a novel set in aristocratic circles and he gave it to Bánffy to read. Bánffy read the manuscript and handed it back with the words: “You’re an ass, my son! You know nothing about us at all! I’ll show you people.”

In the second volume of Bánffy’s trilogy the central character, Count Bálint Abády, relates what his grandfather told him about the family: “There is nothing at all marvellous or wonderful about it, my boy, and especially there is nothing to boast about. What has happened has been entirely natural. Long ago, when the country folk were all serfs, everything belonged to the landowner, the so-called noble who himself held it from the king. It was therefore nothing less than his bounden duty to take care of everything, to build what was needed and to repair what needed repairing. That our family have done this only shows that they have always done their duty, nothing else. Let this be a lesson to you!”

Grandfather Abády goes on: “That members of our family often obtained great positions in the state was no accident and no particular merit to them. Such places were naturally offered to people of high rank, nobles whose fortunes and family connections were necessary if they were to do a useful job. We can be proud that our forebears honestly carried out what was expected of them, that is all. Family conceit because of such things is not only ridiculous but also dangerous to the character of those who come to believe in it.”
 
A few years ago I read a report in the Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant about Eton, the English boarding school for descendants of long-established families. I’m convinced it’s because of its school system that Britain has so many eccentrics. When I was thirteen I spent a summer at a similar sort of school (Stowe) and I can still remember the dark corridors, the halls, the wide staircases, the grey stone, the follies on islands in the lake, the enormous playing fields, the private golf course, the draughty dormitories, the canteen with sausages and greasy eggs for breakfast, and I can imagine the influence all of that must have on a child’s constitution. Sometimes I think the brain is little more than a camera obscura, with an image of the surrounding architecture on its projection screen.
 
Taking young children away from their parents and putting them in huge Victorian buildings surrounded by parkland and misty meadows, usually with other children of the same sex, and the stress on sports, that strange combination of competitiveness and intimacy – it must all make for a special kind of upbringing. A more distant, more formal relationship with the parents and the development of a phlegmatic character are almost inevitable.
 
The article about Eton included a list of former pupils and their current occupations. The school continues to produce ministers, explorers, writers, artists, directors, mountaineers, balloonists, ambassadors and the sort of men who walk across Afghanistan with a dog for company. I asked Pista Pálffy in his capacity as expert on the English upper classes – he spends half the year in England and the other half in Hungary – how such a school could calmly go on producing adventurers and eccentrics in this egalitarian age.
 
It’s very simple”, he said. At the average school you don’t learn manners. You’re put into a mould and taught how to think. At public schools like Eton you learn how to behave, you learn to feel at ease in a dinner suit and tails, you learn how to greet someone and how to get along with all kinds of different people, those formalities that seem so pointless. In short, although you learn manners you’re left completely free in your thinking. That’s why those schools produce students with true freedom of mind, whereas the state schools turn out people who think in the obligatory clichés: perfect bureaucrats.”
 
In Hungary and Transylvania I have friends of my parents’ or grandparents’ age. Theirs is a witty, original, forthright way of speaking, with an elegance and spirit that belong to a different era. You can speak freely about anything. The older generation seems to have a preference for the eccentric, just as the English commonly do. Their childhood, with distant parents, an army of strict governesses and tutors, and castles and palaces with long corridors and extensive grounds, had something of the atmosphere of an English public school.
 
Erzsébet T. showed me John Paget’s Hungary and Transylvania; with Remarks on Their Condition, Social, Political and Economical. Paget, an Englishman, travelled through Transylvania in 1835–1836 and was received as a guest by the aristocrats. He was introduced to one of them and from there referred on from one castle to the next. Roughly the same happenedtome,exceptthatonly a few of the mansions and palaces were still inhabited. The grandeur that revealed itself to Paget 175 years earlier seemed consigned to the past, yet the hospitality and the sense of finding yourself in one big family remains. I too was referred on from one to the next and received with tea, wine and dinners.
 
Paget fell in love with the writer Polixénia Wesselényi, widow of László Bánffy. He married her, absorbed himself in agriculture and viticulture, brought innovations with him from England and was admitted into the Transylvanian nobility in 1847. In the 1848 revolt he fought with the Hungarians against the Habsburgs. After the uprising was put down by the Habsburgs with the aid of the Tsar of Russia, John Paget fled to England with Polixénia and wrote, in exile, his Hungary and Transylvania. In 1855 he returned to the mansion in Aranyosgyéres, where he died in 1892.
 
John Paget describes the daily life of Transylvanian noblemen in the nineteenth century. Most landowners had large stables with ten or twenty horses. They hunted everything from partridges to wolves. If an aristocrat harboured an ambition to hold public office he could simply have himself appointed deputy governor of the province; if he chose to devote himself to agriculture, thousands of hectares of land were waiting for him, Paget says, and if he wanted to work for a good cause, then there was the peasantry, which depended on him for practically everything and looked up to him.
 
Paget describes the sense of isolation and how long it took to reach the nearest town, partly because of the poor state of the roads. In the past century and a half this has changed somewhat, but not a great deal. The distances are still considerable. One major difference is that the majority of the remaining aristocrats now live in cities, usually in Marosvásárhely or Kolozsvár. Generally speaking, only the young descendants live in the Transylvanian countryside, in old-fashioned isolation, having taken it upon themselves to renovate family properties recently returned to them, and to get them up and running again.
 
In the first half of the twentieth century the Transylvanian aristocracy felt strongly attracted by English culture. Aristocrats used English hunting rifles, bred English thoroughbreds, organised fox hunts, went about in plus fours and tweed, had their suits made on Savile Row, played whist and later bridge, even in a few cases studied in Cambridge or London, or married Englishwomen. When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, most Transylvanian nobles sided with the British, partly because they were repelled by the proletarian cast of Hitler and his cohorts. Weren’t most Nazis sweaty boors in tight uniforms? Many aristocrats favoured the allies and opposed any alliance with the Germans; some, including Prime Minister Bethlen, repeatedly expressed this view in the Hungarian parliament.
 
In his memoirs Miklós Bánffy explains how in Hungary between the wars the influence of the aristocracy, which was generally in favour of reinstating the monarchy, declined under the Horthy regime while the Hungarian gentry, by which he means lesser nobles, gained in influence: “It must be said that the gentry as a class were far more reactionary and opposed to any form of modernisation than the aristocrats had ever been. One can say many things detrimental to the Hungarian aristocracy, but it was certain that they never lost their international outlook.”
 
Patrick Leigh Fermor crossed Transylvania on foot in 1933–1934 on his way to Istanbul, and in the neighbouring region of Moldavia he fell in love with a Wallachian princess. In his introduction to Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvania trilogy he writes: “The grand world [Bánffy] describes was Edwardian Mitteleuropa. The men, however myopic, threw away their spectacles and fixed in monocles. They were the fashionable swells of Spy and late Du Maurier cartoons, and the wives and favourites must have sat for Boldini and Helleu. Life in the capital was a sequence of parties, balls and race-meetings, and, in the country, of grandes battues, where the guns were all Purdeys. Gossip, cigar-smoke and Anglophilia floated in the air; there were cliques where Monet, d’Annunzio and Rilke were appraised; hundreds of acres of forest were nightly lost at chemin de fer; at daybreak lovers stole away from tousled four-posters through secret doors, and duels were fought, as they still were when I was there. The part played by politics suggests Trollope or Disraeli. The plains beyond flicker with mirages and wild horses, ragged processions of storks migrate across the sky; and even if the woods are full of bears, wolves, caverns, waterfalls, buffalos and wild lilac – the country scenes in Transylvania, oddly enough, remind me of Hardy.”
 
 
FORBIDDEN LOVE
 
 
Marosvásárhely, 2009
 
Erzsébet T. admired Carola Bornemissza, Miklós Bánffy’s lover, for being such a proud and forthright woman. She tells me that Carola’s mother was a Transylvanian countess, but her grandmother came from Hochstadt, where the winegrowers lived, so she was partly of peasant stock. To Erzsébet this explains why Carola was such a strong, brave woman who made other women jealous. She was no hypocrite, never making a secret of her lovers. According to Erzsébet there were two: Miklós Bánffy, the former Hungarian foreign minister, and István Bethlen, the former Hungarian Prime Minister. In her salon she had large portraits of both of them in oils, Bethlen on one wall, Bánffy on another.
 
In Marosvásárhely I meet Emma P., who knew both Miklós Bánffy and Carola Bornemissza. Emma welcomes me in the corner flat of a residential block of unmistakably communist vintage. The place is full of boxes and reams of paper. Threadbare shawls and tablecloths lie everywhere. Emma is descended from the old Transylvanian nobility. She studied chemistry and at eighty-four she still has an extremely sharp mind, but as soon as I walk into her apartment it’s clear to me that she has to get by on very little money.
 
Emma was born in 1925 in Kolozsvár. She knew Miklós Bánffy in the 1940s, when he was approaching seventy. Baroness Carola Bornemissza was younger than Bánffy. The friendship between Emma and Carola néni (“aunt Carola”) was intense, despite their great difference in age. Carola was a great beauty, and she liked to surround herself with eccentrics and artists. For a long time she had a maid whose former lover was a murderer who had been executed. The maid lived in Carola’s house, along with her child by the hanged man. A century ago, Carola travelled across South Africa by train, boat and donkey, to erect a gravestone fora cousin who had fought in the Boer War and died in battle. Carola’s marriage to Baron Elemér Bornemissza was not a success. They had a child who died young and from then on they lived apart.
 
Emma: “On 30 August 1940, the day the northern part of Transylvania was awarded to Hungary under the Treaty of Vienna, when practically all the Hungarians in Kolozsvár paraded through the streets in celebration, Carola néni came into the room crying and said: ‘Transylvania is being split in two.’ The rest of the Hungarian population in Transylvania was hysterical with joy, but Carola understood it meant disaster. She was extremely sensitive and intelligent, a really strong woman with a powerful personality that permeated the entire house. In the afternoons I often went to visit her. She would always be lying on the sofa with a violet rug and cushions that had a pattern of white lilies.”
 
Emma produces a photograph album, oblong with a fabric cover. The pages are of faded black card, and the waferthin transparent sheets in between have a spider- web pattern. Emma slowly turns the album towards me. I carefully pick it up.
 
That’s her; that’s Carola néni.”
 
I’m a ladies’ man. I may have seen a woman more beautiful than Carola néni, Baroness Bornemissza, but I couldn’t say where or when. On her head is a white nurse’s cap. Her face is both powerful and melancholy, radiating a robust pride. The picture was taken during the First World War. “Carola néni was a volunteer at the front”, says Emma. Of course. How could it be otherwise? A lady with a noble streak, who cares for wounded men, the sort of woman who knows no fear and makes you, as a man, instantly forget your own fear. I hold the album and look at Carola. She must be in her thirties. What a superb face, the dark eyes filled with a mixture of astonishment and wisdom.
 
Emma: “In the summer of 1940 we often went to Szamosfalva. Carola néni used to swim in the nude. The young women had reason to envy her; she still had a wonderful body. At that time she had a rule that one day a week she would eat only fruit, nothing else; she was modern in that. She was on the women’s committee of the Protestant church and she often went to help János Kemény at his castle in Marosvécs, where all the writers came together in those days. She was the centrepoint of Transylvanian literary life. Her clothes were always elegant, always black and white. Since her son died she’d never worn any other colours. He died very young. She never had any more children after that and she lived apart from her husband. Carola néni died with the nuns in Kolozsvár. She didn’t want to see anyone any longer, not even me.”
 
Carola Bornemissza passed away in 1948, a year before the entire Transylvanian aristocracy was deported in a single night. She was buried at the Házsongárd cemetery in Kolozsvár. Miklós Bánffy covered her grave in red roses. In 1939 he married an actress from Budapest called Aranka Váradi-Weber; some of the older Hungarian ladies in Transylvania ask themselves to this day what he saw in Aranka.
 
I was a child”, Emma says, “but Miklós Bánffy always spoke to me as if I were an adult. He was the only person who did that. After my grandmother died he was the only one I could go to. He helped me. It was a difficult time. War brings tragedy. He was a good person, extremely clever and certainly not arrogant. He returnedfromBudapesttofindthattheGermanshadlootedhisproperty.He came to Kolozsvár at the risk of his life to try to save his palace in the city and his country mansion, Bonchida. His actress wife refused to come with him.”
 
Miklós Bánffy was a discreet man; in his memoirs he writes not a word about Carola Bornemissza.
 
 
FOR FOUR YEARS WE DID NOTHING BUT DANCE
 
 
Vác, February 2010
 
One day a Frenchwoman arrived to be our governess. Jeanne. She was very pretty. All father’s friends came to lunch and dinner, leaving their wives at home. One time Jeanne danced for them by the light of flaming torches at the edge of the fountain, scantily clad. That caused quite a fuss. She was sent back to Paris.” Erzsébet goes on: “The other staff were from the village here or the surrounding district. They often belonged to families that had worked for us generation after generation. Village children would come to us when they were young to be trained as cooks, gardeners or grooms, depending where their aptitudes lay. We had a chapel at the house. The staff attended the morning services there on Sundays. The most faithful servants were buried at Dornafalva.”
 
I’m hoping the sun will come out. The awful weather has lasted too long. At ninety-one Erzsébet still wants to go to her country cottage in Márianosztra as she does every year, in the hills not far from Vác. She’s shaky. Her voice is thin and unsteady, and the skin is stretched tight on her scalp. Two weeks ago she had a heart attack. There’s a woman doctor living in the apartment block who helps her. In the two months since I first visited her I’ve watched her grow more fragile. Erzsébet was not just a relative but a friend of Ilona’s grandparents, although they were more than ten years older. Their friendship went back to the 1940s, when Ilona’s grandparents lived in Kolozsvár for several years. They once stayed at Dornafalva, Erzsébet’s family castle, for three or four days.
 
Father was on first name terms with Ilona, your wife’s grandmother”, Erzsébet tells me. “In those days you only used the familiar form of ‘you’ if you were related; people were absolutely strict about that. Men could be on familiar terms with men, or women with women, but members of the opposite sex always addressed each other formally. Ilona was a beauty, tall, slender and blonde. And half of Kolozsvár was in love with your wife’s grandfather.
 
I visited your wife’s grandmother later, too, in Leányfalu, over on the other side of the Danube. You can get there from here in no time by ferry and bus. But I sawthem mainly in Kolozsvár in the 1940s, when Northern Transylvania was made part of Hungary. For the Hungarians it was a gift. There was a cheerful mood, every night a ball. For four years we did nothing but dance. The Hungarian word mulatni is derived from “to pass the time”. If you say mulatság, you immediately think of gypsies, drink, and that’s what it was like: wine, beautiful women and music. I was still young then.”
 
The conversations I have with Erzsébet gradually go further back into the past, to her childhood in the interwar years, at the family castle in Transylvania. A happy childhood is a solid foundation. It’s as if the self-confidence that comes from happiness in early years is impossible for any tyrant to knock out of you.
 
I was born just before the Treaty of Trianon. According to the first land reform after Transylvania was made part of Romania, which became law in 1921, the Hungarians in Transylvania were allowed to own no more than 200 hectares of arable land. My mother was Countess Bethlen. She died very young, in 1922. When she married my father and came to live at Dornafalva she went to all the houses in the village with a thick notebook and knocked on all the doors, sat round the table with every family and interviewed them: How many people live here? How many children? How old are they? Which of them are doing well at school? Is anyone sick? How many chickens do you have? How much land? She noted everything down. Father didn’t know what she was doing. She compiled an inventory that identified everyone who needed help, every child who should be encouraged to continue studying, where to find the seriously ill – all without saying a word. Weeks later, when shed finished, she simply laid the notebook on father’s desk, confident that hed take action where necessary. And he did.
 
As a child I wrote a lot. In the winters we were often snowed in for ages and I couldn’t go out. My father managed the estate. He got up at six each morning to inspect everything and discuss it all. At harvest time and in the sowing season hed be up at three. He was an ornithologist, too. We had the largest private collection of stuffed birds in Europe, around 10,000 of them. My father had learnt taxidermy. As an ornithologist and hunter he knew exactly how the birds behaved and how they moved, unlike many other taxidermists. The medal hanging on the wall over there was won by my father in 1937 with a brown bear that he shot in Máramaros. It was the largest bear in the whole of Europe that year.”
 
I find it moving to hear a woman of ninety-one speak so lovingly and admiringly of her father, almost like a little girl showing off in the school playground. Her mother died when she was three. From then on, in a time when parents behaved formally towards their children, and when governesses, tutors and battalions of servants further increased the distance between parent and child, her father must have been affectionate and caring towards Erzsébet and her brother, who was a year older.
 
We always wore old things. Only when there was a ball did everyone dress up. The ermine, the tiaras, diamonds and satin were brought out then, and all the ladies looked like princesses. But normally the aristocrats went around in their old clothes. The Transylvanian aristocracy has never liked to show off. Whenever my father had a new suit made, he would get one of the servants to wear it, to take the newness out of it, before he put it on.
 
When the staff or the children were around, the adults never talked about money, debts, divorce or any juicy matters like that. A man, an aristocrat, never mentioned his mistresses, not even to his best friend. Not a word. At table they talked about books, travel, nature and what would best serve the children’s development. We had a fixed daily rhythm: schoolwork from six or seven, breakfast at eight, more studies until twelve, lunch with the nanny. From the age of fourteen you were allowed to take lunch with the adults and from eighteen to dine with them, but you were to speak only when spoken to. Those were the rules with us, and I think with most aristocrats in Transylvania.”
 
The children were forbidden to complain, whine, snitch, stare, or eavesdrop on other people’s conversations – actually everything the Securitate would later specialise in.
 
Erzsébet: “We had governesses from Britain, Germany and France, and my brother and I had a tutor. He lived with us. He was a good teacher. You have to teach by showing children things, not just by talking to a class, that’s dreadfully boring. Our tutor accompanied us on our trips abroad. We went skiing with him and horse riding, and along the way, as children of eight or nine, we heard all about the ancient Greeks. We lay on our stomachs in bathing suits on the banks of the Szamos while he drew the countries of Europe in front of us in the sand with a stick. He repeated it in the snow with his ski pole in the winter. We did four years of elementary school and four years of grammar school at home. Then I went to Budapest to study for my exams and my brother was sent to the Piarists in Kolozsvár.”
 
Erzsébet tells me that in Transylvania the eldest son would inherit the castle with its contents and estate, while the daughters and younger sons were given a house in town or a smaller estate, as well as jewellery and investments. All the children received the same amount, in theory. An old lady I knew in Budapest said that in Hungary there was a system of primogeniture. Her father’s eldest brother inherited the castle and the estates, whereas the youngest of the brothers received an allowance that was barely enough to buy drink and cigarettes. The sisters were expected to make a good catch. The second and third sons were able to build careers for themselves with the Hussars or in the Church, where they would become bishops. As a result, in Hungary the properties were not divided up, so they were larger.
 
Immediately before the Second World War there were still thirty-four aristocratic families in Transylvania. They were all interrelated, from a long way back. In Between the Woods and the Water Patrick Leigh Fermor quotes a Transylvanian aristocrat as saying that they intermarried more than the Ptolemaians and actually all ought to be insane. One countess, Claudia Rhédey, is the great-great-grandmother of the English queen, so practically all the present-day Transylvanian aristocracy, whichever way you turn, is related to the British royal family. Erzsébet is a seventh cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. According to Erzsébet the rule in Transylvania was that you must not marry a first cousin, but marriage to a second cousin was fine. Mihály Teleki is credited with saying that in Transylvania everyone is related to everyone else, and if you’re not related then you have an affair.
 
Erzsébet says that children born out of wedlock were sent to other castles, where the family would make sure the child was given a good upbringing and perhaps a chance to study abroad. A girl grew up at Dornafalva who was the illegitimate daughter of one of the other aristocrats.
 
Erzsébet: “From the age of eighteen, girls were allowed to powder their noses and wear silk stockings and low-cut dresses. They were introduced into society accompanied by their mother or another relative. The boys were allowed to smoke from the age of eighteen, to run up debts and to wear the family’s signet ring. Before 1920 it was out of the question for boys and girls to be seen together in public. There were secret rendezvous, usually in the church or at a museum. If children wanted to marry, they consulted their parents, who would settle the issue between themselves. The intended’s ancestors were looked up in the Almanach de Gotha and their family’s property in the land register.” It was a stable world in which everyone knew his or her place.
 
Erzsébet is sitting in her armchair. As darkness falls her eyesight fades. She still has one good eye. I have to go. When I stand up, Erzsébet asks whether I know how to kiss someone’s hand. She’ll demonstrate.
 
Translation by Liz Waters
 
téka - Archaic Hungarian word for library”– eds.



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