20 May 2013

Ferenc Békássy's Correspondence With James Strachey


Ferenc Békássy belongs to that small but distinct group of people who before the First World War were “at home” in two languages: Hungarian and English. In fact he wrote poetry in both and could have gone on to write even better poems had he not fallen in 1915 during the First World War fighting the Russians. He was only 22 years old at the time, but his death was mourned by Mihály Babits, one of Hungary’s leading poets and also by his best English friend, the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was so fond of young Békássy that in the summer of 1912 he visited him in Western Hungary where the Békássy family owned property.1 It is now also clear that he was instrumental in the publication of a collection of Ferenc Békássy’s verse written in English, under the title Adriatica and Other Poems (The Hogarth Press, London, 1925). In recent years interest in Békássy’s work has increased in his native Hungary2, so his relationship with James Strachey, the younger brother of Lytton Strachey is worth investigating.

James Strachey (1887–1967) was four years older than Békássy and a Cambridge man himself (at Trinity from 1906 to 1909). In 1909 he moved to London to work on the Spectator as secretary to the editor. It is not clear where Strachey and Békássy first met, possibly at Lulworth at the end of December 1911 where the young Neo-pagans of Cambridge mingled with some Bloomsbury artists and their friends.3 James belonged to The Cambridge Conversazione Society, better known as the Apostles”; in fact, it was he, who at the behest of John Maynard Keynes put up the Hungarian’s name for election to the Apostles. Ferenc Békássy, still in his first year, reading history at King’s, was the first foreigner and the first Bedalian to be elected to this exclusive debating society.4 James Strachey as a thinker or amateur philosopher made an impression on Békássy – this is obvious from the humorous poem entitled “The Prophet to Zuleika”, which the latter sent to Keynes that summer referring to their encounter at Limpsfield, near Oxsted, in Surrey. In the poem the following line crops up: And where nightly James talked rightly, in the shrubs, of Love and things?”5 James Strachey was bisexual, as were in those days numerous young men whose first sexual experiences dated from boarding school; he was for a long time “in love” with his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, but he also must have been attracted to the fair- haired, good-looking Békássy. Because of John Maynard Keynes’ interest in the young Hungarian, James Strachey probably showed no more than “fatherly” or “brotherly” feelings towards Békássy, and at Limpsfield (where the Olivier family had a cottage and “Feri” was obviously in love with the youngest of the Olivier daughters, Noel)appeared as a friend and perhaps a potential “rival” as regards to Noel. Békássy, on his part, felt close to James Strachey; this is transparent from the first letter extant, dated from September 1912 when the former was on holiday in Schluderbach, South Tirol.

This letter is the first item in a batch of letters, postcards and notes preserved amongst James Strachey’s letters to Békássy now in the British Library under Additional MSS 60.658. It consists of seven items, of which there are only three letters written in 1912–1913. (When the First World War broke out Békássy returned to Hungary to bring back his younger sister via Switzerland and volunteer for the Austro-Hungarian army, John Maynard Keynes lending him money for the journey.) The tone of the first letter, started in Rum, in Western Hungary but finished in South Tirol, is jocular. In it Békássy addresses Strachey as “Gran’pa” and provides information about family life in his native Hungary, and also implies that he misses the intellectual stimulation of Cambridge. He reports to Strachey that he has managed to talk John Maynard Keynes into visiting him at the Békássy estate in Hungary “this September”.7 Ferenc Békássy who normally signs his letters to English friends as “Feri”, here exceptionally uses the colloquial English form of his name: “Frank”.

Of the Békássy letters to James Strachey one is particularly worth reproducing. It was written in Petersfield, Hampshire, from Ferenc Békássy’s boarding school, the liberal and co-educational Bedales, but was posted later from Switzerland where Békássy went for a skiing holiday in December 1912. It is three pages long, written in good English, though not carefully punctuated; it contains information of various kinds, both private and factual, also thoughts on the arts and literature. (James Strachey, similarly to Békássy, had an interest in Russian art and literature - he was fascinated by Diaghilev’s Russian ballet, some months later he visited Moscow and one of Békássy’s letters is addressed to him there.) In this letter Békássy’s tone is more serious than previously and also more mature: his friend John Maynard Keynes’ visit to his native parts and a successful Cambridge term must have filled him with self-confidence which he was probably lacking in his first year at King’s.8

Ferenc Békássy’s letter to James Strachey, British Library, Add. 60658, fol. 79–80. The envelope is stamped on 20 Dec. [1912?]
 

Petersfield, Hamps.
Dear James,
I am not going again to risk writing a letter to you which you can pretend you haven’t understood! So I shall not put on any strange airs, though I might write in many different styles: as an athlete for instance; for I have been playing fives9and football against my school! Or as Bedalian, since for the last few days I have been steeped in that atmosphere of petticoats and chivalry: so that I am now convinced that my body is indeed the temple of the holy spirit, and might almost put up with the ideal of Jesus the entirely human, and with broad Christianity! I have been seeing many of the people who were at school with me, and (probably because I so mismanage life) find it rather hard to talk with them, although we usually like each other. But at any rate I have seen something of the Chief whom, after all, I do greatly admire.10 He is a thorough idealist, i.e. he can’t exist for a moment without having and feeling he has an ideal (which does not prevent his being very entertaining) – and as he has made more out of his life than anyone else I know. I’ve never seen anyone who has been so successful.
A further complication in my state is that I am living with people whom I call Dmitri, or Nadejda Alexeievna.11I could give you such a nice description: “while I am writing this, Ivan Anatolitch is sitting opposite me, writing to his wife in big, bold letters”. He is a big, bold man; yet has the traditional slowness of his race... or perhaps a psychological chapter on mother and son would be better.
It was silly of me not to have made an attempt to learn Russian, all the holidays that I spent here! I shall have to do it some time, anyhow, if only to get to know their poetry which I know is not like all this English–French–German stuff, but more like Hungarian; and my present difficulty is that as far as criticising Hungarian poetry goes I am very much at sea. It needs such different standards from the ones usually assumed in English.
I very much want to criticise, in the plodding way that I began last summer; I’m sure it’s the only way to get to the real character of any poem or poet; and to do so is one of the only two things that are at all interesting. The other is of course concerned with “aesthetic motion” – I mean some emotion one can get, by reading a poem, not towards or about it, but about life in general or else something else in general. This emotion seems to be got by the things critics usually do talk about but I’m sure they do it in quite a mad way, and anyhow it does not seem as important as the other. This, you see, is my newest small enthusiasm, but I’m afraid it isn’t one at all, as I am in such a state of mind that I don’t seem to care about anyone or anything. I have never been like that before, because I am not now despondent or unhappy. I do still know that everything is worth a great deal, but I don’t at present think so. I suppose I am just convalescent. I am not going to recognise feeling except in its consequences. I shall never again give myself up to the wretched state I have been in for the last two years, namely of just pining away for love and not being loved. In fact:

...I’ll fling away desire, and prove
Not having known, I am not slave, to love.”

So to do all this, I am going to Switzerland. – I don’t yet know where – I have managed to meet a Mr Grant-Watson12  at Montreux – all this has come quite suddenly: I am going on Saturday and knew nothing about it till a few days ago. I shall not think any more, then: I shall spend all my time skiing, and enjoying myself and Watson.
And then I shall come back, and be with my sister at the Raverats’13 and so on; and go back to Cambridge, and work – and any little accident may put an end to all this determination of mine, and send me spinning back to where I was a week or two before the end of last term! But at any rate I shall be free while I can. I would as a matter of fact like to go further away to some – any – very warm place, if only one had the time and money.14I haven’t really got money enough to do this, but I can’t help it, and one can always do something or other to get out of difficulties.
Isn’t Ed(d)y Marsh’s book15  out yet? I ought to have got a copy long ago and it hasn’t come yet. I hope it will come before I go!
There is a Man who lives on the top of the Hill, and his name is Edward Thomas16 and he writes reviews and books and things. He has a Wife and two Children, and is young. I go up there some times and talk of reviews and books and things.
It was quite lucky you weren’t in when I was going through London, as it was I went to Chelsea and found a lot of the sort of people who make their dresses for the Slade dance.17  I don’t know if you know them: my sister used to know them all. I was much struck by the beauty of Miss Gwendolyn Jones. But I don’t suppose you have ever seen her.
Write to me about you – oh, I forgot, you cant very well, as I dont yet know my address.

Yours, Feri

(At the bottom of the page, in pencil:)

Of course I didn’t send this off – I am now here at the Hotel Rosal. Chateaux (sic!), D’Oex, Switzerland, till the 2nd [of January 1913]18. I have already managed to sprain my leg but hope it won’t interfere with things. I can’t write about it all now.


1 Cf.
George Gömöri, “Ferenc Békássy’s letters to John Maynard Keynes”, The New Hungarian
Quarterly, Vol. XXI. No. 79, Autumn 1980, pp. 159–170.
2 A collection of his poems and prose writings was published as Békássy Ferenc egybegyűjtött írásai
[The Collected Writings of Ferenc Békássy], ed. Tibor Sennyey Weiner, Budapest, Aranymadár alapítvány – Irodalmi jelen sorozat, 2010.
3 Paul Delany, The Neo-Pagans. Friendship and Love in the Rupert Brooke Circle, A Hamish Hamilton
Paperback, London, 1988, p. 150.
4 Ibid., p. 142.
5 Delany, p. 142; Gömöri, NHQ, p. 161.
6 Ibid.
7 British Library, Additional MSS 60658, fol. 65–77.
8 On Guy Fawkes Day during this term Békássy read a paper on “Pantheism in the Middle Ages” which his fellow Kingsman Raisley Stewart Moorsom judged “extremely good”. Cf. Moorsom Papers, I/1, Journal VI, September 1912/January 1913, 31/b, King’s Archives, Cambridge.
9 A ball game similar to squash.
10 The “Chief” was the Headmaster of Bedales since its foundation in 1893, J. H. Badley. Cf. Nigel Jones, Rupert Brooke. Life, Death and Myth, Richard Cohen Books, London, 1999, p. 44.
11 Békássy was staying with the Jarintzoff family. Here he uses Russian names as he hears them; according to present-day English transcription these are “Dymitry” and “Nadiezhda Alexeyevna”.
12 E. L. (”Peter”) Grant-Watson, Australian-born Cambridge scholar. He writes at some length about Békássy in his autobiography But to What Purpose, London, 1946.
13 Jacques Raverat was a Frenchman, a Bedalian, who then went up to Cambridge. He married Gwen Darwin (a woodcut artist and author of Period Piece, a charming recreation of a Victorian Cambridge childhood). The Raverats lived at Manor Farm, Croydon, in a village near Cambridge and they were apparently friends not only of Ferenc but all the young Békássys who also went to Bedales.
14 It would be interesting to know whether Békássy knew at that time of Rupert Brooke’s travel plans;
the latter left England for the United States in May 1913, to end up some months later in Tahiti.
15 Eddie”, later Sir Edward, Marsh (1872–1953), a friend of Rupert Brooke’s, edited the first volume of Georgian Poetry, launched in December 1912. After Brooke’s death he became his friend’s literary executor and later Personal Secretary to Sir Winston Churchill.
16 Edward Thomas (1878–1917), country writer and poet, whose wife Helen was a teacher at Bedales. Thomas also knew Rupert Brooke who visited him several times at Petersfield. Cf. Nigel Jones, Rupert Brooke, p. 148.
17 The Slade School, Chelsea, had dances highly rated in the London social calendar. Both Jacques and Gwen Raverat worked at the Slade. Cf. Delany, op.cit., pp. 82, 110.
18 Békássy had to return to Cambridge by mid-January for the beginning of Full Length Term.
 


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