The King’s Hussar: Ferenc Békássy And The Great War

                  He went without fears, went gaily, since go he must,

                  And drilled and sweated and sang, and rode in the heat and the dust

                  Of the summer; his fellows were round him, as eager as he.

                  While over the world the gloomy days of war dragged heavily.

                  (Ferenc Békássy, 1914)

Written shortly after he left England following the outbreak of war, Ferenc Békássy’s poem 1914 is virtually unknown outside of his native Hungary. But Békássy represents what was lost by his own country as a consequence of war as much as Rupert Brooke is a symbol of the England that vanished after 1914. Like Brooke, Békássy too would die early on in the the War and so his work never had the chance to reflect upon the mounting horrors that unfolded.

In 1925, ten years after his death and a suitable amount of time after the Armistice, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press published, Adriatica and Other Poems. It was to be Békássy’s only published work in English (he wrote in both English and Hungarian) and seemingly disappeared without note. Békássy also remained largely forgotten in Hungary, until after the fall of Communism in 1989, when his countrymen began to discover a new-found interest in his poetry, acknowledging the significance of the all too narrow body of work he left behind.

Ferenc Békássy was born in 1893 in Zsennye, Western Hungary. His family was an old aristocratic one, and the importance of education was strongly emphasised to Békássy from an early age, particularly by his mother, who encouraged him from childhood to spend hours in the family library. It was also his mother who believed that he and his five siblings should receive an English education and he was sent to the liberal and progressive Bedales in Hampshire, which had been founded the year he was born and was the first co-educational boarding school in England. It was at Bedales that he first met Noel Olivier, the daughter of the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Sydney Olivier. It was to be one of the most important and enduring relationships of his life.

Békássy left Bedales for King’s College, Cambridge in 1911, there, he found himself suddenly in the midst of a truly remarkable intellectual circle. Yet Békássy himself was the recipient of a great deal of admiration, for his own intellectual prowess and dashing Central European good looks. It was the latter that primarily led to him catching the attention of John Meynard Keynes, who was so taken with Békássy that he encouraged his admittance to the Apostles.

Lytton Strachey too was eager for Békássy to become a fully-fledged Apostle, writing to Keynes, ‘Békássy is so nice that the Society ought to rush forward now into the most progressive waters.’ Like Keynes, Strachey was very attracted to the young Hungarian and his younger brother James Strachey even wrote to Rupert Brooke that Lytton had, ‘wanted to bugger him when he was on the hearthrug.’ Continue reading

Kindred Subjects: Rupert Brooke And Hilaire Belloc

‘Youth and poetry are the links binding the children of the world to come to the grandsires of the world that was. War will smash, pulverize, sweep into the dust-bins of eternity the whole fabric of the old world; therefore the first born in intellect must die. Is that the reading of the riddle?’ These words, written by Sir Ian Hamilton, the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, upon hearing the news that Rupert Brooke had died of septicaemia on his way to Gallipoli; were not only remarkably insightful, but also prophetic. The conflict was to prove every bit as devastating as Sir Ian had foreseen.

Though he died in the sunlit cabin of a French Hospital ship, instead of meeting an heroic but bloody end in the mud- shrouded trenches of France; Rupert Brooke has emerged as an iconic figure of the First World War. Not only was he exceptionally attractive, W.B. Yeats even described him as ‘the handsomest young man in England’; his poetry speaks of a gentler age, an England yet to be obliterated by the horrors of war. Whilst sometimes criticised for its sentimentality and overt patriotism much of Brooke’s poetry has remained in the public consciousness. Less well-known, however, is his association with another poet and writer, whose influence on Brooke’s own work would be pronounced.

Brooke’s admiration for Hilaire Belloc has been explored by the biographers of both men. In 1926, only eleven years after Brooke’s death, C. Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks wrote in their study of Belloc, ‘Rupert Brooke has been called too often the disciple of Dr. Donne: no critic, so far as we are aware, has called attention to his debt to Mr. Belloc. This debt was neither complete nor immediately obvious, but it existed. Brooke knew it, spoke of Mr. Belloc with admiration, and quoted his poems with surprising memory.’ Mandell and Shanks were the first to draw comparisons between the two men’s poetry, and claimed that if you, ‘put a few lines from Grantchester beside a few lines from one of Mr. Belloc’s poems of Oxford…you will realize how curiously the younger man was fascinated by the older.’

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Irreparably Damaged: The Madness Of James Kenneth Stephen

James Kenneth Stephen is just one of the many individuals, whose lives have been pored over in the hope of discovering the true identity of the Victorian serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The most detailed account of Stephen’s life is Deborah McDonald’s, The Prince, His Tutor and the Ripper: The Evidence Linking James Kenneth Stephen to the Whitechapel Murders. But whilst portraying him as a popular and gifted individual, the book’s sensationalist title highlights how interest in Stephen’s life is indelibly linked to the murders; sullying the reputation of a man whose legacy should be radically different, were it not for his brush with mental illness and the comparative ignorance of the psychiatry of his time.

Stephen was first named as a suspect in the Whitechapel murders in 1972, by Michael Harrison in The Listener. Harrison elaborated this allegation further in his book Clarence: Was he Jack the Ripper? Twenty years later, Dr David Abrahamson not only suggested that Stephen was involved in the murders, but that he and Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, (whose tutor Stephen was at Cambridge) had committed them together. With no substantial evidence linking him to the murders, it is the mental instability that plagued Stephen that has been used to lend credence to this accusation. His allegedly misogynistic poetry has also been seen as supporting the possibility of his involvement, particularly the poem; ‘Men and Women’. The lines, ‘I did not like her: and I should not mind, If she were done away with killed or ploughed,’have been cited as proof of his hatred of women. Despite these words, which were more likely written in jest than malice, Stephen had several love affairs and hoped to eventually marry.

Known as ‘Jem’, James Kenneth Stephen was born in 1859, the son of the prominent Judge and writer, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen; a man who, as Hermione Lee has noted, unfalteringly refused to acknowledge his son’s mental illness and died only two years after him. He was also the nephew of Sir Leslie Stephen and a first-cousin of Virginia Woolf, who was herself afflicted by lifelong bouts of madness until her suicide in 1941. Attending Eton as a King’s Scholar before going up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1880, Stephen became an Apostle and President of the Cambridge Union Society. The writer and education reformer, Oscar Browning was his tutor at King’s, and remained a lifelong confidante and friend. Continue reading

Bloomsbury’s Lost Poet: Julian Bell In Madrid

North of Madrid, between the city and the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range, lies the Cementerio de Fuencarral. The cemetery was built to bury the fallen of the Battle of Jarama, which began on 6th February 1937, exactly 76 years before my visit. After the Nationalists declared victory in April 1939, Franco disinterred those who had died at Jarama and disturbed the graves of many International Brigades’ members buried there during the course of the Spanish Civil War.

Although the entire cemetery was not demolished and the initial walls still stand, the Republican burial plots were removed and the original remains ending up dumped in an unmarked mass grave. A large plaque honouring the International Brigades was also destroyed. The sheer brutality that brought the cemetery into being and governed its early years is now hard to imagine; but its history has not been forgotten. An annual service is held to commemorate the fallen of Jarama, and a new plaque dedicated to the International Brigades was unveiled in 2009.   

2009 Plaque

The 2009 Plaque

The purpose of my visit to Fuencarral was the vain hope of finding the grave of Julian Bell, son of the painter Vanessa Bell and the art critic Clive Bell, and the nephew of Virginia Woolf. Bell had left for Spain in June 1937 only months after his return from China, where he had spent nearly two years teaching English at Wu-Han University. After two failed attempts to gain a Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge (his alma mater) Bell turned his attentions abroad in the hope of achieving the recognition that had eluded him at home. He had enjoyed minor success as a poet and writer, but without the level of acclaim he desired or, because of his Bloomsbury connections, expected. Continue reading