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

That Detestable Place: Virginia Woolf And Cambridge

‘That detestable place,’ as she referred to Cambridge, remained a lifelong source of resentment for Virginia Woolf. Despite telling the composer Dame Ethel Smyth, ‘I hate Cambridge, and bitterly though I’ve suffered from it, I still respect it,’ she was never able to reconcile herself to her own exclusion from the University and, as she saw it, the continuing injustices it insisted upon committing against its female students. Yet her resentment was not without foundation.

During the 19th Century, two women’s colleges had been established, Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1871, but women were not admitted as full members of the University. Furthermore, although they had been granted the right to sit Tripos exams in 1881, and were offered University certificates on passing, they were unable to accept the titles of degrees. In fact, many female students even felt that their presence was not welcomed by the University and at times, both faculty and male undergraduates could be openly hostile to it. One Newnham student even claimed that, when women walked, male students sometimes followed them and mockingly ‘clumped and stamped in time with each of their steps.’ 

In her memoirs, Frances Partridge (née Marshall), who went up to Newnham in 1918 (and would eventually become affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group through her marriage to Ralph Partridge) remembered the enforcement of rules which she considered outmoded and traditionalist. Partridge recalled how she had cunningly bypassed the strict college rules requiring Newnham students to have chaperones, ‘by inventing an imaginary duenna called Mrs Kenyon, whose services I called on quite often.’ However, Patridge noted that, ‘there was gunpowder in the air, and it finally exploded at a meeting between students and dons, convened to consider the question of chaperonage, when a brave girl stood up and asked why it was that an exception was made for those girls rich enough to have a sitting-room as well as a bedroom. In a dead silence she enquired: “Is this because it is thought that the sight of the beds in our bed-sitting-rooms would be too much of a temptation?” This occasion, if not this actual remark, sounded the death knell of chaperones. After this we met the men freely, played tennis with them went punting and on picnics, and above all danced with them.’ Continue reading