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

Hungerheart: The Loves Of Christopher St. John

Christopher St. John, or Christabel Marshall as she was known until her conversion to Catholicism in 1912, should be more widely recognised that she in fact is. Although best remembered for her association with the renowned stage actress Dame Ellen Terry (after Terry’s death in 1928, she edited Terry’s correspondence with George Bernard-Shaw in 1931, and her Memoirs in 1933), St. John was much more besides. Not only a writer of some talent, she also openly embraced her sexuality, and refused to succumb to external pressures to lead a more orthodox life as many other lesbian women did at that time. By all accounts, St. John revelled in her love for her own sex and believed it should be celebrated.

Above: A sound recording of Ellen Terry in Romeo and Juliet (1911)

The daughter of the prolific children’s author, Emma Marshall, St. John was born in Exeter in 1871. Academically gifted from an early age, St. John read History at Somerville College, Oxford, before taking up a position as Secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and less frequently, to her son Winston.  It was through her keen interest in drama that she made her association with Ellen Terry, also becoming her sometime secretary. In addition, St. John’s involvement with Terry was to lead to the most significant meeting of her life. In 1896, she met Edith Craig, Terry’s illegitimate daughter by the architect Edward William Godwin. For St. John the attraction was instant and overwhelming. Craig, who apparently considered herself bisexual, readily reciprocated; and the two made no attempt to hide the true nature of their relationship. By 1899 they had already been living together in Smith Square in Westminster, before a decision, presumably based on Craig’s closeness to her actress mother and her own career as a theatre director and producer with the Lyceum Theatre Company prompted a move to the more convenient Covent Garden.

In 1903, the relationship between the two women was severely shaken. Craig, who still claimed to also be interested in men, had accepted a marriage proposal from the composer Martin Shaw. Craig had met Shaw through her brother, the theatre director and actor Edward Gordon Craig, with whom Shaw had co-founded the Purcell Operatic Society. Upon learning of Craig’s acceptance of the proposal, St. John was devastated. No union ever took place though, after Ellen Terry, who was supportive of Craig and St. John’s relationship, managed to persuade her daughter against the marriage.  St. John would later fictionalise the incident with Shaw, in her novel, Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul. The novel’s main protagonist is Joanna Montolivet, an androgynous girl known within the story as John-Baptist, who falls in love with a character called Sally; their relationship being of a kind in which it was hard to determine, ‘which was the husband and which was the wife in the ménage!!’ John-Baptist is shattered when Sally later embarks upon a relationship with a man, describing the pain of Sally’s betrayal as a, ‘bomb hurtling through the serene air of my Paradise.’ 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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