More Was Lost: A Memoir by Eleanor Perényi (1946)

In 1937,  a nineteen year old American named Eleanor Stone, whose father was a military attaché to the American Embassy in Paris and whose mother was a successful novelist, was charmed by a young Hungarian nobleman at a dinner party held at the American legation in Budapest.

Baron Zsigmon Perényi (Zsiga) called on her the next day, they spent much of the rest of her week in Budapest together; and on her last evening, they went out to dinner.

All of this was written about with such charm, and this is how she recalled that evening when she came to write this memoir:

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”
I looked into my wineglass.
“Yes, we could,”
There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”
“I think I could decidedly.”
So we were engaged.

Eleanor’s parents, reasonably concerned about the speed of the romance, the youth of their daughter and the prospect of her leaving them for a new life in a part of the world they didn’t know, insisted on a year’s engagement with the young lovers returning to their own worlds. They agreed, but the romance didn’t die and they were married. Zsiga gave up his job in Budapest, so that he and his ancestral home, Szöllös.

Young and in love, Eleanor was charmed by the prospect.

A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

Fortunately she was also clear-sighted, because her new life came with many complications.

Though the young couple’s assets were substantial – a baroque property, 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest – and they were far from poor, they didn’t have the capital that they needed to restore the dilapidated property and to run the estate as they felt they should. And though Zsiga was Hungarian, his estate wasn’t in Hungary anymore: it was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI, and he needed a passport and permission from the authorities before he could travel there.

Eleanor threw herself into her new life: finding out how to manage the household and the the gardens; learning to speak Hungarian; meeting neighbours and playing her part in local society; and having a lovely time rearranging and furnishing the rooms of her new home, and picking through possessions left behind by earlier generations of the Perényi family.

She was particularly proud of the new library that she created:

This was filled with things to look at. There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. 

I loved the author’s voice, and I found it wonderfully engaging. It caught her youthful enthusiasm and her love of what she was learning and doing, and it was wonderfully clear and unpretentious. She wasn’t afraid to be critical – of dirty trains, for example – but I never doubted for a moment that she was looking back with love.

She wrote beautifully, of  her life on the estate, of changing of the seasons, the people she met and the things she saw, and with exactly the right details and description to convey exactly what it was like to anyone reading her words.

But she had that life for not very long at all before her world was shaken:

What I know of what happened in the next week of the world crisis I learned later from old copies of Time. Our only source of news, the radio, was taken away from us. All radio sets in the town were ordered turned in. We were presumably going to get our news from a loudspeaker in the town hall. They never set this up. It just meant we had no news of any kind. Then came the order for the farm horses and carriages to be turned in to the army. This was a pretty clear indication that the Czechs were getting ready for a mobilization …

Suddenly, the couple had to decide where it was best to live, when to leave or return to a particular country, how to cope during air raids, how to manage their estate during a time of insecurity and upheaval, and what to do if Zsiga was called up for military service. The life-changing decisions that they were forced to make as the political situation escalated were clear, terribly difficult and heart-breaking.

It wouldn’t be fair to say more – and I’d recommend not reading the very good introduction, that explains more about what happened during and after the war, before you read the book itself – but please do read this book, if you have any interest at all in the period or the setting.

‘More Was Lost’ captures a vanished world, people who lived and loved in that world, and the life-changing choices set before them quite perfectly.

A Book for Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews (1946)

Every time I pick up one of Margery Sharp’s books I find both things that are wonderfully familiar and things that make each book feel quite distinctive.

This particular book, that I plucked from the middle of her backlist, sets out the story of one remarkable woman and one London Street. It makes a wonderful entertainment,  and, along the way, it says much about how English society changed between the reign of Queen Victoria and the Second World War.

“There had always been this quality about Britannia Mews, that to step into it from Albion Alley was like stepping into a self-contained and separate small world. No one who passed under the archway ever had any doubt as to what sort of place he was entering — in 1865, model stables; in 1880, a slum; in 1900, a respectable working class court. Thus, when an address in a mews came to imply a high degree of fashion, Britannia Mews was unmistakably smart.”

Adelaide was born late in the 19th century, the only daughter of a very well to do family, she was brought up in a fashionable row of London townhouses called Albion Place, and she grew into an inquisitive and independent thinking young woman.

Her family’s carriage and  horses were housed nearby in Britannia Mews. There was a row of stable for the horses on one side of an alley, there was a row of coach-houses on the other, and over the coach-houses there was living accommodation  for the coachmen and their families. The residents were sensible working class people, who worked hard and took a pride in their homes, but they were worlds apart from the grand residents of Albion Place.


Adelaide loved her life, her home, and her extended family; but she came to realise that she didn’t want the conventional life that her mother was mapping out for her. Maybe that was why, when she found herself alone with her drawing master and he flirted with her quite outrageously, she saw a grand romance and began to plan to elope.

They were married before she learned that Henry Lambert wasn’t the man she thought he was; that he was better at talking about art than creating it; that he flirted with all of his students; that he was dissolute, penniless and saw nothing wrong with living in squalid rented rooms at Britannia Mews.

The Mews had deteriorated into a slum as fewer of the residents of Albion Place thought it necessary to keep their own coach and horses.

“Adelaide was very little of a fool: she had gone into the Mews as thought with her eyes open, prepared for the worst; she would have laughed as much as Henry at the idea of calling or being called on; but she had expected to be able to ignore her surroundings. They were to live in a little world of their own, in a bubble of love and hope, whose elastic, iridescent walls no squalor could penetrate. Within a week she discovered that while she could see and hear, such isolation was impossible.”

Many young women in that position would have allowed their family to rescue them from their dreadful situation, would have wept because they had made such a terrible mistake, but not Adelaide. She picked herself up; she tidied and polished and cleaned; and she did her level best to set her husband on the right track.

That was one battle she couldn’t win, but fighting it changed her life, and she began to change her life. She lost her husband but she found a new love and she found herself at the centre of a rich community of characters at Britannia Mews.

That came about in an extraordinary way. Henry Lambert  left behind a valuable legacy: a basket full of exquisite, hand-crafted marionettes that had been his greatest work, that had been his pride and joy. Adelaide hated them, but her new love saw wonderful possibilities.

‘To step under the archway, in 1922, was like stepping into a toy village—a very expensive toy from Hamley’s or Harrods: with a touch of the Russian Ballet about it, as though at any moment a door might fly open upon Petroushka or the Doll, for the colours of the doors, like the colours of the window-curtains, were unusually bright and varied; green, yellow, orange. Outside them stood tubs of begonias, or little clipped bushes. The five dwarf houses facing west were two-storey, with large downstairs rooms converted from old coach-houses; opposite four stables had been thrown into one to make the Puppet Theatre. The Theatre thus dominated the scene, but with a certain sobriety; its paintwork was a dark olive, the sign above the entrance a straightforward piece of lettering…People often said that the theatre made the Mews.’

Adelaide loved it but she missed her old life. She would have loved to live in her parents’ new country house, but she knew that to go home she would have to give up her independence and admit that she had taken the wrong path in life,  and she could not bring herself to do that. But she couldn’t quite let go of her family, they couldn’t quite let go of her, and certain members of her family were drawn to the wonderful puppet theatre at Britannia Mews.

The story follows Adelaide, her family, her neighbours and her puppet theatre thorough the Second World War, until she is a very old lady and a younger generation is making new plans for the people and the puppets of Britannia Mews.

That story was compelling, it loses focus a little when the story moves to the next generation, but it picks up again in the war years and for a beautifully pitched final act.

This is a quieter, more serious book than many of Margery Sharp’s, but there are flashes of her wonderful wit, and many moments that have lovely, emotional insight. She acknowledges some people have good reason to not like Adelaide, but I am not one of them. I loved her and I loved her story.

It works because the puppet theatre was a wonderful idea and its realisation was pitch perfect.

It works because it  is populated by a wonderful array of characters, who take the story in some interesting and unexpected directions; and it is so cleverly crafted that it reads like a fascinating true story – a tale of  people that lived and breathed, a chapter of London’s history –  that had been plucked from obscurity to delight a new generation of readers.

I am so glad that I chose this book to read to mark Margery Sharp Day.

A Book for Elizabeth Goudge’s Birthday: The Little White Horse (1946)

‘The Little White Horse’ is one of a number of stories that Elizabeth Goudge wrote for children. It is set sometime in the 19th century, in the Devonshire countryside that the author so loved; and it is an engaging and old-fashioned tale, underpinned by both magic and faith.

Maria Merryweather was born and raised in London, but when was thirteen she was orphaned and sent to live with her  last living relative – Sir Benjamin of Moonacre Manor – in the heart of the country. She travelled with her governess, Miss Heliotrope, and her beloved spaniel, Wiggins. Night was falling when arrived, and they were all enchanted by the sight of a moonlit castle set in a beautiful and expansive grounds.

The travellers are made wonderfully welcome, and immediately feel completely at home. Everything that they might want has been thought of and every detail is right. Maria is particularly taken with her tower bedroom, its ceiling covered in moons and stars, its silvery furniture, its little tin of sugar biscuits ….

8826252_origThere are no servants to be seen, and Sir Benjamin declares that no woman has set foot on the house for twenty years!

Maria finds that her imaginary friend from London is a real boy living in the nearby village of Silverdew.

Yes, there is magic in the air.

There is also something darker. Maria learns of her sadness and wrong-going in her family’s history, and she realises that it has fallen to her to set things right.

Elizabeth tells her story beautifully; she really was a mistress of the art of story-telling. Every sentence is beautifully wrought; every character is clearly and distinctively drawn; every place, every meal, every setting is perfectly explained; and there is a wealth of lovely detail.

I think that this  is a book that would work best read in childhood – and I do wish I had discovered it as a child – but it still has a great deal to offer to the grown-up reader who is still in touch with her inner child who loved books.

I say ‘her’ because this is a very girly book.

My inner child loved this book.

But as a grown-up reader I have to point out a few failings.

It has a little too much squeezed into its pages, and as a result sometimes things feel rather rushed and there isn’t quite as much suspense and intrigue as there could have been.

And in the end everything was tied up rather too neatly, with happy-ever-afters for all.

I think I might understand why. I think that just after the war Elizabeth Goudge wanted to say – wanted to believe – that the world could be a better and happier place, that everything could be alright again.

The Little White Horse won the Carnegie Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature in 1946, when it was described as ‘not merely the best children’s book of this year, but the best which has appeared for the past ten years.

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I’m very pleased that I chose this book to read for Elizabeth Goudge Day .

Thank you Lory, for steering me back towards her work again.

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I inherited a love of Elizabeth Goudge’s  writing from my mother. She has been seriously ill, she is probably near the end of her life, and that is why I have been quite elusive over that last few weeks.

She recommended a few authors when I progressed from the junior to the adult library, and others over the years since them; but now, as I look back, I think that it is her recommendation of Elizabeth Goudge that says much about the woman she was and is.

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