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.