Told by Gesa Karoly
I promised you, my curious little girl, to tell you the true story of Sarolta Andrassy. You knew her, didn’t you? You remember her black hair with blue and red highlights, and her eyes like a lover’s begging and melancholy.
Sarolta Andrassy lived in the country with her old mother. For neighbours she had the Szecheny family, who had just left Budapest forever. Really, they were a bizarre family! It was easy to mistake Bela Szecheny for a little girl, and his sister, Terka, for a little boy. Curiously enough, Bela possessed all the feminine virtues and Terka, all the masculine faults. Bela’s hair was a copper blond; Terka’s was a livelier, rather reddish blond. The brother and sister strangely resembled each other – and that’s very rare among members of the same family, no matter what they say.
Bela’s mother was not yet resigned to cutting off the beautiful blond curls of the little boy or to exchanging his graceful muslin or velvet skirts for vulgar pants. She coddled him like a little girl. As for Terka, she kept shooting up, like a wild weed . . . She lived outdoors, climbing on the trees, marauding, robbing the kitchen gardens. She was unbearable and at war with the world. She was a child who was neither tender not communicative. Bela, on the other hand, was gentleness itself. He showed his adoration for his mother by making much of her and by caressing her. Terka loved no on, and no one loved her.
Sarolta came one day to visit the Szecheny family. Her loving eyes in her thin, pale face seemed to be begging. Bela greatly pleased her, and they played together great deal. Looking wild, Terka prowled around them.When Sarolta spoke to her, she fled.
She could have been pretty, this incomprehensible Terka . . . But she was too tall for her age, too thin, too awkward, too ungainly, whereas Bela was so dainty and so sweet! . . . Several months later, the Szecheny family left Hungary. Bela had an excessively delicate chest, being in general rather frail. On the advice of the doctor, his mother took him to Nice, along with his recalcitrant little sister. Sarolta cried bitterly over losing her playmate.
In her dreams, Sarolta always evoked the too frail and too pretty little boy whom she remembered constantly. And she would say to herself, smiling at the blond fantasy: ‘If I must get married when I’m older, I would like to marry Bela.’
Several years passed – oh, how slowly for the impatient Sarolta! Bela must have reached the age of twenty, and Terka, seventeen. They were still on the Riviera. And Sarolta grieved through the joyless, long years, which were lit up only by the illusion of a dream.
One violet evening, she was dreaming by her window when her mother came to tell her that Bela had returned . . . Sarolta’s heart sang as if it would break. And, the next day, Bela came to see her.
He was the same, and even more charming than before. Sarolta was happy that he had kept this feminine and gentle manner which had so pleased her. He was still the fragile child . . . But now this child possessed an inexpressible grace. Sarolta searched in vain for the cause of this transformation which made him so alluring. His voice was musical and faraway like the echo of the mountains. She admired everything about him, even his stone-grey English suit. And she even admired his
Bela contemplated the young woman with different eyes, with eyes strangely beautiful, with eyes that did not resemble the eyes of other men . . . ‘How thin he is!’ observed Sarolta’s mother after he had left. ‘Poor thing, he must still be in delicate health.’ Sarolta did not answer. She closed her eyes in order to again see Bela under her closed eyelids . . . How handsome, handsome, handsome he was! . . .
He returned the next day, and every day after that. He was the Prince Charming who is seen only in the childish pages of fairy tales. She could not look him in the face without feeling ardently and languishingly faint . . . Her face changed according to the expression of the face she loved. Her heart beat according to the rhythm of that other heart. Her unconscious and childish tenderness had become love.
Bela would turn pale as soon as she appeared, diaphanous in her white summer dress. Sometimes he looked at her without speaking, like someone communing with himself in front of a faultless Statue. Sometimes he took her hand . . . His palm was so burning and dry that she thought she was touching the hand of an invalid. Indeed, at those times a little fever would show in Bela’s cheeks.
One day she asked him for some news of the undisciplined Terka.
‘She is still in Nice,’ he answered indifferently. And then they spoke of something else. Sarolta understood that Bela did not love his sister at all. This was not surprising, what is more – a girl who was so taciturn and wild!
What should come next, came next. A few months later Bela asked to marry her. He had just turned twenty-one. Sarolta’s mother had no objections to the union
Their betrothal was unreal, as delicate as the white roses that Bela brought each day. Their vows were more fervent than poems: their very souls trembled on their lips. The nuptial dream came to be in the deepest silence.
‘Why,’ Sarolta would ask her fiancé, ‘are you worthier of being loved than other young men? Why do you have gentle ways that they do not? Where did you learn the divine words that they never say?’
The wedding ceremony took place in absolute privacy. The candles brightened the red highlights in Bela’s blond hair. The incense curled towards him, and the thunder of the organs exalted and glorified him. For the first time since the beginning of the world, the Groom was as beautiful as the Bride.
They left for those blue shores where the desire of lovers runs out of patience. They were seen, a Divine Couple, with the eyelashes of one stroking the eyelids of the other. They were seen, lovingly and chastely intertwined, with her black hair spread over his blond hair . . .
Oh, my curious little girl! Here the story becomes a little difficult to relate . . . Several months later, the teal Bela Szecheny appeared . . . He was not Prince Charming, alas! He was only a handsome boy, nothing more.
He furiously sought the identity of the young usurper . . . And he learned that the usurper in question was his own sister, Terka.
….Sarolta and Prince Charming have never returned to Hungary. They are hiding in the depths of a Venetian castle or of a Florentine mansion. And sometimes they are seen, as one sees a vision of ideal tenderness, lovingly and chastely intertwined.
Translated by Karla Jay and
Yvonne M. Klein
Who, we wonder, was Gesa Karoly, and who was the curious little girl to whom this little gem of a story was related? The writer would have us believe that legend of Sarolta and her lover went on being retold, and the little girl, who remembered Sarolta, we may fondly imagine, may have been influenced by its hearing, to form her own views and ideas about the possibilities of love, and so not simply accept at face-value the norms embraced and upheld by society at large.
Renée Vivien’s charming tale of lesbian love and marriage is one in a long string going all the way back to Ovid – Iphys and Ianthes, in Metamorphosis, and Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, which has the a brother and sister fall in love with the same woman. Though both narratives disappoint (Ariosto’s narrative, degenerates into a heterosexual romance, even though the two women marry each other, and in Ovid’s tale Iphys is transformed into a man) Vivien gives her readers every satisfaction.
Hers is a story told by a lesbian, for lesbians, and happily for us she does not succumb to trite and banal heterosexual anticlimaxes resorted to by precedent (even Shakespeare is guilty here), but sends her lovers off to live in Italy, where we are free to imagine that they in true fairy-tale fashion, revel in each others’ company for the rest of their lives.
I hear a pianissimo echo in Vivien’s language of Oscar Wilde but without his excesses, of Baudelaire, without his decadence and also of Virginia Woolf, without her usual ornately satirical social embellishments; but above all I hear in Vivien’s writing the sweetness and magic, as well as the dark glimmer of falling in love.
No doubt an argument can be made that the romantic ethereality of her language and its high-art aesthetic confers on it the gloss of dated unreality, but I think that beneath the cultured patina lies the solid core of a complex analysis of gender and sexual orientation, albeit sans the associated component of sexuality. Prince Charming is in fact a stylish fable – a myth – chronicling a stylised adaptation of gender to fulfil the imperatives of personal individuation.
Though the traits of the opposite sex predominate in the characters of Bela and Terka, Terka’s maleness bears the imprint of divine virginity, whereas Bela’s femaleness is mere passivity. Terka is in fact a young Diana, withholding herself from trivial social interaction, and purely dedicated to her own wild self.
What sets the sequence of this story in motion? Sarolta loves Bela (meaning ‘white’ in Hungarian, and here perhaps implying ‘pure’) for his girlish nature, and she is aware that a liaison is one which is still within the ambit of what is considered socially sanctioned as a basis for marriage. But this is her first step on the lesbian continuum, when her heart’s intimations reveal to her that it is a certain quality – a particular nature – a singular constellation of characteristics that draw her, and this attachment, though nascent and diffuse, forms the basis of her enduing romantic dream.
But I question if Bela’s muslin skirts, delicate health and a general tendency to be ‘sweet’, though they may suffice to inspire Sarolta’s childish love, go beyond being merely social traits? For in this case they do not seem to me to sink their taproot into the substratum of human nature itself. Not so in the case of Terka. Her wild coltishness, and her vital intensity – the active reality of her nature – does not permit the trivial and social interactions which convention approves. Why does she run away when addressed by Sarolta? Could it be that she cannot bear the intensity of her feelings for Sarolta? She is untouchable and most of all untouched. For her the potency of touch is not something to be squandered in idle caresses. Neither is she sullied by any prior loves, not even the maternal, and certainly not the fraternal – and this is the purity Vivien so values, in her emphasis on ‘chasteness’. It is this chasteness, this virginal quality and its underlying power is what makes Terka’s love pure and exclusive. She is after all, the one who initiates the relationship with Sarolta, while valetudinarian Bela lacks the acumen to take the next logical step in Sarolta’s direction.
Vivien makes it undeniably clear that it was what was female in Bela that inspired Sarolta’s early affection. Bela was effete and epicene and these were the qualities that appealed to Sarolta. His nerveless languor and passive nature devoid of masculine traits – in fact his effeminacy – is what makes Bela acceptable to her. Vivien relates a myth of gender ambivalence, describing a subtle process which begins with the unreal and concludes with the real. It is a sacrament in which separate and disparate splinters of gender components coalesce in Terka and transform to comprise a whole, which then concludes in the Hierosgamos – the sacred marriage.
Bela himself is hidden behind the veil of the personality he projectes, and which Sarolta percieves. When she again sees Terka in the guise of Bela, after the long separation in all his travested beauty, she falls truly in love. She knows intuitively this is a ‘different’ kind of love. She senses the difference, though she finds it inexplicable, but the shift of her affections from childish love to ardour and from Bela to ‘Terka as Bela’ and from girlish boy to boyish girl, is accomplished in one swift gliding movement. It resembles a bloodless revolution, when a usurper displaces a former monarch and seizes the throne without the least evidence of conflict. Neither do we sense in Sarolta any trace of an emotional disconnect.
The alchemical progression in Sarolta’s mind of a dawning realisation from languid to intense, from Bela to Terka seems almost imperceptible. The process is so smooth, so deftly accomplished, it is almost invisible as a progression in the object of Sarolta’s affections. Sarolta’s attachment begins with a male, Bela, in whom feminine traits predominate – Terka, in whom the masculine traits predominate remains, present, but in the distance, unapproachable and unapproaching.
Then comes the vital hiatus – the quiescence in which Terka enters the cocoon of her metamorphosis. When she reappears she has achieved the perfect balance of integrated feminine and masculine traits – a fusion of the requisite romantic and social qualities which form the fabric of Sarolta’s Prince Charming. And so, one wonders if for Terka, early gender ambivalence was transformed into a mature personality largely in relation to Sarolta, and if Terka’s motivation in creating her adult self was in order to be desired by Sarolta…. and to go even a step further, if Terka’s transformation into ‘Prince Charming was in fact a wrought by the alchemy of Sarolta’s desire…
But it is shimmering awareness that makes the wedding secret, and silent, and the love sacrosanct. The mere touching of hands is fevered, and between Terka and Sarolta there is none of the casualness in it of Bela’s maternal caresses. Farouche Terka is transformed in young adulthood into a Prince Charming of hidden depths. Bela remains a feeble, social creature, prodded to action only when concerns about his social identity compel him.
Vivien’s story boldly celebrates the strange and ineffable nature of lesbian love when it is first felt, as a force that surfaces mysteriously, asserts itself and makes itself felt in ways that cannot be explained or understood: as something which demands to be acknowledged and honoured, to the extent that it subverts and usurps and adapts to its own necessity the heterosexual prerogative of marriage.
The appearance of femininity and masculinity – even maleness and femaleness – is shown to be deceptive and misleading; a mere mask and masquerade, which makes impersonation of the opposite sex (and not mere transvestism) a valid and genuine act. It is not merely a use of sartorial deception, but something undertaken in order to accomplish a serious end. With her ‘Prince Charming’ Vivien creates a space where same-sex love can be conceived of as something which can – and should – flourish undisturbed and unhindered. This idea seems particularly valuable at a time when the self-knowledge of a woman’s sexual and affectional orientation was not a simple given – not an external endowment as perhaps it is in our own time – but something to be arrived at intuitively, empirically and with conviction, in contravention of accepted social norms.
In Vivien’s charmingly extravagant myth, the stock trope of ‘Prince Charming’ is stood on its head. It is appropriated and made to serve a subversive purpose. It validates same-sex relationships between women, and recognises the importance of personal as well as social imperatives for lesbians, and the claim to a socially recognised pair bond such as marriage, is something that women might wish to claim for themselves and their female partners.
And so we are given an unambiguously happy ending to a thoroughly romantic escapade – a lesbian fairy-tale in which girl gets girl.
Vivien lived most of her adult life in the Paris of the ‘Belle Époque’, in the company many brilliant literary lesbians – she was the lover of Natalie Clifford Barney, the neighbour of Collette and she knew Djuna Barnes and many other brilliant women who frequented Barney’s salon. She chose for herself a life far removed from the rigid and limiting confines of domesticity, heterosexual marriage, and the burden of childbearing and child-raising, and had several intense love affairs, relationships and liaisons with women. Fortunately for her, she lived in a time which pre-dated, and was therefore unpolluted by Freud’s malignant and pernicious theorising. She was free to think for herself in ways that most of her female contemporaries outside of her charmed circle could not.
Although Vivien became the heiress of a very large fortune at a very early age, wealth did not bring much happiness with it. Vivien’s mother attempted – unsuccessfully – to claim a share of the inheritance by having her daughter declared insane. Vivien’s personal difficulties – anorexia, drug, and alcohol abuse exacerbated by a weak constitution, did not detract from her awareness and intense exploration of the possibilities of passionate love between women, something she expressed much more explicitly and emphatically in her poetry than her prose.
Permanently bereft by the death of her first love, Violet Shillitoe, (in 1901 at the age of 24) Vivien slipped into a steep physical and emotional decline. Her grief was probably exacerbated by guilt, since she had begun an affair with Natalie Clifford Barney shortly before Violet’s death. Violet’s body, which had been buried in France, was exhumed by her father and shipped back to England for reburial in 1904, leaving behind an empty grave in the cemetery of Saint Germain en Laye in Passey. It is interesting to speculate what impact this morbid event may have had on Vivien, who was already obsessed with death. With the windows of her apartment nailed shut, and living a reclusive life in her dark, incense-scented rooms, she continued to compose feverishly impassioned poetry, writing obsessively to the very end of her life in November of 1909.
Not very much of Vivien’s original work (written in French,) has been translated into English, which seems to be the reason it is not well-known to English readers. Her poetry, defiantly and uncompromisingly Sapphic, did not catch on in France, though the French could hardly have found its content to be more shocking than the decadent poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century (consider Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Louys). Perhaps the fact that it was written by a woman may have been more than bourgeois sensibilities of the notoriously sexist French of that era could tolerate.
Despite her short and tragic life, (there was at least one attempt at suicide) and the fact that her poetry was never really ‘in style’ the mere fact that Vivien wrote more openly and unapologetically about lesbian love than would be attempted for another seventy years and more, makes her an important figure to us. I am certain that had she written and been published in English and had those publications survived unscathed by censorship, our history as lesbians would have unfolded along a very different trajectory. A voice in the wilderness is still a voice, and had hers been heard it might have reached the ears of those who most needed to hear its affirmation. Instead there was only the occasional murmur until Radclyffe Hall published her 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness – which was in in fact more of a reasoned plea for understanding and acceptance for ‘inverts’ rather than any confident claim.
So are left, as is usual in such cases when brilliance and bad luck collide, with a sense of satisfaction tinged with regret, wishing that Vivien’s life could have been as happy, and had as happy an ending as that of Sarolta and Terka in this story.
A week ago, this June 11th was the 135th anniversary of her birth, so Happy Birthday, Renée Vivien – we still remember you, fondly and well.
Le Prince Charmant
Conté par Gesa Karoly.
Je vous ai promis, ô petite curieuse, de vous conter l’histoire véritable de Saroltâ Andrassy. Vous l’avez connue, n’est-ce pas? Vous vous souvenez de ses cheveux noirs, aux reflets bleus et roux, et de ses yeux d’amoureuse, suppliants et mélancoliques.
Saroltâ Andrassy vivait à la campagne avec sa vieille mère. Elles avaient pour voisins les Szécheny, qui venaient de quitter définitivement Buda-Pesth. Une bizarre famille, en vérité ! On aurait pu prendre Bêla Szécheny pour une petite fille, et sa sœur Terka pour un jeune garçon. Chose curieuse, Bêla possédait toutes les vertus féminines et Terka tous les défauts masculins. Les cheveux de Bêla étaient d’un blond vert, ceux de Terka, plus vivants, d’un blond rose. Le frère et la sœur se ressemblaient étrangement, — cela est très rare entre gens de la même famille, quoi qu’on en dise.
La mère de Bêla ne se résignait pas encore à couper les belles boucles blondes du petit garçon et à échanger ses gracieuses jupes de mousseline ou de velours contre une vulgaire culotte. Elle le choyait comme une fillette. Quant à Terka, elle poussait à sa guise, pareille à une herbe sauvage… Elle vivait au grand air, grimpant sur les arbres, maraudant, pillant les jardins potagers, insupportable et en guerre avec tout le monde. C’était une enfant sans tendresse et sans expansion. Bêla, au contraire, était la douceur même. Son adoration pour sa mère se manifestait par des câlineries et des caresses incessantes. Terka n’aimait personne et personne ne l’aimait.
Saroltâ vint un jour chez les Szécheny. Ses yeux d’amoureuse imploraient, dans son mince visage pâle. Béla lui plut beaucoup et ils jouèrent longtemps ensemble. Terka rôdait autour d’eux, d’un air farouche. Lorsque Saroltâ lui adressa la parole, elle s’enfuit.
Les Szécheny quittèrent la Hongrie quelques mois plus tard. Saroltâ pleura amèrement son compagnon de jeux. Sur l’avis du médecin, sa mère l’avait emmené à Nice, ainsi que sa récalcitrante petite sœur. Béla avait la poitrine délicate à l’excès. Il était, d’ailleurs, peu robuste.
À travers ses rêves, Saroltâ évoquait toujours l’enfant trop frêle et trop joli dont le souvenir persistait en elle. Et elle se disait, en souriant à l’image blonde :
« Si je dois me marier plus tard, je voudrais épouser Béla. »
Plusieurs années se passèrent, — oh ! combien lentement pour l’impatiente Saroltâ ! Béla devait avoir atteint vingt ans, et Terka dix-sept. Ils étaient toujours sur la Riviera. Et Saroltâ se désolait de ces années sans joie, éclairées seulement par l’illusion d’un songe.
Elle rêvait à sa fenêtre, par un soir violet, lorsque sa mère vint lui dire que Béla était revenu…
Le cœur de Saroltâ chantait à se briser. Et, le lendemain, Béla vint vers elle.
Il était le même, et pourtant bien plus charmant qu’autrefois. Saroltâ fut heureuse qu’il eût gardé cet air efféminé et doux qui lui avait tant plu. C’était toujours l’enfant fragile… Mais cet enfant possédait aujourd’hui une grâce inexprimable. Saroltâ chercha en vain la cause de cette transformation qui le rendait si attirant. Sa voix était musicale et lointaine, ainsi qu’un écho des montagnes. Elle admira tout de lui, jusqu’à son complet anglais, d’un gris de pierres, et jusqu’à sa cravate mauve.
Béla contemplait la jeune fille de ses yeux changés, de ses yeux étrangement beaux, de ses yeux qui ne ressemblaient pas aux yeux des autres hommes…
« Qu’il est donc mince ! » observa la mère de Saroltâ, après son départ. « Il doit être encore d’une santé bien délicate, ce pauvre petit. »
Saroltâ ne répondit point. Elle ferma les yeux afin de revoir Béla sous ses paupières closes… Comme il était joli, joli, joli !…
Il revint le lendemain, et tous les jours. C’était le Prince Charmant qui ne se révèle qu’à travers les pages enfantines des contes de fées. Elle ne pouvait le regarder en face sans défaillir ardemment, languissamment… Son visage variait selon l’expression du visage désiré. Son cœur battait selon le rythme de cet autre cœur. L’inconsciente et puérile tendresse était devenue de l’amour.
Béla pâlissait dès qu’elle entrait, diaphane en sa blanche robe d’été. Il la regardait parfois, sans parler, comme quelqu’un qui se recueille devant une Statue sans défaut. Parfois il lui prenait la main… Elle croyait toucher une main de malade, tant la paume en était brûlante et sèche. Un peu de fièvre montait alors jusqu’aux pommettes de Béla.
Elle lui demanda un jour des nouvelles de Terka l’indisciplinée.
« Elle est toujours à Nice, » répondit-il négligemment. Et l’on parla d’autre chose. Saroltâ comprit que Béla n’aimait point sa sœur. Ce n’était pas étonnant, au surplus. Une enfant si taciturne et si farouche !
Ce qui devait arriver arriva. Béla la demanda en mariage quelques mois plus tard. Il entrait dans sa vingt et unième année. La mère de Saroltâ ne s’opposa point à l’union.
Ce furent d’irréelles fiançailles, délicates à l’égal des roses blanches que Béla apportait chaque jour. Ce furent des aveux plus fervents que des poèmes, et des frissons d’âme sur les lèvres. Au profond des silences, passait le rêve nuptial.
« Pourquoi, » disait Saroltâ à son fiancé, « es-tu plus digne d’être aimé que les autres jeunes hommes ? Pourquoi as-tu des douceurs qu’ils ignorent ? Où donc as-tu appris les parôles divines qu’ils ne prononcent jamais ? »
La cérémonie eut lieu dans une intimité absolue. Les cierges avivaient les lueurs roses de la blonde chevelure de Béla. L’encens fumait vers lui, et le tonnerre des orgues l’exaltait et le glorifiait. Pour la première fois, depuis le commencement du monde, l’Époux fut aussi beau que l’Épouse.
Ils partirent vers les rives bleues où s’exaspère le désir des amants. On les vit, Couple Divin, les cils de l’un frôlant les paupières de l’autre. On les vit, amoureusement et chastement enlacés, les cheveux noirs de l’Amante répandus sur les blonds cheveux de l’Amant…
Mais voici, ô petite curieuse ! où l’histoire devient un peu difficile a raconter… Quelques mois plus tard, le véritable Béla Szécheny apparut… Ce n’était pas le Prince Charmant. Hélas ! Ce n’était qu’un joli garçon, sans plus.
… Saroltâ et le Prince Charmant ne sont plus revenus en Hongrie. Ils se cachent au fond d’un palais vénitien ou d’une maison florentine. Et parfois on les rencontre, tels qu’une vision de tendresse idéale, amoureusement et chastement enlacés.