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Magda Szabó: Abigél (Abigail)

This novel was the most successful of Magda Szabó’s novels published in Hungary, so it is nice to see it finally appearing in English after fifty years.

Our heroine is Georgina Vitay, known as Gina. At the start of the novel, she is living with her father, General Vitay, in Budapest, in 1943. Her mother died when she was two and Gina has had a French governess. However, as Hungary and France are now at war, the General sends her back to France. Gina is devastated. She is even more devastated when her father tells her that she is to be sent to a boarding school in a provincial Hungarian town. He refuses to explain why, only using the departure of the governess as a reason and the fact that her aunt, his sister, is unsuitable for looking after her.

Gina is very reluctant to go, particularly as she is given short notice, having no time to tell her boyfriend, Feri, a soldier, of whom her father does not approve. Indeed, she is instructed to tell no-one. Her aunt knows of her departure but does not know where. It seems that no-one is to know, not even Gina herself. They set off early one morning in the chauffeured driven car. Gina is fairly familiar with Hungarian geography and can see that they heading East. She soon discovers they are going to the small town of Árkod and, specifically, to the Bishop Matula Academy for Girls, the first institution of pedagogic excellence in Hungary to accept full-time female students.

Gina and her aunt have long suspected that the reason for her father’s decision is that he is planning to remarry and that his new wife might not be too keen on having a stepdaughter. When she challenges him on this, just before they separate, he furiously denies it.

The school is a Protestant school (Gina’s father is Catholic but her mother was Protestant). She soon finds it is very strict. She is not allowed any of her clothes and these are replaced by standard school issue garments. She is not even allowed her own toothbrush and has to have her hair cut to standard size. She is used to being spoilt by her governess, aunt and father and this strict approach she finds galling. The headmaster will later say that she is the most unruly pupil he has ever had in the school.

Despite the fact of continued work and no play, regular church services and close surveillance, the girls do rebel somewhat. They have a fifteen minute quiet period at the beginning of the day and in Gina’s form she learns that, at the beginning of the term, one of the girls takes the inventory list of everything in the classroom and each girl is married off to an object on the list. She is given an empty aquarium. She finds the whole business ludicrous and says so out loud, mocking the fat and plain-looking girl (called Szabó!) who is reading out the list. At this point the teacher enters and hears her shouting during the quiet period and she is sent outside.

Another teacher sees her crying in the corridor and takes her to the headmaster. She blurts out the full story, a story that the other girls had kept secret for twenty-five years. They pretend that it was just a joke to tease the new girl but the result is that she is completely ostracised. None of the girls will speak to her and, not surprisingly, this really upsets her. She tries to tell her father when he phones but the staff are listening to her phone call and make it clear that it is completely unacceptable to complain about the school in either a phone call or letter.

Things get worse and worse and she is determined to run away. She hatches a clever plot but is caught at the railway station. Her father is summoned and he explains to her why she absolutely has to stay at the school. She accepts his reason, albeit reluctantly.

The title comes from the name given to a statue in the courtyard. No-one knows why she is called Abigail or, indeed, who she was. What they do know is that she helps the girls in distress, who leave her a letter. Gina looks down on this as well as the marriage game. She will subsequently come to embrace both and will certainly turn to Abigail for help, particularly after her father’s message.

The remainder of the book shows making her peace with her classmates, while, at the same time, dealing with the increasing fall-out of the war (particularly when the Germans start to occupy the country), what her father had told her and the consequences of what he had told her. Abigail will play an increasing role and Gina becomes aware that there is someone who is both Abigail and the person who leaves messages all over the town, criticising the conduct of the war and the German alliance, and carrying out acts of sabotage. When her boyfriend, Feri, turns up in town, things really start to get interesting. We know she survives because she tells us several times how she is writing this much later in life but the details are more complicated than we had anticipated.

Szabó very much gets into the character of Gina as well as the nature of the school. Strict discipline is the order of the day both on the part of the staff and pupils but the strict discipline has many chinks in its armour, with both pupils and staff bending and even blatantly flouting the rules. Indeed, how and why they do bend and break the rules are key to the novel. Inevitably the girls, at ages fourteen-fifteen, are both children and young women and this conflict is key to the book. The teachers try to maintain their formal stance but they, too, are human and their somewhat murky love lives, eagerly followed by the pupils, are key to the book as well.

This is a very fine book and it is somewhat surprising we have had to wait fifty years for an English translation. It has already appeared in French, German and Italian. This is the third Szabó novel I have read and, in my view, the best of the three, though the other two were both excellent. A fifty year wait was well worth it.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Móra
First English translation 2020 by Maclehose Press
Translated by Len Rix