The Domestic Fantastic
More Was Lost
(New York Review Books Classics, 2016)
The daughter of American intellectuals, Eleanor Perényi would be known in her life as an outspoken liberal, magazine editor, and author; her essay collection Green Thoughts is considered a classic of the gardening genre. But in the late 1930s she was the young wife of a Hungarian baron, a lady of great privilege who found herself with much to lose in the coming years. Her memoir, More Was Lost, details some of this, describing her life in then-Ruthenia with unconstrained nostalgia for the feudal lifestyle enjoyed there, at least by aristocrats like her and her husband.
Perényi’s young-adult life, with her concern for good taste and high society, combined with her eye for great furniture, reads like true-life E.M. Forster, and reading her requires—and rewards—the escapist outlook we bring to such works. As war approaches, and then arrives, Perényi’s concerns remain focused on the lifestyle she was proud to be building (and not say, the imminent decimation of her Jewish neighbors). Whether time spent waiting in abject fear of a rumored air raid is at all improved by doing so while subsisting on a surplus of champagne in a château in the French countryside (as Perényi does one harrowing summer) is impossible to say. But it’s a remarkable story, and by its end, I had begun to imagine it told by a glamorous great aunt, whose froth of fascinating life experience can’t help but bring with it the occasional embarrassing opinion.
We meet Eleanor as she was at nineteen years old, an “idle young lady” in the middle of the lengthy European tour such people used to enjoy, when she falls in love with the Baron Zsiga Perényi. Her parents, at first resistant to a marriage (both Zsiga’s and Eleanor’s family are with society, but—in spite of appearances—without money), prescribe a months-long waiting period meant to test the couple’s commitment. Eleanor uses the time studying up on how to wife (how to bake hams and till land), spurred by a single photograph of the small but ornate palace that will soon be hers.
As in any good period drama, there is a third character in this idyllic love story: a beautiful old house. Whether as a psychological tactic to distance the couple from the horrors of war, a byproduct of youthful naïveté, or a stylistic choice, the home occupies a disproportionate amount of their time and thoughts as world war looms. Hindsight allows us to wonder why the couple didn’t simply flee to America, rather than literally risk their lives to stay in European grandeur. But at the time, Perényi was altogether consumed by domesticity in the place, which, we can guess, ignited her lifelong passion for gardening.
Perényi immediately takes to life as the mistress of a working farm. And who, in her position, wouldn’t? The property, dotted with cottages for the coachman, the blacksmith, the wheelmaker, also boasts an old tennis court, an adjacent vineyard, frescoed interiors, and a centuries-old library—it’s a house that’s a pleasure even to picture. And perhaps it’s no wonder she so enjoys and fights to keep her role at its center:
If I was bored or didn’t know what to do with myself, I only had to go and stand somewhere in the court. Right away, one of the woodcutters came to ask what size logs we needed for the stoves upstairs, or the gardener to tell me about the narcissus bulbs. I could urge the children, batting at the gravel with their rakes, to work quietly.
Neither self-doubting about her role as the teenage American at the very top of the hive’s hierarchy, nor apparently worried about the country’s child labor practices, she maintains (perhaps a bit dubiously) that the system held at a homeostasis is pleasant for all involved—servants, peasants, gypsies, Jews, and a house staff too long to list, included.
“Most of our people were not paid in cash,” Perényi writes. “For instance, one of the woodcutters was given pasturage for his cows in a part of the forest. […] While the scale of living of the peasants was not as good as a farmer’s in the [American] Middle West, it was certainly better than in many parts of the South, and we ourselves did not live in splendor.” Splendor being a relative term, it can be hard to believe her own estimation of normalcy. And her reluctance to admit her privilege is itself a kind of status signifier.
Through all her descriptions, Perényi abides by the American upper-class dictum never to admit one’s belonging to the upper class, even as it seems laughable to deny it. Despite continually calling herself middle class, Perényi has the ear, whenever she needs it, of well-connected Americans and Europeans alike. For example, when the Perényis’s ownership of the house is threatened by a wartime restructuring of land, it is the Hungarian Prime Minister himself who offers his property as an exchange—an offer she confidently, flatly refuses in a face-to-face meeting.
Perényi is the kind of writer who states matters of taste as facts: “I hate the country house tracked from end to end by muddy dogs, with loose wrinkled chintz covers on the furniture, and meals served irregularly when the owners come in from walks.” When she admits being “bored to tears” by Hungarian society, she means for us to know they are categorically boring. It’s an attitude that can only come from the confidence that extreme privilege allows, but for a reader, it’s both engaging and provocative.
Most provocative of these opinions, and troubling, is her characterization of Hungary’s Jewish population (only twenty-nine percent of which would survive the war). To her mind, they enjoy a peaceful coexistence. The Perényi house comes with its very own “House Jew,” Fried, who takes care of shopping needs and business matters that land-owning Hungarians found distasteful. Of the relationship, Perényi writes, “I could not see that the Hungarians were anti-Semitic, or at least not more so than many people in America,” adding simply, “I must have been wrong.”
When laws are passed in 1938 barring Jews from owning land, the Perényis’s Jewish neighbor and business partner transfers his land to Eleanor’s name. At the time, she considers the exchange a bureaucratic snafu soon to be reversed (the law was overturned by the Russians after the war). But we never learn how she felt later, knowing her neighbor likely never lived to see the day. Neither do we learn whether she felt anything for the fate of Fried, except that she was happy with his ability to procure the best Western European fabrics for her house. When the question of her husband’s conscription inevitably arises in 1940, she equivocates, neither condemning nor supporting a hypothetical “duty” in which he might be forced to fight for Germany. (When the time came, in 1944, he would join a resistance—a fact which she reports without particular praise.) Perhaps, when the memoir was published in 1946, by the then-twenty-eight-year-old grown woman with an established reputation as a progressive, Perényi felt her views went without saying. But how readers today will see her emotional restraint depends on our own relationship with war, old novels, and high society.
Both in More Was Lost and in her later work, Perényi’s accomplishment seems to have been to elevate a love of homemaking to an art form, not unlike Martha Stewart. And while a certain progressiveness may inherently exist with any enterprise that so embodies self-sufficiency and the empowering of a traditionally feminine sphere, neither Martha Stewart nor Eleanor Perényi can be accused of rampant populism. Perényi, like Stewart, understates the incredible difficulty of her homemaking ideals—for example, in Perényi’s belief that “one should be rather formal in the country.” As such, she walks a fine line between admirable self-starting confidence and over-valuing the finer elements of life that, especially as world war approaches, invites fair questioning of priorities. Like Stewart, whose meticulousness is judged by some as hopelessly backward and by others as beautifully old-fashioned, Perényi appeals to those who are willing, for the sake of aspiration or escapism, to indulge in a bit of both. The predicament reminds me of a magnet I have that reads, “How does Martha do it? (with only twenty-seven servants).” Eleanor Perényi did it, too, with an added challenge of an impending world war, and only slightly more servants.
ARTIE NIEDERHOFFER lives and writes in Ridgewood, Queens.