3. Women in Revolt: Margit Kaffka

Women writers were sadly lacking from the Hungarian literary scene until the end of the nineteenth century. Those who made their presence felt were treated in a patronizing manner, and not without reason – many of them were no more than exponents of profuse sentimentality, and not much can be salvaged from their work for posterity. However, in contrast to these ‘successful’ women writers who happily complied with what the illusions or delusions of masculine superiority expected of them, there were a few exciting authoresses whose work has always been unjustly neglected.

The best example is Minka Czóbel (1855-1947), whose aspirations both poetic and intellectual made her a forerunner of the Nyugat movement, although she received hardly any attention from the Nyugat writers, or indeed since; she died completely forgotten more than a quarter of a century after her last book of poetry had been published. She lived in isolation in the depths of the countryside, not unlike her American counterpart Emily Dickinson (who spent her years after a tragic love-affair in Amherst seldom leaving the small world of her house and garden). Czóbel, in her retreat at Anarcspuszta, cultivated a decadent, symbolic poetry, which developed on its own, since this highly cultured and independent-minded woman decided to withdraw from high-life after her initial contact with modern European trends before the 1890s (Maya, 1893; White Songs,1894).

It was a social necessity that the appearance on the scene of emancipated female creative writers should coincide with the emergence of the feminist movement, as the movement for women’s liberation was called at the beginning of the twentieth century. In addition to the other aspects of social, political, and intellectual ferment which characterized the turn of the century in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the concept of Modern Woman, with its moral, social, human, and vocational implications, was considered part of social progress by middle-class radicalism, although Hungarian Civil Law had never been as restrictive to women as had the social systems in most Western nations.*Women, including married women, for example, were considered separate legal entities in respect of their possessions, both inherited and acquired. Nevertheless, the first milestone on the road to social equality was the edict of the Minister of Education which opened the professions for women by permitting their enrolment at university (1895).*Segregated higher education for women had been provided since 1868 by the National Society for Women’s Education. Although equal political status with men was not achieved – because Article XIV, 1913 still denied women the vote*Women were granted the vote for the first time by a decree during the revolution in 1918. – entering the professions gave them an entirely new social position.

The first significant authoress of these times, and perhaps the best female novelist, was Margit Kaffka, whose life and works epitomized most of the complex problems of women’s position in society. Born on 10 June 1880 at Nagykároly on the Eastern Lowlands, Kaffka’s intellectual outlook was decided by her strict Catholic upbringing, by her social origins (she came from an impoverished gentry family), and by her becoming a career women. Her literary activity started with the publication of poems which owed much to traditional attitudes, yet it cannot be denied that a certain inclination to experiment and a latent desire to revolt were already present in her poetry. These features, however, became predominant in her short stories and in her novels, of which Colours and Years (1912) was the best.

The crucial problem in the life of Magda Pórtelky, the heroine, is that life restricts the possible alternatives to marriage; whether good or bad marriage, it is marriage which determines woman’s social role. Magda Pórtelky is full of energy and ambition, yet, after the suicide of her first husband, she is forced to realize the dependence of woman, and enters her second marriage with cynical premeditation, in order to secure herself a position in a sterile world in which not even the traditional warmth of social life could offer her relief from frustration. The frustration of Magda Pórtelky is finely characterized from different viewpoints, for Kaffka excels in describing minute details. Her tragedy, if there is a tragedy at all, is not spectacular; she becomes an inactive woman in an inactive world. She is good at making resolutions, but her internal revolt is eventually repressed and it surfaces either in petty affairs or simply in a general disgust for her futile destiny. Kaffka was able to create a broad background to the problems of womanhood; it is the same decaying world of the provincial gentry, one of the main topics of contemporary novel, but a world in which nobody before her had ever looked at the specific problems of women; nobody had seen that the changing social role of the gentry created a new situation for women as well, and that women were even less equipped to cope with their new position and opportunities than were men.

This is the subject of her next novel, The Years of Mária (1913), with the new type of heroine who studies and becomes a career woman; she is independent to a degree Magda Pórtelky could not even dream of, yet her life ends in disaster in the same way as did Magda’s. Kaffka seems to claim that Mária’s failure is not due to her irresolution, but rather to restricting social conventions which have made the new type of woman unacceptable. Love and marriage are not necessarily compatible in Mária’s mind; she despises marriage based on compromise, but equally she cannot take her emotional freedom to its logical conclusion, which would be a complete rejection of marriage as nothing more than the legal outlet for sexual desire. What remains for her is daydreaming, frustration, and eventual suicide. The Years of Mária reflects Kaffka’s inability to provide a solution for her heroine; Mária stands for Hungarian women unable to take root in modern life, just as Magda is the symbol of women who have lost contact with woman’s traditional role in society.

In Stations (1917), a very uneven work, Kaffka takes as her heroine the liberated woman who manages her own life. She finds a solution to her problems not in an idyllic marriage but in emotional stability, leaving the sinking ship of her disastrous marriage in time, without distressing herself. Her independence regained, she enters a new relationship, but the nature of her new relationship, to a married man, poses further questions: does love provide companionship for life or is the attachment of man to woman merely sexual? As a last resort she turns to creative activity; and the more Kaffka’s heroine, driven by her ambitions, penetrates the bustling cultural life of contemporary Budapest, the more the authoress becomes absorbed in presenting a cross-section of this world, because of her keen eye for the social changes created by the swift urbanization of the Hungarian capital prior to World War I. Stations gives the impression of an unfinished novel, and the real-life models of the minor characters can easily be recognized; yet it is also a moving document, the tension of which testifies vividly to Kaffka’s struggle with her material.

Nobody would deny that all Kaffka’s works are autobiographical in inspiration; her heroines are all self-portraits at different stages of her own development. Her last novel, Ant Hill (1917), published a year before she died on 1 December 1918 as a victim of an epidemic, takes place in a nunnery, and was obviously inspired by her bitter memories of the convent school. In describing the sultry atmosphere of this hidden and closed world, Kaffka summarizes her views on women’s position in society with transparent symbolism. Her schoolgirls are as uprooted as her adult heroines, and the relentless power struggle among the nuns, the repressive restrictions, and the allusions to sexual aberrations make the novel not only anti-clerical, but also pessimistic. Stylistically this is her most satisfying novel; her earlier fondness for coining and employing peculiar words, her excessive love of subjective adjectives, and her use of overloaded, complex sentence-structures with ill-shaped meaning seem to have subsided; here she prefers matter-of-fact descriptions, creating precise situations, avoiding too much synaesthesia; action takes the place of the elaborate description of her heroines’ inner struggles. At this stage she was clearly at the beginning of a new phase in her artistic development, the full realization of which was prevented by her death.