Anthony Gardner on Kate Seredy, Slightly Foxed Issue 29

On the Hungarian Plain

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As a child I was always reassured by books which contained maps. The Hobbit, Treasure Island, Prince Caspian – their neatly drawn coastlines, mountains and compass points were promises of worlds imagined so fully that the reader could, should he wish, leave the story behind and strike out across country on his own.

The endpapers of The Good Master (1935) contain such a map, realized by its author Kate Seredy. To the west is the Home of the Good Master with its well-kept fences and expansive farm buildings; to the north are the corrals of the Horse Herds; to the north-east lie the little church and houses of the Village; to the east are the old Mill and an outpost mysteriously labelled ‘Toepincher’. Only the motifs of the map’s border – doves and hearts in the style of Eastern European embroidery – give a clue to the wider setting: the great plain of Hungary. In my copy, a second edition of 1938, my mother’s name and address claim it as her passport to an idyllic, far-off land which would beguile me in my turn thirty years later.

How self-contained Seredy’s world is becomes clear in the opening pages. The year is 1911, and 10-year-old Jancsi – son of the district’s principal landowner, Márton Nagy – is eagerly awaiting his cousin Kate’s arrival from Budapest. Collecting her from the railway station involves his first visit to a town and his first sight of a train; he imagines Budapest as a city of golden houses with diamond windows. The news that Kate is ‘delicate’ adds to her glamour.

The reality proves very different: Kate is a tearaway whose widowed father can no longer cope with her. As ignorant of the countryside as Jancsi is of the city, she turns up her nose at rural life and causes mayhem by making off in a four-horse wagon. Jancsi is at first appalled, then impressed: ‘She’s almost as good as a real boy.’

As Jancsi introduces Kate to his favourite pursuits – teaching

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About the contributor

Anthony Gardner edits RSL – The Royal Society of Literature Review. His novel The Rivers of Heaven spent sixteen years in a bottom drawer and has yet to recover from the excitement of being published. He divides his time between a redbrick house in West London and a shed at the bottom of the garden.

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