Virtually every important literary critic has been raving about Magda Szabo’s novel “Abigail”, published in the l970 in her home country of Hungary, but recently translated and published internationally. The novel is as wonderful as the hype would have it.
Gina is a teenaged girl living in Budapest with her widowed father and her French governess, in the lap of luxury; she is used to the cosmopolitan ways of urban upper middle/upper class living, and is much doted upon by her frivolous aunt, her late mother’s sister, who’s fond of having parties/salons; Gina goes to the opera , the symphony and the like. She and her father are very close. World War I is the backdrop for the novel, and Gina’s father is an Army general.
Gina’s coddled life changes rapidly and dramatically when her father informs her that she is to go to boarding school far away from the city, to a Catholic school (Gina is minimally religious at all). The trip to the school, in the plains of Hungary, windswept and snowy, is difficult for both father and daughter, who believes that her father is remarrying and dumping her in boarding school, until her father confides in her that he is involved in the Hungarian underground, and she is to be hidden in this school and no one is to know her whereabouts as she could be kidnapped and held for ransom if he is caught. Amazingly, Gina never does tell anyone why she’s been brought to this school, a rigidly Catholic, rule-driven place as alien to her as the moon is. Her first days and weeks at the school are awful; all her possessions are removed from her (every piece of which defines her identity to this point); her hair is cut off, she is given two uniforms–every girl is to look the same–and she begins to be aware of the school’ s highly codified rules, against which, of course, she will rebel. Szabo writes about these early horrors in the boarding school with both wit and empathy; at the beginning of her stay, Gina begins to make some friends, but after refusing to participate in some of their (to her, silly) rituals, as well as telling the teachers what the girls in her class are up to, Gina finds herself completely ostracized by her classmates, although they are publicly seemingly kind to her. Gina’s urbanity has originally appealed to her schoolmates, but her arrogance and her rebelliousness don’t: the telling of class secrets to school authorities makes her anathema.
A sculpture of a woman known as Abigail sits in the gardens of the school, and Gina’s been informed before her ostracism that prayers and hopes of the girls are often written down and placed in the sculpture’s stone basket; she finds this ritual foolish and childish, until Gina herself turns to Abigail, and somehow or other her prayers seem to be answered in notes in all caps that she finds in her clothes, her bed, and the like, so that someone in the school is clearly aiding these girls in their tribulations. The nearly saint-like Susanne, who’s in charge of the girls, is an unlikely candidate, though she is occasionally sympathetic to Gina. Teachers are brilliantly rendered through the lenses of teenaged girls’ fantasies and subterfuges, the males in particular. The girls either invent or really do pick up romantic interest between teachers (Gina has been reaccepted by her peers after a real apology to them). How the girls do manage moments of individualism and rebellion in the ranks are wonderfully rendered by Szabo, whose knowledge of the behaviors of teenaged girls is superb. The novel is often very funny, but seen through the eyes of both Gina and her friends, the reader picks up their overwrought emotions but also their exceptional coping skills.
Gina will eventually be helped to escape from the school through some of the teachers and a former grad who lives in the town; who her protectors are may be reasonably clear to the reader all along, but Gina’s increasing awareness of the school’s strengths as well as its strictures are part of this novel’s charm as we witness Gina’s maturation, and, ultimately, some genuine understanding of the strength of the school’s rules and mores. “Abigail” is delightful, sometimes funny, a wonderfully complex psychological study of an adolescent girl, headtrong and rebellious, who eventually will learn how much has been at stake in her time in this school. Although novels about life in boarding schools and the like are not now uncommon–think of Tobias Wolff’s “The Old School” or, more recently, of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep”–I’d stack Magda Szabo’s as one of the best of this genre, with its moral complexities and deeply brilliant analysis of one young woman on her way to maturity.