Abigail by Magda Szabó
Fourteen year-old Georgina Vitay feels her life is over: her father, a decorated General in Budapest, has decided to send her to boarding school. To Gina, the Bishop Matula Academy (a traditional, religious all-girl’s school) is no better than a prison — the girls are forced to dress in the same dowdy uniforms, and all tokens of the outside world are confiscated upon each students’ arrival. The school’s strict bubble would effectively erase whatever’s going on outside the grounds, sheltering and teaching at the cost of worldly knowledge. At the Matula, “this world of black and white, with all its severity, was a universe away from that outer world of deceit and betrayal, of base conduct, danger and death.”
Abigail was originally published in 1970 and is celebrated as Szabó’s most successful novel in her native Hungary. Like the three other excellent Szabó novels that have been translated into English (see below), Abigail, too, explores themes of crossing thresholds, both personal and political. Beyond the edges of Gina’s small, teenage worldview, the machinations of World War II barrel onward. Gina’s father has sent her away to protect her, and while she toes the line between girlhood and adulthood, the world she once knew rests on the brink of disappearance.
Gina would need to grow up to face these changes. “Life undoubtedly calls for dignity and self-discipline,” Szabó writes early in the novel as Gina mopes over a bad haircut, “and for a person to be able to react to things in an adult way it was necessary to distinguish between what was merely unpleasant and what was truly bad, especially in wartime, when all over the world people were dying in the tens and hundreds of thousands.”
Her time at school is exquisitely transportive: Szabó writes with a timeless magic that makes the Matula feel as much like Northanger Abbey as it does Hogwarts. Gina makes a few friends upon her arrival and is quickly briefed on generations of school traditions and secret games the students play. When Gina resists partaking in one of these harmless rituals, her acquaintances quickly become enemies, who scorn her for not adopting the school’s old ways.
One tradition revolves around a local statue of a girl named Abigail, who is said to help those in need. Girls would leave notes for the statue and, miraculously, they would be answered via secret messages, snuck into pockets. Naturally, Gina is fascinated but skeptical of this magic. “Who are you, Abigail?” she asks.
You live with us here in the Matula, you move among us, shout or smile at us, are so familiar to us…. You always know what we are whispering about, you see everything, and yet no one ever even notices you. There is someone inside these fortress walls who lives a secret life, who keeps their face hidden…. Who are you, Abigail, you whose true face no one has ever seen…?
Szabó whimsically develops the mystery of Abigail while quietly progressing her wartime plot offstage. And when they intersect, it’s a masterful overlay that only a writer as skilled as Szabó could execute. World War II and the occupation of Hungary begin to flow in tandem with a girl crossing an emotional threshold into adulthood, with both threads guided by secret figures of an underground resistance.
Of Abigail’s many merits, one of its finest is Szabó’s ability to capture a teenage tenderness in young Gina. In one early scene, her father buys her a necklace on the way to school and “despite herself, the moment it was hung around her neck she fell in love with it. ….But she still needed to make her father feel that having been given it changed nothing; that she had accepted it and didn’t.” It’s a perfectly moody, adolescent moment and there are countless others throughout the novel. Szabó delicately balances Gina’s homesickness with her yearning for independence, her youthful belief in Matula’s lore with her feeling like she’s maybe too old for games. It’s a bittersweet sort of joy to be caught up in her trials at school, and all her life’s new mysteries and uncertainties. Abigail stops time for a moment and dreamily lingers, before everything changes forever.