The Hungarian writer Sándor Vay was actually born as a woman, Sarolta Vay, but the young countess crossdressed from an early age. Even in her attitude and hobbies, she was a man: she travelled, took part in duels and had female lovers.
Magyarország Kúl tells the story of Sándor Vay, the dutchess who became a man and a writer. He was not only an excellent writer but a strong personality who was exceptionally brave in his time.
Sándor was said to sport a male haircut, smoke thick cigars and use a walking cane. His mannerisms were so manly that people rarely saw through him. One of the greatest Hungarian prose writers of the 20th century, Gyula Krúdy, wrote that Vay could have fooled even the madam from the Mark Twain novels. Krúdy was taken with him and gave detailed, passionate accounts of Vay’s appearance and adventures.
Sarolta Vay was born in 1859 in Dabas to a respected aristocratic family. Her father was in the personal employment of Archduke Joseph of Austria. As a child, Sarolta became skilled in fencing and riding, later studying at famous universities abroad. However, the count’s family became bankrupt, so, Sarolta had to work for her money.
Sarolta began writing and published her short stories and poems under her own name, but when she turned to journalism,
she started using the pseudonym Sándor Vay, among others, like D’Artagnan, Vayk, Floridor and Celestin.
Vay was a columnist, who wrote mostly about noble families in Pest from the 18th-19th centuries and about noble country houses with a male, nostalgic tone.
Vay’s father played a significant role in the child’s transition: he raised Sarolta as a boy on purpose, while her smaller brother, Péter, had to wear skirts. Sarolta’s first romantic encounter with a girl took place in Dresden, at an all-girls seminary when she was 13, having posed as a boy. From this point on, everyone in the family knew about Sándor’s affairs with women.
Sándor’s relationships were adventurous: he took part in a duel for the honour of Mari Hegyesi, an actress from Eger, although the actress did not return Sándor’s feelings. He then eloped with Emma Eszéki, the daughter of a judge from Nyíregyháza, and moved with her to Pest. Later, Sándor fell in love with a governess, Mária Engelhardt, but their relationship was forbidden by the governess’s family.
However, from the letters they have exchanged, it is known that Mária was unaware that Sándor was a woman, as the former wished to have his children.
Vay was thriving as a man: he often got drunk, liked male sports and was widely known for his fencing skills. His appearance and mannerisms reminded one of a refined gentleman, as he respected the traditions regarding clothing. He used socks to make up for the loss of his ‘manhood’.
Vay was enchanted by women. He regarded them with the utmost respect in his writings. In his view, women inspire and aid men: women are the Alpha and the Omega, and the eternal woman can be found everywhere ranging from social life all the way to literature. Sándor writes that women are the incentive to everything a man does; failure and success are in their hands.
For Sándor, a witty mind was much more important than beauty, and he disliked women who boasted of their beauty.
Vay’s gender identity and sexual orientation were regarded as a perversion in the 19th century. In that era, a woman who was attracted to her own gender had no choice but to dress and live as a heterosexual man if she wished not to suppress her feelings. Both Sándor Vay and the English Anne Lister chose this path. Although this was a challenge, living as a woman and loving a woman was unimaginable back then.
featured image: Drawing of ‘Comtesse Sarolta Vay’ from Wiener Tagblatt Archives & Manuscripts – Wikimedia Commons