Wife, mother and writer, Júlia Szendrey became the widow of the nation when her beloved husband, hero of the 1848 Revolution Sándor Petőfi, disappeared in battle in July 1849. Born in Keszthely, near Lake Balaton, where a museum honours her life and work, Júlia became one half of Budapest’s most celebrated literary couple. This all ended with the Revolution and, as Hungary suffered, so did she. Meet Júlia Szendrey, the woman sewed the cockade onto Sándor Petőfi’s jacket on 15 March, and the inspiration behind Hungary’s most symbolic literary figure being celebrated today.
Our heroine was born Júlia Szendrey in the rural Hungarian town of Keszthely by Lake Balaton. She received good education in Pest in an institute for wealthy families’ daughters. Very soon she became an enlightened, modern lady, who spoke foreign languages and was fond of literature and poetry, most notably works by Heinrich Heine and George Sand.
The seminal event in her life took
place on 8 September in 1846, when she
set eyes upon Sándor Petőfi at a county ball
in Nagykároly, Transylvania. At that time, he was an
important literary figure and
celebrated poet and, according to
rumour, Júlia fell head over heels for him instantly.
Love at first sight as they say, in their case it seemed to be true according to contemporary sources. That night they were inseparable on the dance floor and after Júlia went back to her parents’ house at Balaton, Petőfi paid her several visits. The poet then had to go to Budapest as duty called, and Júlia stayed at the family home.
Who was Sándor Petőfi?
Hungarian poet and revolutionary, Petőfi was the author of Nemzeti Dal ('National Song') which inspired the young men of Pest to instigate the Revolution
of 1848 that
turned into a war of independence from the Austrian Empire. He went missing in action at the Battle
of Segesvár in Transylvania, where he was thought to have died at the age of 26. His poetry forms part of the Hungarian literary canon and his figure is forever interwoven with the notion of Hungarian independence.
Whirlwind-like as it was, the love affair was by no means an overnight
sensation. Júlia’s parents frowned upon her romance with the poet,
thinking that he would ruin their daughter’s future. At this time, young people could only marry if their parents gave them permission. Júlia’s father, the well-respected Ignác Szendrey, duly put his foot down.
But no matter the obstacles, the two lovebirds were married in 1847 despite parental disapproval, exactly one year after they had first met. They spent their honeymoon at Koltó Castle in Transylvania, where Petőfi wrote one of the most beautiful love poems to his new bride, End of September:
… who will love you forever,
Will love you alone, even then, even there.
The newlyweds then settled
in Pest, as Petőfi was tied to his literary career. They lived in today’s busy Dohány utca, where they shared the house with another celebrated writer of the
time, Mór Jókai. He became the editor of a prestigious
literary journal, Életképek,
which gave Júlia the chance to have her own
pieces published. She soon became a successful writer in her own right.
They lived in close contact with each other, socialising infrequently. The three of them would usually read their writings to one another and had tea together every day. They had food delivered from a nearby restaurant as Júlia didn’t want to waste her time with household duties.
This extravagant woman didn’t conform to the contemporary rules of a housewife. She lived her life as a man of the time. Sources correspond
that Júlia usually wore trousers instead
of dresses, she had short hair, which
was considered to be unusual at that time, and every so often she smoked cigars with men. Her literary contribution is also quite impressive.
She occasionally wrote stories and poems and, as she spoke languages, she was the one who translated the tales of Hans Christian Andersen into Hungarian. Between writing and reading, she soon conceived their first child with Petőfi, and Júlia’s life was filled with untold joy.
Their fairy tale was
interrupted when the Revolution of 1848 broke out on 15
March. Their son was born that year on 15 December.
Júlia and Sándor saw each other for the last time on 20
July 1949 and then exchanged two more letters before a
devastating turn of events. Her loving husband became a soldier and
although, she followed him everywhere, but couldn’t be there at the
fateful Battle of Segesvár, where Sándor Petőfi disappeared and
most probably died.
Júlia then left everything behind and desperately tried to find the poet – but to no avail. General Joseph Haynau, who led Austria’s blood-filled revenge against the revolutionaries, denied her passport request so Júlia couldn’t travel abroad to find her beloved husband.
As she later wrote to her father on her deathbed:
“Father said I would be unhappy with Sándor. A woman has not yet experienced such happiness that I felt when I was together with my Sándor. I was his queen, he adored me and I adored him. We were the happiest couple in the world, and had fate not intervened, we would still be so".
Afterwards, she had to seek protection and her friend, senior historian Árpád Horvát, was on hand. It became a national scandal when Petőfi’s widow married him ten days before the mourning period was officially over. But Júlia lost more than the general public first thought.
Although Horvát first gave her security and she bore him four children, the marriage was not a happy one.
Her second husband forced her into conjugal duty against her will, even after she was
diagnosed with cervical cancer. In 1867, she moved away
from her him and died alone in her small Pest
apartment in 1868.
In her last letter to her father, she revealed all the wrongdoings of her second husband, who then didn’t allow him to bury Júlia. He himself had her placed in the Petőfi family vault, fulfilling his daughter’s last wish by carving 'Mrs Sándor Petőfi' on the gravestone. Her first-born son, Zoltán, accompanied her body to its resting place while her children from her second marriage were forbidden to attend by their father.
Petőfi’s Júlia was the perfect example of a modern, emancipated young woman. She was intelligent, well-read and most certainly an extravagant figure at the time. She was the perfect companion for Sándor Petőfi, she supported him throughout. Had it not been for Júlia, Petőfi would not have written some of the most beautiful love poems in Hungarian literature.
Júlia Szendrey Memorial Room
8360 Keszthely, Szendrey telep (off Main Road 71)
Website: mire.hu/hu/museums/155 (Hungarian-only)
Open: By appointment
Contact: +36 30 960 firstname.lastname@example.org