|CHAPTER X Social Criticism and the Novel in the Age of Reform
|CHAPTER XI Comet of the Revolution: Petőfi
The writer who can be justly claimed to be the first outstanding master of the Hungarian novel is Baron József Eötvös. The validity of the claim rests mainly on his Village Notary, an encyclopaedic portrayal of the Age of Reform, but scarcely less on his Hungary in 1514, a historical novel of impressive proportions. It is the depth of his poetic vision, his insight into human nature, and his exceptionally keen eye for social problems that are prominent in these works and are probably responsible for the distinguished place assigned to him by numerous native and foreign scholars; his contemporary critics, however, were often reluctant to appreciate his artistic achievement.
Eötvös’s literary and public career was spectacular in more than one way; he was a poet, a playwright, a novelist, a profound thinker and a successful liberal statesman by turns. Seldom has a man’s achievement presented a sharper contrast to his background than that of Eötvös; not only in Hungarian literature in which abruptly broken careers, unfulfilled expectations and the early death of promising talents appear to be rather the rule than the exception, and in which social background usually leaves an indelible imprint on the lifework of most authors, but also in a broader context; he belonged to that breed of sensitive social rebels whose energies were spent efficiently pursuing positive goals, not just attempting to destroy wantonly the lifestyle of his own class, or leading the life of a self-styled, morose outcast whose meaningless revolt must logically end in self-destruction.
Baron József Eötvös was born on 3 September 1813 in the fashionable upper-class district of Buda near the Royal Palace. His father came from a long line of senior civil servants whose unquestioning loyalty to the Crown made the name Eötvös odious to any freedom-loving Hungarian patriot. His mother, from whom he inherited his sensitive nature and love of literature, was the well-educated daughter of an immigrant Austrian cavalry officer who had married into a native aristocratic family. The most decisive influence in the life of young Eötvös, however, was his tutor, a certain József Pruzsinszky, who was an active participant in the ill-fated Martinovics conspiracy of 1795, and whose stern and embittered figure still radiated an idealism in spite of his having served a considerable prison sentence. Pruzsinszky inspired in young Eötvös a desire to improve his knowledge of his native tongue, and a no less ardent desire to clear the family name.
Eötvös studied law and philosophy at Pest University and made his début on the literary scene with plays. He won recognition as a writer, however, with poems one of which, the delicately executed ‘Frozen Child’ (1833), should be mentioned here; it is a sentimental piece about an orphan who freezes to death at his mother’s grave. His poetry is marked by sensitivity and strong social awareness perhaps best expressed in a later poem ‘I, also would like to …’ (1846) which is an articulate summary of his ars poetica as a committed writer (‘He who is not roused by an awareness of his age, should break the strings on his lute in two’) and by a highly emotional attachment to his country (‘Farewell’ 1838).
Having returned from an extensive tour of Europe, Eötvös entered political life in the stimulating atmosphere generated by the Diet in Pozsony, ardently championing humanitarian causes, such as prison reform (An Opinion on Prison Reform, 1838). He also published his first novel, The Carthusian (1839-1841), using the most personal of narrative forms: the memoirs. The confessions in The Carthusian relate the life-story of a young French aristocrat whose unhappy love affairs make him retire into the silent cloisters of the Carthusian monks. The first love of Count Gustave, a rich young widow, Julia, deserts him for the unworthy ‘other man’ who had betrayed her. Next, Gustave, whose life has been a mixture of irresponsible acts and timid efforts to curb the extravagant side of his character, seduces a poor, working-class girl, Betty, who forgives him on her death-bed. It is then that Gustave, disgusted by his own selfishness and the emptiness of his life, retires from the world. This indication of the plot might make the modern reader think that the story is oversentimental. Emotional it is, yet there are few figures in literature whose character is so minutely and so graphically described as is that of Eötvös’s French count. Gustave is convincing not only because of the powerful presentation of his emotional conflicts, but also because of the subtlety of the intensely introspective atmosphere of the entire novel, springing from the faithful recording of Gustave’s emotional reactions to events. The novel ends with his death in the cloister where his self-inflicted punishment to expiate his sins has failed to confer inner peace on his mind. The event is recorded by the friend to whom he entrusted his papers, containing his life story, published here in the novel.
No other redemption is possible for Gustave; like the great sinners of Dostoevsky, his mind has been constantly occupied by a morbid meditativeness which slowly destroys his mind and body. While Gustave is the exact opposite of the vigorous young reformer who created him, in a way he is also acting out Eötvös’s atonement for the sins of his class; in the story of Betty the reader cannot fail to notice what suffering artistocratic pride can inflict when it treats people who are not members of its own class as subhuman, or at best as toys. (Betty was seduced as the result of a bet, proposed half-seriously as a practical joke.) To be sure, Gustave is also contaminated by that inexplicable and immense pain tormenting the Romantics which, for want of a better expression, is usually labelled mal du siécle by later critics who were immune to its pangs.
Eötvös created a new style in his first novel. His long but carefully balanced elegant sentences were always effortless and often poetic in descriptions of scenery, be it Mont Blanc or the bustle of Paris, and in the reflections of Gustave all Eötvös’s poetry found a natural outlet, which he often missed in his verse. Critics have always frowned upon his preference for long descriptive or reflective sentences, claiming that clarity demands short and simple sentences; they have been blind to the proof provided by Eötvös’s style that elaborate sentence structures have a place in other works besides dry, scholarly treatises.
Emotional appeal also characterized the essays he published subsequently (Poverty in Ireland, 1840; The Emancipation of the Jews, 1840); human suffering never left him untouched, a fact he himself readily admitted when he set out to prove his points ‘by cold arguments and dry statistical facts, although it is difficult to remain calm when it is a question of the oppression of our fellow men’. As soon as he discovered his natural allies in men of similarly educated intelligence and political ideas, they founded the first Budapest Review, closely modelled on the English type of quarterly reviews; in this journal the Centralists, as they became known, published their penetrating essays on social and political issues. (The name ‘Centralists’ did not refer to their position in the political spectrum, between the Conservatives and the radical followers of Kossuth, which position, in a certain sense, they did indeed occupy, but rather to their resolute efforts to increase the power of central authority.) Eötvös stated their view in Parliament in 1844: ‘Hungary needs centralization; and in my opinion centralization can be achieved only by an increase in the influence which the national legislature is able to exert over the counties (megyes).’
The local governments of the megyes were the strongholds of national opposition against central foreign rule, but by jealously guarding their privileges they became the greatest obstacle to social reform. While Kossuth and his followers attached paramount important to the autonomy of megye in guarding ‘the sacred flame of independence’, the Centralists saw the antiquated institutions of local administration only as obstacles in their path, and therefore advocated a severe curtailment of the megyes’ rights. As the Centralists were all intellectuals*, public opinion dubbed them doctrinaires, a somewhat pejorative term in Hungarian: their views were received with the mixture of grave suspicion and moderate enthusiasm, or snobbish respect so often accorded to intellectuals in politics.
Eötvös’s reformist policies were fully discussed in his Reform (Leipzig, 1846), but before presenting his thoughts in a scholarly essay he chose, wisely enough, the more immediate medium of literature for winning the favours of public opinion for the urgently needed social transformation of Hungary which he championed with so much zeal and sincere passion. First he wrote Long Live Equality! (1844), a comedy in four acts, containing several prototypes (e.g. the weak, henpecked alispán, his loving daughter, or the cunning lawyer) who appear as classic figures in The Village Notary. The comedy was spiced with much ironic social criticism, maintaining a certain interest: the dialogue, nevertheless, reveals that Eötvös’s creative powers lays elsewhere.
His next work and second novel, The Village Notary (1845), in spite of being dubbed an irányregény* , was Eötvös’s most significant literary undertaking, creating as it did a portrait of contemporary Hungarian society of panoramic proportions, depicted with the passion of a poet and with the lucid diagnosis of the social reformer. The novel is set in the fictitious megye of Taksony and the reader, aware of Eötvös’s intentions, knows what to expect. It is a document of social evils, corruption, electioneering, and inhuman prison conditions, the oriental despotism of petty officials, the capricious interpretation of by-laws and regulations, and it was not greeted with enthusiasm by the society at which it was directed. He was later accused so the popular anecdote (attributed to Deák) goes of employing the method of the author of a veterinary textbook who in his overzealousness, depicted in a single illustration all the possible diseases that can affect a horse; it was clear that no single megye could produce all the different social evils which Eötvös managed to cram into his ‘textbook’.
To be sure, the portrait by Eötvös was anything but flattering, yet all the same, it would be grossly unjust to accuse him of conjuring up social evils just for the sake of illustrating his views; although he may have set out to criticize institutions he wished to reform, the happy instinct of the artist overcame the excessive zeal of the reformer. Nevertheless, contemporary critics were often over-squeamish, claiming that political commitment is out of place in the arts; Eötvös, however, was proud to be accused of commitment: ‘I have never regarded being without principles as one of the qualities writers should possess, I therefore accept the accusation altogether.’
The plot of the novel is set at the time of the election of the officers to the local administration. Mrs Réty, the wife of the retiring alispán, is busy scheming to eliminate the other candidates for her husband’s office with the eager cooperation of Catspaw*, the family lawyer. One of the most dangerous opponents of the alispán is the ageing village notary of Tiszarét, noted for his noble liberalism, who is safely eliminated from public affairs by the simple device of having the papers testifying to his nobility stolen by a hired thug. Incredible as it may seem, it is these papers which provide the central pivot around which the events and characters are set in motion. In Eastern Europe papers, or rather documents, have always been of mythical importance; for some reason, their replacement is all too often impossible, therefore documents pieces of paper gain a disproportionate significance.* After losing his papers Tengelyi, the notary, is no longer the same man; political rights belong to the nobility only, and if challenged a noble has to provide evidence of his birthright.
The documents are temporarily rescued by Viola, a serf, who in contrast to Tengelyi has limited human rights, again by virtue of his birth. He has become an outlaw as a consequence of circumstances beyond his control. Viola’s act is a sign of gratitude, for Tengelyi, induced by humanitarian considerations, has allowed the family which the outlaw had so unwillingly deserted to stay in his own house, where they were initially looked after by his daughter, Vilma. At the same time the notary is frightened because the devotion of Viola to his own family is almost legendary in the village, and he is very likely to visit his family, leaving Tengelyi with the uneasy choice either of giving him up or of becoming an accomplice by his silence. It was Viola’s love for his wife which had caused his downfall in the first place; he had been a well-to-do farmer, but his young wife came to the notice of Skinner, the Chief Justice of the district, and became the unwilling object of his amorous advances. By the manipulation of some by-laws Viola, netted and humiliated, is sentenced to a public whipping. In his last desperation the serf assaults the law enforcement officers, and one of them is killed. Viola, who is now a murderer, has to go into hiding to save his skin.
But Viola is hunted down and recaptured. The papers in his possession are taken, and proceedings against Tengelyi ‘posing as a nobleman’ may now start. The trial of Viola by summary court is perhaps the most memorable chapter in the novel. While Eötvös’s firsthand experience in provincial law practice might account for its lurid detail, his compassion secures the overall sympathy of the reader; contemporary English critics selected the long scene for special praise of Eötvös’s realism. It is during the court proceedings that the schemes of Mrs Réty come to light, thanks to a young lawyer serving as court notary; yet Réty’s supporters, whose vested interest in the unfolding drama is vital, manage to get the death sentence passed with the assistance of indifferent members of the jury. (Baron Sóskuty, for example, is worried only about offending his hostess by being late for lunch).
Viola is helped to escape from his cell, but with the inevitable death sentence hanging over his head he attempts to remain free long enough to get back the papers of the only man that has shown sympathy for his family. This he does, but in his ensuing struggle with Catspaw, the lawyer is killed. Suspicion falls on Tengelyi for the murder; he can only be saved if Viola comes forward. In his hideout Viola’s peace of mind is destroyed the last rays of hope have gone, for his children have died, and his conscience is now burdened by a real murder; he decides to give himself up, and at least partially expiate his crime by saving the innocent Tengelyi. The novel is concluded with Tengelyi’s release from prison and with the happy marriage of the young people, Tengelyi’s daughter and Réty’s son, who have Eötvös’s unreserved sympathy. Réty resigns his office, his wife commits suicide.
The colourful action with its unexpected turns of event captivates the reader, for Eötvös knows how and when to end an episode and link it to the next scene in the story. At the same time, in spite of the complexity of the various strands of the plot the novel forms a superb unity, not only because there are no separate sub-plots running concurrently the love story of Tengelyi’s daughter and Réty’s son is attached to the main line in a logical and inseparable way but also because Eötvös takes care of details and has a specific role for even the most casually introduced minor character.
Contemporary English critics of the novel (there was much more detailed criticism in the English press when a translation was published than there had been when the original had come out in Hungary) immediately discovered that the novel actually has two heroes, the notary (reminding them of Eötvös’s tutor, the stern Pruzsinszky) and Viola the outlaw. The gradual entanglement of their fates is skilfully developed from the initially casual benevolence of the notary to the ultimate self-sacrifice of Viola, whose lot it is to perish in any case because of the overwhelming odds against him, a sacrifice accentuated by the tragic futility of his act (when he decided to give himself up a deposition clearing Tengelyi had already been taken out). Viola’s fate is also sealed by the moral strictures of the Romantics; in their view, a hero who commits a serious crime must perish, even though his criminal act may have been accidentally committed while he was engaged in pursuing a morally justified cause. By introducing the notion of futility, Eötvös preserved his reader’s sympathy for Viola and at the same time, by a masterly stroke, satisfied the most rigorous moral scruples.
Eötvös’s concern for Viola’s fate is genuine; it is his firm belief that in a more just society Viola would have been a law-abiding citizen and a prosperous farmer, leading a less eventful life than destiny has allotted him in a corrupt social order. Eötvös’s faith that this social order can be humanized is projected into the young people in the novel who are idealistic and eager to improve conditions. This, in turn, reflects his Rousseauesque conviction that man is born good; only circumstances corrupt him. This belief is borne out, not by the villains in the novel, but by the minor characters such as Tenegelyi’s wife, a kindly soul, a loving mother, and a support to her husband who unconsciously takes the social order of the day for granted, or the gentle, ageing Kislaky, himself an ex-alispán who is induced by sheer vanity to accept the dubious honour of being the chairman of the summary court, for he has the hurt pride of a retired senior civil servant who cannot help feeling left out of the public life.
After The Carthusian, Eötvös’s style changed from Romantic to Realistic. His main virtue now is close observation, linked with a gift for biting satire; and as he is a keen observer he always finds an appropriate place to insert his sarcastic comments (e. g. one of the rivals of Réty for the office of alispán has a brother, a great admirer of things English, ardently championing the cause of a society for the protection of animals in Dustbury while prisoners die of epidemics in the dungeons of justice). But Eötvös is not bitter; there are many humorous incidents which enliven the novel. He continues to employ his masterly long periods and is not afraid of introducing long digressions on his favourite subjects. These miniature essays often heighten the suspense by delaying the action, sometimes providing the background for a better understanding of his figures (e.g. a sarcastic discourse on the love of ‘popularity’ offers the basic clue to Kislaky’s character). Their inclusion is due to the conscientious application of his artistic creed: ‘Not to entertain, but to be of service.’ It is easy to turn a blind eye to this aspect of the novel, for in the final analysis, the genius of Eötvös maintains a proper balance between his aims of improving society and of describing it. While English critics noticed the structural perfection of Fielding, the life-like colouring of Walter Scott, and the graphic touch of Dickens in the novel, later Hungarian critics claimed the influence of Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844) although the novels show few parallels apart from their satirical tone.
Eötvös’s next novel was devoted to history: Hungary in 1514 (1847) deals with a Peasants’ War, led by Dózsa, one of the last manifestations of popular discontent before the Reformation in Central Europe. It has been suggested that Eötvös’s attention was turned to the peasants’ revolt by a similar occurrence in contemporary Galicia in 1846. Be that as it may, it is difficult to disregard the timely and stern warning Eötvös gives in the guise of a historical novel; social oppression can lead to history repeating itself. Eötvös took his history very seriously before writing the novel he carried out extensive research into his chosen subject, for he knew full well the dilemma facing the author of a historical novel: he plays for a double stake and may easily miss both moving sometimes awkwardly in his historical fetters, he forfeits the grace of fiction; while if he sacrifices historical truth to the effective development of his novel, he may falsify the facts he set out initially to bring to life for the benefit of his readers. Romantic novelists, including Sir Walter Scott, were by no means free of this latter accusation, while Realists often stumbled over the first obstacle.
Eötvös was not the first in a long line of Hungarian writers and artists who utilized the artistic potentialities of the Peasants’ War. It seems that the message of the revolt, and the refined cruelty with which it was quelled and the leaders punished, had made a deep impression on social consciousness. The peasants led by the Dózsa brothers, were originally assembled for a crusade, but open dissatisfaction with their lot made them turn against their overlords. They ravaged the country, stormed fortified cities, and were eventually overpowered by the nobles’ army. Ringleaders were tortured, and György Dózsa was made to sit on a red-hot iron throne with a red-hot iron crown on his head while his fellow-rebels were forced to bite into the charred remains of their ‘King’ in one of the most extraordinary revenge fantasies ever acted out in history. Subsequently tens of thousands of peasants were massacred, and reprisals against them included the statutory declaration of ‘real and perpetual servitude’ for the serfs in the laws enacted by the Diet which was hastily convoked after the defeat of the rebels’ army. This enslavement of the serfs remained in force until 1848 owing to the inclusion of these laws in Werbőczi’s Tripartitum.* The effect of the Peasants’ War was not restricted to the serfs; by perpetuating class-hatred (and thus undermining the unity of the country just when it needed it most, on the eve of the general onslaught of the Ottoman armies), it also contributed to the loss of independence on the battlefield of Mohács (1526).
Eötvös made the best of his subject; he faithfully included history in a fictional plot relating the lives and loves of his main characters. The novel closely followed the known facts, for Eötvös’s aim this time was to ‘popularize history’. His good intentions resulted in a plot that was less perfectly constructed than those of his earlier novels. The same may be said about his main characters, historical and fictional alike, although, for example, the poor and powerless but honest and tender-hearted King, Ulászló II, is remarkably well-drawn. The pure and generous self-devotion of Orbán, who has found his place with the rebels’ army, is well contrasted with the grey plausibility of the clever, sensual, and selfish Pá1 Ártándi, who remains in the possession of the heroine in the end, while Orbán lies cold and stiff on the battlefield, ‘his face turned towards heaven, and the moonbeam glittering in his open eyes, which there was no friendly hand to close’, leaving little doubt where Eötvös’s sympathies lay. Yet when, in the concluding scene, the reader again meets the monk, Lőrinc Mészáros (a historical figure second only to Dózsa as a leader), he seems to voice the author’s conviction: ‘The way I have hitherto followed cannot lead us to our goal. The triumph of justice will not be achieved by savage violence …’.
Natural abhorrence of violence was so strong in the liberal Baron that, after accepting the post of Minister for Religion and Education in Kossuth’s revolutionary government and drafting a progressive Bill for the introduction of compulsory general education, when the course of events made a violent outcome inevitable he left the country. By the middle of October 1848 Eötvös was in Munich, were he stayed for over two years, devoting his time in exile to writing a major treatise on political science: The Dominant Ideas of the Nineteenth Century and Their Impact on the State. It was published in two parts, in a Hungarian and in a German version, in 1851-4.
These dominant ideas, according to Eötvös, are the inheritance of the French Revolution, with one notable difference: Liberty, Equality, and Nationality instead of Fraternity. His central idea is a firm belief in progress depending on the free confrontation of ideas among individuals of different political convictions and of different pressure groups. The direction of progress depends on the dominant ideas of any given age, and the pace of progress depends on the necessity which gives the initial impulse to the overcoming of the conservative instinct in society. This conservative instinct is something similar to the state of inertia as expressed by the laws of physics. Since progress is the aim of mankind, only those institutions are justifiable which meet the criteria of progress. First of all there is a need for articulate individuals who can confront each other’s views; secondly, liberty and equality should meet the need of any given society; and thirdly, the necessity of change should be pointed out, the power of the state should be limited, and when the ground for change is clarified the most efficient and convenient path should be sought.
Eötvös believed that the events of 1848 showed that no nation could be oppressed with impunity, for peace among the nations could only be achieved when the enjoyment of equal rights for all people was secured. If the false belief that the map of Europe could be redrawn on the basis of nationality were to be given up as an illusion, nationalities living in different states might bring those states nearer to each other, thereby resulting in peaceful coexistence* among these nationalities. While Dominant Ideas contained many original ideas, some of them were proved wrong by subsequent history. The work’s contemporary significance cannot be denied; it evoked a response among German, French, and English political thinkers, and it is interesting to note the similarity of ideas found in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty published five years later (1859), a fact that gave Eötvös much pleasure.
The career of Eötvös, unlike that of most of his contemporaries, was not decisively affected by the failure of the War of Independence. By the middle of the 1850s he was not only back in political life but had also found the time to write short stories, and in addition to his mainly theoretical works he once more embarked on writing a novel. The Sisters was published in 1857; it reveals Eötvös’s interest in feminine psychology and is usually considered to be less successful than the rest of Eötvös’s fiction, mostly on account of its lack of an exciting plot and the passivity and boredom which lingers around the main characters. Since Eötvös was mainly interested in their motives, by omitting what lay beyond their horizon he showed their limitations. The story, set at the time of the ‘cholera rebellion’ of 1831, is concerned with the effect which upbringing has on children, he blames the rootless, aristocratic life-style for damaging the personality of his heroes. There is also a faint echo of Eötvös’s uneasiness about his own flight during the revolution, for Count Ormosy’s first thought when the cholera rebellion breaks out is to flee, and Káldory, on his honeymoon, stays conveniently abroad when the news of the revolution of 1848 reaches him.
The novel’s main virtue lies in the subtlety of its characters; it is written with less passion than his other novels, and contains fewer lengthy discussions than its predecessors, with the exception of those on education, a subject which constantly occupied his mind, not only as the father of four children, but also as one whose main concern in the latter part of his political life was the improvement of the standard of education throughout the country. This concern about education fitted very well into his basic concept of the state, which he regarded as essentially a multitude of human beings, not as a cluster of classes or power groups.
From the middle of the 1860s Eötvös no longer wrote, but devoted his talent entirely to public service. When after the Settlement of 1867 Deák formed a national government, Eötvös again became Minister of Religion and Education and was responsible for drafting a number of Bills which reflected the political convictions he had so inspiringly expounded in theoretical writings in the previous twenty years. The new acts of Parliament included, besides the full emancipation of the Jews (1867), The Nationality Act (1868) proclaiming the equality of all nationalities living in Hungary, which could succeed only if these nationalities were to accept that living in a strong and unified state would be beneficial to them. Subsequent history showed the impracticability of this concept. Nevertheless, the good will of this man, who conceived the framework for a possible settlement of the nationality question, and his concern for the welfare of all peoples of the Hungarian Kingdom, cannot be denied. The new Education Act (1868) propagated state responsibility for the general level of education as part of the welfare of its citizens. State schools were set up for which the state was to provide financial support. Needless to say, the Church interpreted the Act as a severe curtailment of its educational monopoly, and the national minorities were also hostile in vain did Eötvös have educational material published in seven languages. He also reorganized the curriculum for gimnáziums, established teachers’ training colleges, founded Kolozsvár University, thus providing Transylvania with an independent seat of higher education, and expanded the University of Budapest.
When Eötvös died on 2 February 1871, he might have gained satisfaction from a sense of achievement not experienced by many of his contemporaries, whose careers were cut short in the catastrophe of 1849 by early death, by exile, or by loss of sanity. Yet he died as an overworked and frustrated man, hardly optimistic about the future. An élitist college at Budapest University, modelled on the École Normale Supérieure of the Sorbonne was founded in 1895 to perpetuate his name,* and to educate the best intellects.
With Eötvös, the Hungarian novel came of age. Not only did he improve on the social novel as established by Fáy, and stand as a worthy successor to the historical novelists (although his novels never competed in popularity with Jósika’s or, later, with Jókai’s); he successfully united two seemingly contradictory principles, the desire to be of service and the desire to entertain. In this respect his greatest achievement is unquestionably The Village Notary. In addition, Eötvös represented in Hungary perhaps what was best in the liberal tradition of nineteenth-century Europe: scrupulous intellectual honesty, an open-minded attitude to criticism, a highly developed sense of understanding the sufferings of others, and a fairness without which his political ideas might have remained an intellectual toy for the doctrinaire, and might never have become, as they did, the weapon of the successful social reformer.
|CHAPTER X Social Criticism and the Novel in the Age of Reform
|CHAPTER XI Comet of the Revolution: Petőfi