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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By József Eötvös (1813–1871)

THE LIFE of Baron József Eötvös falls within the most critical period of Hungarian history. He was born in Budapest on September 23d, 1813, at a time when the Hungarians were already in open revolt against the Hapsburg rule. His father, who had accepted great favors from the government and was consequently considered hostile to the cause of the people, had married a German woman, Baroness von Lilien. Her nobility of character and true culture had a great influence on her son in his early childhood; and added to this was the equally important influence of his tutor Pruzsinsky, a man who had taken an active part in Hungarian politics, and was thoroughly imbued with the French liberal ideas of 1789.

The condition of his native country remained a closed book to the young Baron Eötvös, until he was sent to a public school. His schoolmates treated him with a coolness which he at first ascribed to the instinctive respect paid by the children of the middle classes to those of the nobility; but however his vanity may have been inclined to take this view, he soon realized that there was more of hostility than respect, and demanded an explanation. He was told that his father had embraced the cause of the government and was a traitor, and that most likely he would be a traitor himself. He went home determined to understand the situation, and the result was his first political speech,—from the teacher’s desk in the school-room,—in which before his assembled enthusiastic schoolmates he swore fidelity to Hungary and the cause of Hungarian liberty, an oath of which his entire life was the fulfillment.

When Eötvös had finished his law studies he accepted a position in the government offices; but to a man of his wide interests the dry official life could not be satisfying, and in 1830 he made his literary début with a translation of Goethe’s ‘Götz von Berlichingen.’ In 1833 followed an original comedy, ‘The Suitors’; in ’34 a tragedy, ‘Revenge’; and in ’35 a translation of Victor Hugo’s ‘Angelo.’ His æsthetic introductions to his translations attracted the attention of the Hungarian Academy, and caused his election as corresponding member at the early age of twenty-two. The literary publications of the following years contained several lyric poems from his pen.

In 1836 Eötvös went abroad and spent a year traveling in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, France, and England. Upon his return he gave up his official position and went to his father’s estate Sály, where he wrote his first great novel, ‘The Carthusian Monk.’ It is written in the form of the autobiography of a young Frenchman, Count Gustave, who finds himself a prey to the most tormenting doubts. The prejudices of the aristocracy, the recklessness of the would-be democrats, the tottering of the old faith, and the hopelessness of atheism, are powerfully depicted. Gustave’s bride Julie leaves him for her lover, a man of low birth. Her happiness is short-lived, and followed by deep disappointment and degradation. Gustave considers himself partly responsible for her misery, and makes an attempt to forget his sorrow in a life of pleasure and dissipation; but his moral abasement brings him despair instead of oblivion. He meets his former bride Julie, and in trying to rescue her, loses his new bride Betty and causes her unhappiness. Driven to despair, he seeks comfort in a Carthusian cloister, but not even here, in prayer and silence, does he find peace. After an attempt to commit suicide, from which he is saved by a song sung outside his window, he finally becomes reconciled to life by the daily contact with religious faith and quiet industry, and dies with a regained belief in immortality.

After 1840 Eötvös settled in Budapest and began his career as politician and statesman. Two years before, he had published a pamphlet on prison reforms, and had defended the system of silence as opposed to that of solitary confinement. In 1840 he published two essays, one on ‘Pauperism in Ireland’ and the other on ‘The Emancipation of the Jews.’ He was a stanch adherent of Kossuth’s, and became the foremost writer on Kossuth’s paper: the articles which he wrote for this he collected later under the title ‘Reform’; in 1847 he published a continuation of them, ‘Teendöink’ (Our Problems). He was moreover considered the most brilliant leader and speaker of the Opposition party.

In 1846 Eötvös wrote his second great novel, ‘The Village Notary,’ a book which secured him worldwide fame. It is intended to be a true picture of the county administration system of Hungary at the time: we find here the landed aristocracy, both great and small; the poor nobleman without landed property; the official of the county administration; the submissive peasant, and all the remaining pariahs of Hungarian society. The novel contains three or four stories, more or less connected: the family tragedy of the sheriff Rety; the fate of the poor village notary Tengely, who is not able to prove his noble birth and in consequence is subjected to many prosecutions and trials; and finally the story of the honest but quick-tempered peasant Viola, who is driven to a lawless life by the arbitrariness and cruelty of his superior. This novel is inseparably linked with the name of Eötvös, and may justly be considered one of the masterpieces of Hungarian literature.

When the progressive party under Kossuth conquered in 1848, when the policy of the Opposition was sanctioned by the King and the first responsible ministry was founded, Baron Eötvös accepted the portfolio of Minister of Education. When the war with Austria became inevitable he went abroad, and did not return until peace was established. In Munich he wrote his work on ‘The Equality of the Nationalities,’ and began his book on ‘The Dominant Ideas of the Nineteenth Century and Their Influence upon the State.’ The Academy made him its vice-president in 1855, and the next year president.

During the following years he continued his political activity as member of the Reichstag and editor of a political weekly; and when a reconciliation with the government took place in 1867, he again became member of the cabinet, and remained so until his death. Personally Eötvös was a man of unusual culture of mind and heart, a nobleman in the truest and fullest sense of the word. As poet, writer, and statesman, it is he more than any other Hungarian who has exerted an influence upon the course of European culture.