Vi. Bölöni Farkas Sándor (1795-1842) and his Travels

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(Angol-magyar kulturális kapcsolatok II. rész)

VI. Bölöni Farkas Sándor (1795-1842) and his Travels

IN THIS SECTION, we will cover:

  • Bölöni Farkas Sándor’s career

  • his outcast state and melancholy and their relationship to his perception of England

  • the role of Transylvanian aristocrats in Anglo-Hungarian contacts

  • his travels to Great Britain and the USA, and the travelogues written by him

  • his practical achievements in Kolozsvár

  • the most important topics in his British travelogue

Bölöni Farkas Sándor was born in Bölön, Transylvania. His father was a Secler nobleman and both of his parents were Unitarians (a branch of Protestantism). His forebears held the position of “lófő” for many generations back; this meant that they acted as border guard officers and were obliged to have a certain number of horses and be prepared in state of war. That is what explains Bölöni’s attachment to horse-riding and horse races; he was an excellent rider himself and no wonder he could give a very detailed and professional description of the Epsom Derby later on.

He studied in the Unitarian College of Kolozsvár and was an excellent student. The Unitarian College had always been famous for its open spirit and its receptivity for new ideas. Two names must be mentioned here. Körmöczi János, a professor and later the headmaster of the College made outlines of Tom Paine’s revolutionary piece The Rights of Man, one of the fundamental works of the American Enlightenment. What is more, Körmöczi did this in 1796, just one year after the suppression of the Hungarian Jacobine Plot led by Martinovich Ignác and the execution of its participants. Körmöczi’s follower, Kiss Mihály translated Claude Adrien Helvetius’s essay “Le vrai sens du systeme de la nature” (“The True Meaning of the System of Nature”), a basic document of French atheism and materialism. The translation was read and circulated in secret.

This revolutionary spirit, however, came to an end by the time Bölöni began to attend the Unitarian College. Partly because of this (and because of his natural preponderance for it), Bölöni became a solitary, sad, melancholic character. It should be added that due his melancholic spirit, he was not in favour of revolutionary ideas anyway. Bölöni often suffered from periods of depression. He smoked a lot, he was often too straightforward, capricious and impatient. He described himself in the following terms: “inconsequens, sokakba lázadozó, különös szituációkat csináló.” His loneliness was also reinforced by the fact that he was multiply an outcast: he was a Hungarian in the Habsburg Empire, he was a Secler among the Hungarians, he was relatively poor among rich noblemen, he was Unitarian in the Catholic Habsburg Empire and he was inspired by artistic inclinations among clerks and office workers. In short, he never found his place.

In 1817, he started to work as a clerk at the Court of Marosvásárhely (his official title was “a Királyi Főkormányszék tiszteletbeli jegyzője”), but he did not like his work as a bureaucrat. Next year he fell seriously ill with pneumonia, with a resulting darker mood, self-consuming lifestyle and periods of manic depression. He saw his life without any prospect, he was not promoted in his office, mainly because of his uncompromising, proud, straightforward attitude.

The first thing that moved him out of his depression was the Greek revolution against the Turks at the beginning of the 1820s. (Greece, like the Balkan area as such, was still under Turkish occupation at that time. Greece won its independence in 1829.) He met four Greek refugees at Wesselényi Miklós’s house, and many politicians thought at the time that the Greek uprising could be an example to be followed in Hungary as well. But Bölöni disagreed. First, he was not the revolutionary type. On the other hand, he was an eye-witness of the 1831 Paris revolution and he was astonished at the behaviour of the angry mob, which convinced him that patient reforms could be a better way to follow. Instead, Bölöni followed the utopian socialist ideas of the French Claude Henri de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and the English Robert Owen (1771-1858). They assumed the existence of natural law and that basic human rights should govern all human relations. Bölöni was probably one of the first Hungarian followers of their Utopian ideas and gave a description of Owen’s utopian socialism (Owen established a colony in New Lanark, Scotland, and then in New Harmony, Indiana, USA. He collected poor children and educated them in the spirit of utopian ideas based on the natural reason of man, mainly inspired by the writings of Jean-Jaques Rousseau). He coined the term “socialism.” Saint-Simon and Owen were among to first ones to react against capitalism that exploited workers. They imagined work as free from profit and serving the happiness of people.

For the next couple of years, he studied very hard in the hope of being promoted. He went to Vienna to study military law but gave up after five months and returned to Marosvásárhely. He was still an outcast. As he reported, “Keserűen kellett naponta nyelnem hazám piszkoltatását.” His love affair with a certain Polcz Josephina also failed.

He continued to work as a bureaucrat, but without any joy, especially when he contrasted the English and American experiences with the Hungarian ones. He summarised his bitter thoughts in the following way: “henyélés, fényűzés, közdolgok irénti tökéletes elzsibbadás, betyár szilajkodás, dicsőség az adósságrakásban, éhel halás a köznép közt, pazérlás a nagyok asztalánál, csillámló eszeskedés, apró pletykaságok, a nemzetiség nevetségessé tétele, német nyelc mindenütt, ki a míveltek közé akar tartozni, és lebzselő örökös semmit nem csinálás valának ezen időkor valóságos bélyegei.”

The way out from this distressing situation were two things. On the one hand, despite his boring job, Bölöni gained reputation as a very popular clerk. He was popular with the common people, because most often he decided in favour of them. On the other hand, he tried to counterbalance the situation described above by plunging in enormous work aimed at improving his town, Kolozsvár. He convinced his rich friends to help realise the plans for developing public life and infrastructure in town. His most important achievements initiated by him were the following:

1) He established a permanent theatre in 1821. The point about it was not just providing some means of entertainment to the public. At that time the function of a theatre was to bring people together where they could exchange their ideas (social function) and putting on stage plays in Hungarian (cultural function) to nurture the language, national sentiment, to spread culture and also, to oppose the Austrian supremacy (political function). Hamlet was first played here in Hungarian (1794).

2) Bölöni established a Casino in 1833. (The first Casino was established by Széchenyi in 1827 in Pest). The aim was basically the same: to provide a place for meeting, exchanging ideas, educated and polished conversation, fostering the national spirit. This was a venue of culture, not of politics (let alone gambling). The members could engage in conversation, read magazines, books, eat comfortably and discuss various topics. The whole idea was to adapt the English “club” system to Hungarian circumstances.

3) A similar purpose was reached by the School of Fencing, of which Bölni was twice the director.

4) Bölöni did not forget about the common people, either. He launched two newspapers, Népújság and Vasárnapi Újság to inform them about the latest developments.

5) He established a savings bank (see also: Széchenyi’s work Hitel) under the name of Kolozsvári Gondoskodó Társaság in 1825. This was the first savings bank in Hungary, and it existed until 1944 (!).

6) Bölöni also collected a private library. When he died, 961 books were donated to the Unitarian College. His books included practically all the classical works of ancient and contemporary literature, encyclopaedias, magazines, political and philosophical books and travelogues about England and Scotland.

In 1826, he began writing the history of Transylvania. This served as a kind of preparation for the later books, the travelogues. His book was not only a scholarly work but also the outline a future Hungary. Basically, he projected the contemporary ideas or desires back in time. He writes the following about King Matthias: “szabad királyi városok emelkednek, szabad polgárokkal, szemben a gőgös aristocratiával. Születik a harmadik státus, a szabad polgárság, ereje mindenütt a nemzetnek.” This is not really a scholarly account of Renaissance Hungary, but rather a projected image of an imagined ideal Hungary in the 1820s.

For Bölöni’s melancholic temperament, the year 1829 meant as a kind of outbreak. Something seemed to begin in the political and cultural life. He heard that Széchenyi established the Hungarian Academy, and that Wesselényi founded the National Museum. Becoming enthusiastic by these projects, he himself initiated the foundation of the Transylvanian Museum (which was only realised in 1859).

In these years, he also read four books that proved to be determining in his thinking and his ideas about Anglo-Hungarian contacts. These works were Lovakrul and Hitel by Széchenyi István and A régi nagy ménesek egyike megszűnésének okairul and Balítéletekről by Wesselényi Miklós. These works, directly or indirectly set England as an example to be followed for Hungary. The greatness of these men is proved by the fact that they condemned servile imitation. Széchenyi, Wesselényi, Bölöni and several other thinkers looked upon England (and the USA) as examples whose achievements must be adapted to Hungarian circumstances. As Széchenyi put it, “Céliránytalan volna Magyarországon egy merő angol gazdálkoást folytatni, amint Angliában egy tiszta Magyar gazdaságot űzni.” The same idea in the words of Wesselényi: “Gyűlölöm én az idegen-majmolást, nevetségesnek tartom akármi tárgyat is, cask azért, mert külföldi, a hazait megvetvén, annál előbb becsülni. Buzgó tisztelője vagyok mindannak, ami nemzeti.”

In 1830, Bölöni got permission to leave for abroad. He set out for a journey to Western Europe in the company of Béldi Ferenc. He spent three and a half months in Britain. Next year, he went to the USA and spent 39 days there. The result of this latter journey was the travelogue entitled Utazás Észak-Amerikában (1834), which immediately became a best-seller (the first edition was sold in 1,200 copies, the second edition in 1,000 copies).

The conclusion of the American trip was the following: Bölöni, as a jurist, believed in a written constitution as a safeguard for democracy. In his opinion, democracy is not the result of an organic historical process, but a summary of self-evident, eternal and essential truths and rights (see the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution). These principles, according to him, can be introduced anywhere with an appropriate constitution.

Within two months, Bölöni was elected a correspondent member of the Hungarian Academy (which was more like a burden for him than honour – “kicímerezett tudós … szegénységem büszkesége meg van alázva”, he wrote). In 1836, he was awarded the Great Prize of the Academy for his travelogue.

The British travelogue, however, was not published when it was written. In fact, it was banned for half a year. Why? In 1831, the political controversies surrounding the franchise (the right to vote) pushed the Tories (the conservatives) out of power in Britain, and after 50 years, the Whigs (the liberals) got to power. A slow, relatively peaceful process of reforms began. In the Victorian era, revolutions were prevented by liberal reforms. These were changes that an average Hungarian could not even dream of. The danger was recognised by the Austrian government and they prohibited the publication of anything that could show the Hungarians any kind of chance of reforming the country. The American travelogue was not deemed to be dangerous, since the USA was a young country, far away at the other end of the ocean and everyone supposed that a war of independence was out of question at this point. But moderate reforms and constitutional changes could have undermined the Austrian rule in Hungary.

Bölöni’s British travelogue and his career as a writer could be regarded within the context of four related topics: 1) earlier Hungarian travelogues; 2) the pro-British league of Transylvanian aristocrats; 3) the Reform Age politicians inspired by England.

Bölöni’s travelogue was not without precedents, of course. It must be seen within the context of earlier Hungarian travellers, such as Szepsi Csombor Márton, Bethlen Miklós, Bethlen Mihály and Weszprémi István. They did not devote too much to the description of English circumstances. The first longer diary belongs to Count Széchenyi Ferenc, who recorded his experiences during the customary “Grand Tour.”

Secondly, we must not forget that Bölöni was a Transylvanian writer and public figure. We already know that there were three centres within Hungary that inspired Anglo-Hungarian contacts: Sárospatak, Debrecen and Transylvania. Bölöni was close friends with one of the leading Transylvanian Reform Age politicians, Wesselényi Miklós. Wesselényi was educated in the spirit of freemasonry, supported the liberation of serfs and the rights of ethnic minorities of Hungary. He suggested the transformation of Austria-Hungary into a federation of Danubian nations. He firmly believed in the liberal humanist ideas of the age. As he put it. “There are certain human rights for which the human being is always ripe enough just because he is a human being and of which he can be deprived only by wild terror. Such rights are: that no-one should suffer from the tyranny of others; equality before law; the right to existence through work and so to prosperity; and the right to enjoy these in freedom and security.”

In 1822, Széchenyi and Wesselényi visited Britain, which stimulated interest in British politics, economy and culture. Wesselényi brought together a company of Transylvanian aristocrats – including Bánffy János, Béldi Ferenc, Jósika Miklós, Kemény Domokos, Kemény János, Kendeffy Ádám, Wesselényi Farkas and Zeyk József. The Austrian secret police suspected a plot. As an agent reported, “their main ideal is the British state administration. They intend to weaken royal power.”

When Béldi Ferenc made up his mind to make a tour in England, he asked Bölöni to accompany him as a secretary. They were not important enough to be in the focus of attention of the secret police, so they were granted passports.

The most important topics in the diary:

1) personal meetings with important people such as

Eszterházy Pál: the Austrian ambassador in London between 1815 and 1842, Queen Victoria’s personal favourite. He became the member of the first independent Hungarian government in 1848.

  • Sir John Bowring: a radical politician who published an anthology of Hungarian poetry entitled The Poetry of the Magyar, which was dedicated to prince Eszterházy. Bowring was in direct contact with several Hungarian authors, including Döbrentei Gábor, who was also a Unitarian.

  • Sir Francis Burdett: at the elections he was to first one to get into the Parliament with a reform programme. He was imprisoned for radical agitation in 1820.

  • John Cam Hobhouse: a friend of Byron’s, a supporter of the Greek war of independence. The member of the Rota Political Club, he was also arrested for his radical pamphlets.

  • John Gibson Lockhart: the son-in-law of Walter Scott, the chief critic of the Blackwood Magazine, and the editor of the Quarterly Review, the leading literary forums of the age.

2) Social controversies, poverty

3) Radicalism in politics, the 1831 elections

4) the opening of the Reform Parliament

5) innovations; the first Hungarian ever to travel by train on the line between Liverpool and Manchester

6) visits to the British Museum and his disappointment there

7) horses, horse breeding and horse racing, attended the Epsom Derby with the other 100,000 spectators

8) reported on English sports, the first Hungarian to learn boxing in 1822 (“boxírozás”, as he called it), cricket and squash.

9) described English houses and customs (the idea of a tea party was new for him)

10) he actually visited the places that Walter Scott mentions in his novels and the places of the Ossian poems (Scotland)

11) with a keen eye he noticed the widespread religious freedom (Catholics had just been emancipated, B. attended a Quaker meeting and met several English Unitarians)

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