The Village Notary, The Carthusian and Hungary in 1514. Written in the 19th century these novels are considered great works of Hungarian literature even today. The author, Baron József Eötvös, who died 150 years ago, however, is better known as a statesman than a writer and stands next to István Széchenyi on the Kossuth monument on Kossuth Square before the Houses of Parliament. Nevertheless, Eötvös's balanced the role of writer and politician (in the noblest sense of the word): a writer of great novels and a leading figure of his age. He, therefore, deserves great respect from posterity.
József Eötvös on the Kossuth monument on Kossuth Lajos Square. Created by János Horvay, the statues were erected in 1927. It was returned to Kossuth Square on 3 March 2015 (Photo: Both Balázs/pestbuda.hu)
From Vásárosnamény in Szatmár County, the Eötvös family was granted the title fo baron in 1768. József Eötvös was born into this family on 3 September 1813, in Buda, in a house at 19 Úri Street. His father was Baron Ignác Eötvös, master of the Treasury and his mother a German-speaking lady-in-waiting, Anna Lilien.
Birthplace of József Eötvös in Buda Castle District, at 19 Úri Street (Source: FSZEK Budapest Collection)
József Eötvös learnt about the ideas of the French Enlightenment and the works of Voltaire and Rousseau at a young age, thanks to his tutor József Pruzsinszky, who was sentenced to death for participating in the Hungarian Jacobin movement but his sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment.
Portrait of Eötvös in his youth from the book Báró Eötvös József 1813–1871 by Zoltán Ferenczi
After studying at the University of Pest, he was Kölcsey's intern at the Diet of Pozsony (modern-day Bratislava, Slovakia) in 1832–36. He was elected a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at a very young age, barely 22. He became a full member in 1839 at the age of 26.
His literary career began even earlier. At the age of 18, he wrote a pamphlet in defence of Kazinczy, entitled A Critical Apotheosis. After the Pest flood of 1838, he served as the editor of the Budapesti Átvyzkönyv, a periodical created to support repairs of flood damage. This is also where his novel The Carthusian was first published. The text garnered critical and public acclaim.
He later moved to Sály in Borsod country, where he devoted himself to writing on his father's estate. In 1840 he founded the Budapesti Szemle periodical with László Szalay. He entered the political arena after the diet of 1839–1840. He took part in political debates, battles and played a major role in promoting religious equality and emancipation of the Jewish population.
He moved back first to Buda, and then Pest, where he lived in Wodianer House on today's Deák Square. The large building was also known as Kemnitzer and House of the Two Turks. In 1842 he married Ágnes Rosty de Barkóc. They had five children, including Loránd Eötvös, the inventor of the torsion pendulum.
Former Wodianer House on today's Deák Square. The building was also known as the Kemnitzer-Wodianer and the House of the Two Turks. Eötvös lived here before and during the 1848 revolution. Today a park fills the site of the house opposite the Lutheran church (Source: Fortepan/No.: 86068)
Eötvös promoted his political and social philosophical ideas through his literary works. His most influential novel, The Village Notary, was written in this vein between 1844–46. In stark contrast to the emotionally fuelled character of his earlier successful book, A Carthusian, the newer work was written as a satire.
Eötvös was a key figure of the Reform Period and joined Hungary's first responsible government under Prime Minister Lajos Batthyany as Minister for Religion and Public Education. As such he began a policy of radical reform, but his work was cut short. Eötvös sought to reach an agreement with the monarchy and left the country after the government was reshuffled in September 1848. As the political events unfolded, he travelled to Vienna and then Munich, only returning home in 1850, first to Velence in Fejér County and then to Buda in 1851. He retreated from the public eye and focused on writing in his villa on Svábhegy.
In his study on József Eötvös, István Sőtér writes: "The Eötvös before 1848 is just as different to the post-1848 Eötvös, as the same two eras of his homeland."
József Eötvös's villa on Svábhegy. The building once stood at what is today 12–14 Eötvös Road (Source: Vasárnapi Ujság, 19 June 1864)
József Eötvös often visited Svábhegy from the beginning of the 1840s. At first, he was a guest of the naturalist and Member of the Academy, Imre Frivaldszky, then in 1845 he bought a plot himself and built a house on the hill. During what is known as his "Svábhegy-era", Eötvös lived in this house with his family.
Eötvös was elected to represent Buda in the national diet with Antal Balássy in 1861. Picture of the procession of the candidates from Báró Eötvös József 1813–1871 by Zoltán Ferenczi
From the middle of the 1850s, he rejoined public life. He reorganized the Kisfaludy Society and worked at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 1861, the city of Buda elected him as its representative at the national diet. His return to politics was accompanied with great enthusiasm.
Karthausi Lodge, located in the southern part of the Eötvös estate on Svábhegy (today 14 Karthauzi Street), on an engraving published in the 26 September 1875 issue of Vasárnapi Ujság.
His estate on Svábhegy's also grew around this time. Kathausi Lodge, at 14 Karthausi Street stand to te present-day. There is an urban legend that the author wrote his novel The Carthusian in this house. However, this is simply impossible.
An inscription evokes Eötvös's work, The Carthusian on the closed veranda of the villa:
"I was tired and I came to rest
Under the shadow of these walls
Like the worker who was shaken by a southern heat,
and rests under the tree. "
Picture of the Karthausi Lodge from the 8 June 1913 issue of Az Érdekes Ujsag
He remained popular in the following years and was elected President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on 18 March 1866. His political career also took a turn for the better. After the compromise, the preparations of which he was part of, he again became Minister for Religion and Public Education in the government led by Gyula Andrássy. Act XXXVIII of 1868, was passed during his time in office. The law of outstanding significance made schooling compulsory for all children between the age of 6 and 12. With this law, Hungary paved the way before several other European countries. Compulsory education was only introduced in England in 1870 and 1871 in Italy.
During these years he mainly lived in Sina House at 10 Erzsébet Square in the centre of pest, while keeping his house on Svábhegy.
The Karthausi Lodge today (Photo: Balázs Both/Pestbuda.hu)
However, these were the last years of his life. The heated debates over the 1870 budget took a toll on his health. After a serious illness on 2 February 1871, he died in his flat on Erzsébet Square, Pest. He was buried in the family tomb in Ercsi.
A few days after his death, an initiative to erect a public statue of him was started. His full-length, 390-centimetre-high, statue by Adolf Huszár was erected on an almost 5-metre pedestal and unveiled on 25 May 1879 near the pest bridgehead of Chain Bridge. Simultaneously with the erection of the statue, the area was named Eötvös tér. Endre Liber's book, Budapest szobrai és emléktáblái ('statues and memorial plaques in Budapest'), describes the bronze statue as follows: "standing as an orator with his left foot forward he faces the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Hungarian noble dress. His shoulders are covered in a cloak with beautiful folds. He raises his right hand slightly, while the scroll in his left hand illustrates that he was a statesman and writer.”
The statue of József Eötvös was erected on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1913 by the teachers and students of Hungarian secondary schools (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)
His peaceful home, Svábhegy also hurried to erect a memorial to Eötvös. A bust of the politician by Alajos Strobl was unveiled on 6 July 1890, near his villa. The small park around it was named Eötvös park. The lines of Endre Liber's already quoted book reflect the atmosphere of the ceremony: “The square was richly decorated with national flags and leafage, the coats of arms of the counties of Hungary were placed all around. The cogwheel railway could barely cope with the masses travelling to the celebration. The crowd filled the square near the Eötvös Villa by 10 o'clock. The ceremony began with a service in the Chapel and continued at the statue. Baron Lóránd Eötvös, the writer's son, Albert Berzeviczy, Secretary of State, Károly Ráth, Mayor of Budapest and Károly Kamermayer, District Mayor, Mór Jókai, Pál Gyulai, many members of the literary and art communities and local residents attended the event."
Bust of József Eötvös in Eötvös József Park on Svábhegy (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)
Respect for Eötvös continued into the next century. In 1921, the oldest non-religious school in Budapest, the first proper secondary school in the capital, the grammar school at 7 Reáltanoda Street in the city centre, was renamed after the former Minister of Religion and Public Education.
Cover photo: Bust of József Eötvös in Eötvös József park on Svábhegy (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)