The Decline of the Gentry and the Novel


THE modernization of Hungary, which had started in the Age of Reform, suffered a severe setback in the upheaval caused by the War Independence. After the Settlement of 1867, constitutional government having been restored, new economic prospects opened up and Hungarian society was gradually transformed as a result of radical modifications in the structure of the state. The traditional way of life carefully preserved by the Hungarian gentry was no longer economically feasible: the stereotype Hungarian nobleman, farming on a small homestead, merrily hunting, reading the classics, the Bible, or the handbook of Hungarian civil law by the fireside in the long winter evenings, and entertaining whenever a suitable occasion presented itself, became obsolete. He simply could not produce goods at a competitive price, his income gradually diminished, and the idea of the independent gentleman-farmer had to be finally abandoned.

The nobles soon found themselves new positions in the structure of society. Before the War of Independence thirty thousand country gentlemen with their sons and nephews had been able to run a patriarchal agrarian society, but they could not – particularly as long as there were their own estates to look after – provide the complex administration a modern state needed. Therefore the civil service grew enormously, and by the 1890s around 100,000 posts had been created and filled. For economic survival more and more country gentlemen became state-paid officials, and in this way the civil service successfully absorbed the gentry.

Of course, this was a long drawn-out process stretching in time from the Settlement to the outbreak of World War I. It was also a painful process; the gradual loss of independence in office life, material limitations, and the impact of town life did not facilitate adjustment to the new position the gentry was able to acquire in a changing world. Family traditions and pretensions lingered on; petty officials in the service of county administration could not resign themselves to the uneventful days in an office. Delusions of grandeur, daydreams about improving their social position haunted them. They found excuses for their misfortune in the wildcat schemes of grandfathers who had lost the family wealth; the unsuccessful gambling of the black sheep of the family, or inherited debts, all were blamed for the mediocre position they occupied in society. And of course, the gentry did everything they could to regain their lost paradise: bribery, nepotism, corruption were all employed in the unceasing battle to recreate their former way of life, their influence and wealth. Yet the pulling of family strings to save the skin of a nephew who committed a mistake in the accounts-book scarcely affected their fortunes as a class either way.

Historians often find the reason for the decline of the Hungarian gentry in the rigidity of their ideals, their contempt for the trades and commerce, and their general lack of enterprise and adaptability, closely connected with their traditional upbringing, and snobbery and their ideal of úriember (gentleman). It is arguable, however, whether the Hungarian gentry was any better or worse than the titled classes in any other European ancien régime; there existed, however a significant difference: these country squires faced the challenge of social transformation nearly a century later than their counterparts in more advanced European societies.

The painful transition of the gentry to their new status can be traced in literature, particularly in the social novel. Jókai and his followers benignly glossed over the ugly facts about the decline of the gentry; they felt sorry for the inevitable destiny of their own class. A few authors certainly admired the life-style of the gentry even in its twilight; this was well illustrated by the attitude of Ferenc Herczeg. With the advent of Realism, however, social criticism began to wrest much of the ‘old glory’ from the gentry in literature, even though Realism in the Hungarian novel seldom appeared in an undiluted form, but was frequently tempered with Romantic undertones.