Jókai’s Popularity in Victorian England

Lóránt Czigány

After the failure of the War of Independence in 1849 the Hungarian men of letters were “either roaming in foreign countries, or wandering in disguise through their native land; and the field of literature for a long time threatened to remain neglected and barren—a monument of national grief and desolation”. 1

The writers felt compelled to let their faculties lie dormant; and “the nation fell asleep, and dreamt its frozen, heavy dreams”, 2 as a critic in the mid-Victorian era commented sadly.

That the Hungarians awoke from this intellectual coma was due to a certain extent to a single author, himself a fugitive in disguise in those days, whose astonishing aptitude for writing fiction remained unparalleled, and who had provided the balm for the open sores of his compatriots.

Mór—or, as he has become widely known in England, Maurus—Jókai (1825-1904) seized hold of the imagination of his countrymen in their patriotic gloom by opening up for them an escapist paradise. He wrote series of novels set in the distant fairyland of an allegedly glorious past of Hungary including Transylvania, where readers could find compensation for their present misfortunes. The popularity of Jókai—in spite of the severe criticism to which he was subjected by generations of scholars—has remained unchallenged, a testimony to his magic grip on his readers, at least as far as his native Hungary is concerned. 3 Yet, no volume of Index Translationum can be opened without finding several of his novels translated into languages as different as Uzbek, German or Chinese.

The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, celebrated on February 18 this year, provides an opportune occasion to examine some aspects of his huge success with Victorian readers—shared by none of his fellow-Hungarian writers and allotted to only a handful of Continental authors—in the august days of the British Empire, when an unbroken tradition of “splendid isolation” made Englishmen attached not only to their homespun wool, but to homespun tales also; and when translations were generally despised and even the classics were thoroughly soaked in “the brown varnish of antiquity”.

His first book translated into English, a selection from short stories concerning the stirring days of the Hungarian War of Independence, was published in 1854 as the first volume of Constable’s Miscellany of Foreign Literature, an Edinburgh-based publishing house, whose owners were sufficiently convinced that “Europe alone—its more northern and eastern lands especially—offers to the hand of the selector most inviting and abundant fruits”. 4 The decision of Messrs. Constable to start their new venture with Jókai signified that things Hungarian in general still possessed a high market value;  books about Hungary flooded booksellers’ premises, for liberal Englishmen were anxious to show their unreserved sympathy for the lost cause of the War of Independence, and in this atmosphere of unprecedented interest they lent a receptive ear to the outcry of the popular press: “Who does not want to know more of the national life of the gallant Hungarians?” 5

That Jókai—with his “striking pictures and “most vivid and obviously truthful description” 6 of Hungarian life—was introduced to the English public, was largely due to the efforts of an enthusiastic exile, Imre Szabad, who selected and edited these stories and provided them with a well-written introduction.

Scholarship has generally neglected the activity of Szabad, whose portrait remains to be drawn 7 and whose achievements in familiarizing English readers with Hungary was perhaps overshadowed by Ferenc Pulszky,



the revolutionary Kossuth government’s able representative in London.

The success of Jókai’s first volume—not only with the critics, but with the readers—induced Messrs. Constable to reprint the short stories in 1855 and 1856.

Nothing followed for more than ten years. The fervent days of Hungaro-mania (when English sympathizers willingly burnt their favourite newspaper The Times publicly, for it failed to show the required degree of compassion for the Hungarian cause) had passed and Jókai’s initial success appeared to be ephemeral only.

Then at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich, or compromise of 1867, Hungary once more came into the focus of public interest. Travellers who visited the twin-city of Pest-Buda came back convinced that Hungarian novels “of the last few years require only to be well translated to become as popular in England as the masterpieces of Scott and Goldsmith, or the genius-gifted Sir Bulwer Lytton and the immortal Dickens. . .” 8

One of these travellers was Arthur J. Patterson (1835-1899), an able scholar who took the trouble to learn Hungarian, and who, after several visits, returned there to take the newly established chair of English at Pest University in 1866.

He translated the next volume of Jókai—this time it was the novel The New Landlord (1868).

It was a happy choice, for The New Landlord, describing the changing relationship of the Austrians and their arch-enemy, the Hungarians, not only adequately represented more than one aspect of Jókai’s art as a great raconteur, but its timely publication, shortly after the Compromise of 1867, was bound to arouse interest.

After 1849, the Hungarians made virtue of their predicament and stubbornly refused to co-operate with the Establishment.

A decade later international relations weakened the position of the Austrian Empire, and politicians at the Ballhausplatz realized they could no longer afford an enemy lurking in the larger part of the Empire.

As tension eased, Hungarian politicians also realized that passive resistance led only to a blind alley.

Jókai, a born optimist, welcomed the new developments and wrote The New Landlord, whose hero was an Austrian general who had fought against the rebels and settled in “enemy country”.

The novel was to illustrate how Herr Ankerschmidt and Squire Garanvölgi came to terms, or rather how the upright Austrian General adopted the Hungarian way of life and, as converts often do, became more of a patriot than those who were born to the job.

The solution offered by Jókai was hardly more than an illusion, naively-conceived: the formative strength of the native soil would make a patriot even of its enemy; yet the colourful novel was not without redeeming qualities, quickly as discovered by its English critics.

The idea of passive resistance appealed tremendously to the British press. It not only fulfilled expectations of how a gentleman, having been defeated, should behave, but also pointed to a moral superiority “which Englishmen are best able to appreciate; bravery. . . steady and sustained, and resolution unflagging, stern, and immovably tenacious of purpose. Such qualities are so thoroughly British that it would be strange indeed did they pass unreverenced in our midst”. 9

Both the quality press and authoritative quarterly reviews gave a spirited welcome to the novel, praising particularly the depiction of the two characters 10 and forgiving Jókai his romantic excesses.

Critics felt compensated by Jókai’s warm humour and by all the splendour of his descriptions.

The epic proportions of the description of the flooding of the River Tisza reminded at least one of the critics of George Eliot’s similar scene in the Mill on the Floss. 11


In spite of the warm reception (it was also suggested that it should be staged for it would “act admirably”), 12 Jókai’s success was confined to the literati only, and no new edition or new translation followed.

Apart from feeble attempts to introduce Jókai as an author of children’s fiction, his next new novel was published in 1888.

It was the celebrated Timár’s Two Worlds which established his reputation firmly once and for all. Translated from the German and originally entitled A Modern Midas, 13 it was republished several times on both sides of the Atlantic until 1930. For once it was not the timeliness of the novel which captivated the English audience. Jókai created a novel full of Oriental brilliance with all the romantic paraphernalia glittering unashamedly. There was the Island, the refuge of romantic imagination, where the hero, Miháy Timár, returned every now and then for tranquillity and forbidden love with its secret delights. The escapades of Timár appealed equally to the escapist—and most of the leading Victorians seemed to possess an eminent disposition for escapism, 14—and to the tired town-dwellers of the highly industrialized urban society of Great Britain.

Yet the novel, often considered as “a masterpiece of European literature”, 15 did not offer cheap day-dreaming, for the psychological problems involved in the “two lives” of Timár were skilfully presented. Jókai made him out to be a man burdened with a conscience, living in a sort of bigamy and tormented by the moral strictures of society which he was able neither to disregard entirely nor to fully adhere to. As one of the reviewers asked rhetorically: “while to Timea, his wife, to Noemi, the mother of his child, and all the world he is the great patriot, the true Christian, the exemplary husband, the father of the poor, guardian of the orphan, supporter of the schools, a pillar of the Church, what is he to himself? . . .” 16 The answer was worded readily by another critic for whom it was “the really strong human interest centred in Michael Timár, and the two women who provide the two worlds in which he lives his life of strange, tempestous, conflicting emotions. The story of Timár is the story of a man, strong alike in intellect in win and in conscience, who yields to a sudden, overpowering temptation. . .” 17

Jókai achieved success both with critics and readers. The former included George Saintsbury whose penetrating analysis lent respectability to many a novel. 18

Jókai was often compared to other Continental novelists who stood for something new in the English context such as Turgenev, Tolstoy or Zola, yet he was rightly thought as essentially different with his unorthodox romanticism which no writer of less calibre could offer at a time when romanticism was generally frowned upon, both naturalism and realism being more fashionable.

The 1880s and more particularly the 1890s witnessed a new attitude to Continental fiction in England; the insular attitude of the British to literature was about to vanish quietly giving way to a taste of more outlandish flavours well provided for by the great Russians, the Scandinavians and the French naturalists.

Jókai had his own brand of special flavour among these Continental authors, as attested by the remarkable attention he received in the quality press.

From 1891 onwards, when Dr. Dumány's Wife was published in a transatlantic edition, Jókai was considered one of the most successful Continental authors in England.

This novel ran to more than ten printings, and Jókai now was worth serious business consideration, although the critics were not entirely happy about the novel, and nor without reason. Most reviews justly regarded it as an entertainment only, without any pretence to art. Yet by the middle of the 1890s it was not possible to criticize Jókai any more.

The popular press was full of eulogy and critics felt compelled to drift with the


current of his popularity: it was not sensible to attempt criticism of Jókai for a magazine which aspired to conformity with public taste. So they often recorded the mere fact: “Maurus Jókai perhaps the most prolific and successful of living novelists, has already become well known to English readers.” 19

It was around this time that the first law concerning the copyright of authors and publishers was formulated, and an enterprising firm, Messrs. Jarrolds, secured, in 1895, the coveted position of being the “authorized” publisher of Jókai. Messrs. Jarrolds, made a good bargain, as it turned out, in the long run. While most publishers of Jókai had to rely on German translations, they found an expert on Hungarian literature who knew the language well and was keen on translating Jókai on a large scale.

This literary gentleman was R. Nisbet Bain (1854-1909), an Assistant Keeper in the British Museum and a scholar of Slavonic languages, who discovered Jokai for himself in the 1880s when rummaging a German bookstall in search of holiday reading. He vividly remembered his experience in one of his essays: “I came upon a thick, shabby looking, little octavo volume entitled Ein Goldmensch: Roman von Maurus Jókai. The unfamiliar name of the author attracted me, and when the obliging and erudite bookseller enlightened my ignorance by informing me that the mysterious Jókai was the leading Hungarian novelist of the day, I pocketed the volume, curious to discover what the Magyar’s idea of a good novel might be. The book fascinated me from the first as much by its strength as by its beauty. It was utterly unlike anything I had ever read before. Character, environment, technique—everything, in fact, was poles apart from the manner and the methods of the western and northern novelists. And the dramatic intensity of the plot! Never since reading the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had I met with so enthralling a narrative. My only regret was that its six hundred pages were not six thousand, and I laid the book down, at last, full of the excitement of a discoverer—I knew that I had stumbled upon one of the masterpieces of modern fiction. In my enthusiasm I there and then determined to learn Hungarian for the express purpose of reading this marvellous book in its original tongue. . .” 20

Bain’s sudden enthusiasm turned out to be a steady affair with Hungarian letters and by the 1890s he became an authority in his new field. He profited by his knowledge of a language that few Englishmen ever mastered. He translated nine Jókai novels and a collection of short stories between 1891 and 1904. The English public also profited from his discovery, for Jókai’s novels were now published in quick succession. Pretty Michal (1891) was followed by Eyes Like the Sea (1893) and ’Midst the Wild Carpathians (1894). Messrs. Jarrolds, advised by R. Nisbet Bain, approached Jókai and requested his consent to publish his novels on a large scale but allusion to royalties was not made. Eventually the question of royalties was settled by offering a somewhat moderately generous option 21 of either a fee of Ł25 for each new title, or 5 per cent of the net profit, and Jókai advised by his Hungarian publisher Messrs. Révai, accepted the former proposition. Now the novels began to appear in Messrs. Jarrolds’ edition. In uniform blue, green and red binding, impressively gilded, and with a photogravure portrait of the author specially inscribed to his English readers, they were sold for the not too exorbitant price of six shillings each. Messrs. Jarrolds, soon amended their right of publication of Jókai’s novels to the whole of the British Empire, producing another series similarly bound and illustrated, but bearing a distinguishing inscription: “This edition is intended for circulation only in India and the British Colonies.”

The firm published in quick succession The Black Diamonds (1896) and The Green Book (1897), a story of the Russian Decembrist Movement, which had to be reprinted five times in the same year, and which


proved to be Jókai’s most successful book in English translation; it reached altogether twenty editions on both sides of the Atlantic. The Lion of Janina was published in the same year and reprinted again five tunes. Next year A Hungarian Nabob was selected, followed by Nameless Castle (1899) and The Poor Plutocrats (1899). In 1900 The Day of Wrath and Debts of Honor, followed up by Halil the Pedlar (1901), again in five consecutive printings in the same year; then The Slaves of the Padishah (1903) and Tales from Jókai (1904). After the death of Jókai there followed a pause in the publication of new translations. Only in 1909 were new titles published: The Strange Story of Rab Ráby and Yellow Rose, which were the last new translations. During and after the First World War interest in the Hungarian romancer began to decline: the last reprint, following a number of cheap editions in “Jarrolds Tenpenny Popular Novels”, appeared in 1930 (Timár’s Two Worlds). The most successful decade for Jókai was between 1894 and 1904, with one or more new titles in each year and usually five or six reprints, including editions by other firms; and transatlantic joint ventures, altogether little short of thirty different titles in over 100 different printings, including “pirate editions”.

It is interesting, although it has very little to do with the facts, that the peak of Jókai’s popularity fell between two significant dates: starting in the year Jókai celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a writer (1894) and finishing in the year he died (1904). Both events were remembered in the English press with an intimacy that can be the reward of an author whose novels are read by millions of readers. The Times correspondent in Vienna duly reported the large-scale celebration in Hungary in a series of articles, concluding his report with: “Jókai is a writer of whom any nation might be proud”. 22 The Saturday Review warned its readers: “Englishmen who do not know their Jókai may well rub their eyes when they read of the festivities at Buda-Pesth. . .” 23 A literary bookseller described in his diary how excited English authors were, perhaps not entirely without envy, about the popularity of the prolific Hungarian: “Every author who has been into my shop for a week past has been talking about Jókai. . . he seems to be a bigger man in Hungary than Tolstoy in Russia, Ibsen in Norway or Zola in France.” He concluded in a somewhat bitter tone. “Neither Scott nor Dickens ever had such a national ovation!” 24

When Jókai died in 1904, the eminent historian H. W. V. Temperley paid a fine tribute to the last of the great romantics, who was “too passionate and poetic, too revolutionary and bizarre”. 25 Temperley himself was impressed by Timár’s Two Worlds in the same way as George Saintsbury: for them and for a great number of English readers Jókai essentially represented a uniquely exotic and rich creative talent which was, perhaps, best described in the words of his life-long admirer, R. Nisbet Bain, writing for the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Jókai was an arch-romantic, with a perfervid Oriental imagination, and humour of the purest, rarest description. If one can imagine a combination, in almost equal parts, of Walter Scott, William Beckford, Dumas pčre, and Charles Dickens, together with the native originality of an ardent Magyar, one may perhaps form a fair idea of the great Hungarian romancer’s indisputable genius.”

It would be difficult, however, to offer an explanation for the decline of Jókai’s popularity in England. Most of the foreign writers introduced around the turn of the century withstood the test of time, although I would be inclined to think that these days few Englishmen read Zola, or for that matter Walter Scott, let alone Victor Hugo. In the inter-war period, nevertheless, most of the English public libraries well still well-stocked with works of Jókai, the worn-out volumes being discarded only in the early 1940s. His works are still widely avail-


able in the second-hand shops, fetching anything between Ł2 and Ł4 a volume. Having got tired of my research in the British Museum in the late 1950s and going out to browse in the bookshops of Bloomsbury, I met, and remember vividly, an elderly bookseller who remarked nostalgically, gazing into the sleepy, wet afternoon: “Oh, Jókai (he pronounced it Jockey), he was a fine writer, I read all of his books when I was a young lad and a new hand in the trade.”

The thin, tall bespectacled figure has since disappeared, like many of his contemporaries whose sixpence trays were the delight of poor students. Prohibitive rents, rates and rising service bills victimized the last representatives of this strange breed of West End booksellers, who were knowledgeable and courteous, but hopeless businessmen.

I think of the old man fondly now, for he was a member of a vanishing species, he was probably one of the last English readers of Jókai, a romancer of the old school, whom we often regard as impossibly naďve, if not outrageous, but whom Hungarians all like a little ashamedly and secretly, irrespective of their convictions or their snobbish dispositions.


1 Imre Szabad in Jókai’s Hungarian Sketches in War and Peace, 1854 p. V.

2 The Critic, July 1856, p. 355.

3 Jókai is still the most often published Hungarian author. Between 1945 and 1972 almost ten million copies of his works had been printed in over 300 different editions (Kritika, Feb. 1975, p. 19). In comparison to these astonishing figures the next most often published author, the novelist Mikszáth, is lagging far behind with 5.4 million copies in the same period.

4 Publishers’ advertisement in Jókai’s Hungarian Sketches.

5 The Atlas, Sept. 16, 1854, p. 696.

6 For a detailed analysis of the reception of Jókai’s novels in England, cf. my own The Reception of Hungarian Literature in Victorian England (Typescript), University of London, 1965, pp. 306-434, on which the present article is largely based. (A Hungarian edition is being prepared for publication by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.) For the bibliographical details of the translated works of Jókai including a listing of the most significant reviews, of Magda Czigány: Hungarian Literature in English Translation Published in Great Britain, 1830-1968, London, 1969.

7 Imre Szabad, born around 1822, was a secretary in Kossuth’s government, came to London probably in 1850, but being dissatisfied with exile ‘politics’ went to Edinburgh. There he published his Hungary: Past and Present (1854), a well-written and documented social history of Hungary, with a lively account of Hungarian literature, full of apt observations and critical remarks. In 1860 he was fighting in Italy under Garibaldi, and in 1862 in the American Civil War. The diary of his captivity in the notorious Libby Prison (Fraser’s Magazine, March 1868) created a minor sensation. He revised the Hungarian material in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (8th edition, 1853-60) and later wrote books on political theory. In his old age he settled in Galveston, Texas. He had a brilliant intellect, and in the words of Benjamin Moran, an American diplomat in London, he was “a man of parts, as Macaulay would say, and a gentleman”.

8 Henry Ecroyd: “From Vienna to Pesth”. Temple Bar, 1867, p. 237.

9 The Sunday Times, Apr. 19, 1868.

10 E.g. The Spectator, 1868, p. 438, The Scotsman, May 14, 1868, The Observer, Apr. 19, 1868 or Westminster Review, n.s. vol. 34, p. 262.

11 The Sunday Times, loc. cit., or The Saturday Review, Apr. 18, 1868, p. 526.

12 The Scotsman, loc. cit.

13 A revised translation was published by Corvina Press, Budapest, under a new title, in 1963: The Man with the Golden Touch.

14 Steven Marcus: The “Other” Victorians, 1966.

15 The Athenaeum, March 31, 1888, p. 395.


16 The Saturday Review, Apr. 14, 1888, p. 446.

17 The Spectator, June 9, 1888. p. 790.

18 Saintsbury reviewed the novel for The Academy (Apr. 14, 1888, p. 254) where he analyzed all the main characters, particularly the question of the “bigamy” of the Danube skipper, Timár, and and guilt of robbery “under trust”. Years later he still maintained his admiration for Jókai. Cf. his Periods of European Literature, Edinburgh, 1907, vol. 12, pp. 350‑51.

19 Literature, July 9, 1898, p. 17.

20 R. N. Bain: “Maurus Jókai”. The Monthly Review, 1901, vol. 4, no. 2, p. 137.

21 Although a copyright agreement duly signed in May 1894 between Great Britain and Austria-Hungary, the agreement was difficult to enforce in its initial stage. Publishers who produced books with the permission of the authors and paid royalties were running a risk of serious financial loss if another firm also published the same book without these financial obligations.

22 Jan. 9, 1894, p. 3.

23 The Saturday Review, Jan. 13, 1894, p. 37.

24 To-day, Jan. 20, 1894, p. 11.

23 H. W. V. Temperley: “Maurus Jókai and the Historical Novel”. The Contemporary Review, 1904, vol. 86, p. 114.

SOURCE: Czigány, Lóránt. “Jókai’s Popularity in Victorian England,” The New Hungarian Quarterly, no. 60 (vol. 16, 1975), pp. 186-192.

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

In Esperanto:

Mór Jókai” de Zsuzsa Varga-Haszonits

Mondlingvo de Mór Jókai” de Tivia

Volapuka Lando en Siberio
(Pri "Csalavér" de Mór Jókai)

La Humuro de Jókai” de Pál Balkányi / Mór Jókai

Kiun el la Sep” de Mór Jókai, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay

“Flava Rozo” & Kálmán Kalocsay de Éva BENICKÁ

La Hungara Modelo en Interlingvistiko: Post la unua mondmilito de István Szerdahelyi

"Fruaj Socialismaj Konceptoj pri la Lingva Futuro de la Homaro" de Árpad Ràtkai

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

On other sites:

Mór Jókai - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jókai, Mór (Encyclopedia of Science Fiction)

JÓKAI Mór: The Novel of Next Century (1872 - 1874): Foreword

The Novel of Next Century
(Translated excerpts and chapter by chapter notes on Jókai Mór's early science fiction novel)

Jókai Mór: A jövo század regénye
(The Novel of Next Century in Hungarian)

Mór Jókai (1825-1904) | The Online Books Page

Jókai, Mór, 1825-1904: Project Gutenberg

Chapter XIII: National Escapism: Jókai
(in A History of Hungarian Literature From the Earliest Times to the mid-1970's)
by Lóránt Czigány

In Esperanto:

Mór Jókai @ Ĝirafo
(some English)

Mór Jókai - Vikipedio

Jókai Mór (Esperanto: biografio @ Babelmatrix)

La du salikoj de Nagyenyed
de Mór Jókai, tradukis Jozefo Horváth

La nova bienulo
(Az új földesúr Eszperantó nyelven)
de Mór Jókai

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 5 April 2016

Site ©1999-2023 Ralph Dumain