The Baron’s Sons [Koszivo ember fiai]


Jókai’s name is entirely unknown to the contemporary reader, but this was not so earlier this century, for most of his voluminous oeuvre — more than two hundred novels — was not only translated into English and into other European languages, but were permanently in print in Britain until World War Two, and he was one of the better known European writers on the other side of the Atlantic as well. This novel is one of his best, and it provides a good introduction to his oeuvre, for it exemplies both of his fortes; the vivid representation of heroic and romantic turns of Hungarian history with tinges of Orientalism, as well as his descriptive powers of character and personal psychology, which make his novels a unique combination of the most enjoyable features of romantic and realistic narratives.

The Baron’s Sons (1869) is one of Jokai’s historical novels set in the (then) recent event of Hungarian past, in the times of the 1848 anti-Habsburg uprising and subsequent war of independence against the Austrian empire, in which the author also participated. The book is a family saga, telling the story of the three sons of the aristocratic Baradlay family whose father’s deathbed wish is for his sons to serve the Austrian empire while his wife thwarts this wish and calls them to the service of the homeland. The outbreak of the war of independence then tests the strength of their commitments; Ödön, the eldest, joins the Hungarian army, Richárd, the second, returns with his Hussars from abroad to serve the Hungarian side, while the youngest, Jenő remains loyal to Vienna where he is a civil servant. This quiet young man, however, is capable of an act of heroism, as he offers himself as a captive and nally undergoes the death sentence by substituting himself for his elder brother, for whom he is mistaken.


While the fundamental plot device is obviously reminiscent of the folktale tradition, Jókai was at no loss in exploiting the plot’s potential for adventure and hero-worship. For the Hungarian reader of past and present, the story is fundamentally a historical (and historically rather accurate) narrative about the ght for freedom against political oppression, for other readers, the novel is a compelling narrative full of picturesque Romantic adventures, it abounds in memorable descriptions of military scenes and the representations of soldier’s romantic heroism, and, in addition, it describes characters readers can easily identify with. ZV The following is taken from the dying father’s last words to his wife, in which he sets out the parameters of his sons’ future and is the background against which the sons’ romantic ght unfolds:

‘That young girl,’ he continued, ‘on whose account he was sent away from home, you must try to marry to someone. Spare no expense. There are men enough suitable for her, and we will provide the dowry. Should the girl prove obstinate in her resolution, you must endeavour to bring about the father’s removal to Transylvania, where I have many connections. Odon is to remain abroad until the family has moved away, or he himself has married. The matter need not, I think, cause you any anxiety. My second son, Richard, will remain a month longer in the royal body-guard, but it offers no opening for a career, and he will leave  it for the cavalry, where he is to serve a year, after which he must seek  an appointment on the general staff… there will be war in Europe when once the earthquake begins, and a Richard Baradlay will nd work enough ready to his hand. His fame shall cast glory over us all. He must never marry, a wife would only be in his way.’ 7-8