:: RETROSCOPE ::
Retroscope is a monthly series that mines the past for literary travel writing gems.
Buffalo bulls, nervous invalidism, snowy pusztas, dainty white serviettes, wrinkles & lassitude, mouse-screeching women, lugubrious howls, voluminously kilted skirts & Szent Mihály-telke.
It was unusual for British tourists at the end of the Victorian era, least of all unaccompanied young women, to venture into the Austro-Hungarian Empire any farther east than Vienna. The cultured Viennese “looked upon Hungary as ‘the end of the earth’ and the Hungarians as a nation of ‘barbarians,’” writes H. Ellen Browning in A Young Girl’s Wanderings in Hungary, published in 1896, which recounts her adventures among the Magyars.
At twenty-three, after university education and then “nervous invalidism” following the death of her beloved father, she sets out to convalesce through solo travel, the family finances being insufficient to afford a companion. An intrepid modern young woman who objects “to being considered man’s equal, preferring to remain—his superior,” she is still a creature of her time:
“To begin with, let me confess that I belong to the category of ‘mouse-screeching’ women; though I wear cloth knickers under my gown and feel equally contemptuous towards an ‘hysterical female’ and a dowdy bas bleu. Their day is over! I love the sea, and the mountains, and the frank ‘natural-ness’ of the peasantry, but garlic and drunken men both disgust me. Swearing frightens me, particularly when there’s anything ‘bluggy’ about it. It turns me instantly into a mass of shivering goose-flesh: perhaps it’s the tone that does it, quite as much as the words.”
Armed with letters of introduction, some fluent French and “scrappy” German, but most of all a feisty appetite for novelty, she eschews the conventional guidebooks (Baedeker and Murray) and roams the streets of Vienna for a week as a flâneur before proceeding to Budapest and plunging onward into barbarism, visiting a series of kind and generous hosts and recording a tremendous wealth of local color, character and custom over several years.
In the passage excerpted here, Browning returns to the hospitality of an aristocratic family in the Transylvanian village of Szent Mihály-telke, where her rodent phobia is put to the test.
A distant relative and “devoted disciple” of the English poet Robert Browning, she too declares (with italic emphasis) in her preface, “Writing is henceforward to be my profession.” A Young Girl’s Wanderings was popular enough to go into a second edition, but her only subsequent book was Beauty Culture (1898), a high-toned, philosophical and scientific how-to work that advises, for instance, a cold bath for women every morning, but warm ones no more than once a week, for fear of “wrinkles and lassitude.”
Beyond that, Google searches turn up few traces of her or her work. What became of this obviously charming, talented, independent woman?
A Female Solomon
Coffee-parties in my honor were the order of the day every afternoon. People, who knew me not from Adam, vied with each other in showing me hospitality and polite attentions. The number of store-rooms and linen-closets I was called upon to inspect were legion; and the varieties of compote on which my ‘candid opinion’ was demanded were equally numerous. The latter were all so delicious that I found no difficulty in satisfying the hearts of their concocters with unqualified praise. From morning till night ‘the English Miss’ was constantly required to give her ‘weighty word’ upon every imaginable subject, from systems of agriculture and ideal socialism to the ‘hang’ of a skirt, the ‘set’ of a bow, and the general management of teething babies, till I began to look upon myself as a female Solomon, and to feel that he must have had rather a hard time of it, and probably much regretted his thoughtless request for wisdom when he realized the ‘strain’ it entailed.
Sometimes my self-restraint was indeed sorely tried. It was too ludicrous to hear my opinions being handed on with serious gravity as something worthy of the deepest respect and consideration—words to be repeated and remembered, in fact, upon subjects of which I was palpably ignorant; for instance, the best methods for fish-drying.
If I pleaded ignorance, however, they explained their own ideas on the point, and waited for my concurrence. These views were then disseminated as the English views on that particular industry or mercantile pursuit.
It was impossible to get away from their hospitable midst in less than ten days, so that it was nearly the end of October before I started off on my return journey to Szt. Mihály. I went by rail to Magyar-Nádas, the nearest station, and the journey seemed never-ending. The trains on all the branch lines simply crawl along, stopping at every little poky station an unconscionable time. The good doctor’s wife had insisted on packing me up a basket of what she called ‘Mundvorrath,’ and very acceptable it proved. Cold roast chicken, white rolls, hazel-nut cakes, some slices of sausage, a few pears, a handful of walnuts, grapes, and a small bottle of wine, covered by a dainty white serviette. Our farewells were of the most cordial nature, and full of gratitude on my part; but they all seemed to feel that it was I who had conferred a favour upon them. Quite a large party assembled to see me off, each bringing an offering of flowers, bonbons, candied fruits, or cakes of some kind, and waved handkerchiefs at me with tearful eyes till my train passed beyond the line of vision. By the time our dilatory engine puffed heavily into Magyar-Nádas it was already eleven o’clock at night, and before it crawled lazily on its way I was tucked safely into the sleigh sent to meet me, presenting the appearance of a bundle of fur rugs crowned by a red wool shawl. The thermometer stood below zero, and it snowed hard and fast. How soft and white those falling feathery flakes were! What a world of whiteness and mystery we were passing through! Not a sound except the jingle of the bells on the horses’ necks and the crisp crunch, crunch! of the frozen snow under the rapid runners of the sleigh, that flew so swiftly and smoothly along. How delightful it was! I had a feeling that the world was empty and wide, yet filled with a delirious joy that thrilled me through and through. Empty of everything, except one solitary, flying sleigh, enveloped in circling clouds of soft, silent, snowy spirits that seemed nestling tenderly around me on every side. A mad longing that my steeds would rush into space and carry me onwards for ever and ever, in an eternal environment of fast-falling snow took possession of me, and I almost wept when we drew up at the hall door of the sleeping Kastely, and the maid Pepi came running out, exclaiming ‘Küss die Hand, gnädiges Fräulein. Was für ein schreckliches Wetter! Das arme gnädige Fräulein muss ja ganz gefroren sein.’
I love the sea, and the mountains, and the frank ‘natural-ness’ of the peasantry, but garlic and drunken men both disgust me.
She was right. Our drive had lasted an hour and a half and I was nearly frozen, though this little fact had not dawned upon me until she mentioned it.
W inter had set in a trifle earlier than it generally does in Transylvania. Personally, I rather enjoyed this. The lake was frozen hard enough for us to skate upon it, and every afternoon the Countess and I went out for a sleigh drive, generally in the forest. Those drives were like excursions into fairy-land. How changed everything was from the day when we had been obliged to flee before a buffalo bull! The trees and grass and low bushes all looked as if the far-famed ice maiden had just passed by and turned them by a wave of her graceful wand into crystal—crystal that shone and sparkled in the bright sun, under the blue canopy of heaven, like the dazzling diamond-stalactites gleaming in the grotto at Dobsina. There were no longer herds of cattle, sheep, or pigs roaming over the snowy pusztas, but hares skipped about or sat up on their haunches to look at us, squirrels peeped out from the hollows of trees, the reddish brush of a fox would vanish amongst the underwood, and sometimes a wild boar would be distinctly heard grunt, grunt, grunt! as he crashed away through the bushes. One day a wild cat (the only specimen I have ever seen) grinned savagely at us from the branch of a huge oak. Another time the coachman turned to us, crying excitedly, ‘Did the right honourable Countess see?’
Yes, we had seen; so had the poor horses. They were trembling in every limb and trying their hardest to turn. ‘Let us go back,’ said the Countess, and directly they got their heads towards home they went off with the speed that terror engenders even in animals.
Several times an icy northeast wind blew, such as I have never felt elsewhere. We did not dare to speak out of doors then, because it seemed to freeze our tongues each time we opened our mouths.
A big grey wolf had crossed the path a few yards in front of us, and dived into the forest beyond with a lugubrious howl. No responsive howl followed, so we knew that he was alone and therefore not dangerous; still the horses were far too frightened to proceed. Animals can scent a wolf immediately, and are more terrified at him than they are at a bear. But, as a matter of fact, wolves are only formidable when you meet them in packs. A single wolf is scarcely ever known to attack a human being, though he will carry off sheep, calves, &c. Still, it is not pleasant to meet one, even when he is alone and you are driving. Wolves are not pretty, or re-assuring, to look at. Going home along the road rather late one evening in the dusk we got near the edge of the road, one of our horses put his foot on to empty air, and toppled us gently over into a snowdrift. Of course, we were rather astonished, but not at all hurt and very much amused.
It was often terribly cold, so we always adopted the mode of the peasant women, and wrapped our heads, ears, and faces in woolen shawls. Several times an icy northeast wind blew, such as I have never felt elsewhere. We did not dare to speak out of doors then, because it seemed to freeze our tongues each time we opened our mouths. The fur rugs were made like sacks; and having put on a fur coat, you stepped into your sack and drew the folds round you tightly, sitting on them to exclude the draught. We had double windows to every room, and big stoves in which huge wood fires burnt day and night, all over the house; yet it was sometimes difficult to keep warm when you were sitting still.
The rats evidently felt it cold too, for we found them coming up from the cellars and down from the Boden perpetually. My life became almost a burden to me because of them. When there were none actually about, I was always expecting to see them, which was almost as bad; especially after a big fellow ran up the young Countess’s legs whilst she was crossing the hall one evening. He was fortunately smitten dead by a footman as soon as he descended, but we couldn’t get over it for some time. During a never-to-be-forgotten night I had a ‘ratty’ monster in my bedroom, and he did have such a time of it chasing the mice. You can’t conceive the fearful clamour of racing feet and squealing! At last, having chased seven mice into the mousetrap, which they fondly imagined was a tower of refuge, he climbed up the curtain on to a table near the bed and began to gnaw at my candle. In vain I mewed like a cat, barked like a terrier, kicked my feet wildly about and called for help. There he stayed: gnaw, gnaw, gnaw! close beside my pillow, in the most persistent, demoniacal manner. Finally the young Countess heard my calls, lighted her candle, banged vociferously on the door first, then opened it and placed the lighted candle on the sill, whilst I collected my pillows and coverlet, and made one terrific spring over the candle into her room which opened out of mine. It was scarcely the work of an instant to pick up the candle, bang the door and shut Mr. Rat in till the morning, when Death and a terrier were sent in together. The rest of the night was spent by me wrapped in my coverlet lying on an oblong table; towards dawn I moved, forgot where I was, tried to turn over in my sleep, and deposited myself and my pillows on the floor. On another occasion we were standing outside, enjoying the sunshine close against the house, with an umbrella to keep off the drippings. Plump! came something over our heads, and a dark grey object rolled on to the snowy gravel. The next moment Castor had him in his mouth, and to our horror we discovered that it was a half-grown rat. He had evidently been taking an airing on the roof, but whether he lost his balance and fell, or jumped off, is more than human wisdom can divine. Probably the former. During the cold months the peasants rarely venture out of doors except to feed their animals and to go to Mass on Sundays. The latter is a meritorious action, for the churches are never heated, and the cold, vault-like feeling is intensely trying. Sheepskins of course are de rigueur on such occasions, and the congregation always looks as if it were only waiting to start on a sleighing expedition, everybody is so bundled up. The women discard their stiff, starched petticoats and pretty print gowns for woolen knickers and short frieze skirts very voluminously kilted, generally dark blue or black. The head-shawls are nearly all red or yellow, but widows and old women usually choose black. Peasants never wear conventional mourning for anybody at any time of the year; they find that they can sorrow equally well in red, blue, yellow, green, or any other colour, and I’ve no doubt they are quite right too.
Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.
Lead image: Nicu Moldovan
Excerpt and inline images: Adapted from A Young Girl’s Wanderings in Hungary, by H. Ellen Browning (Longmans, Green, and Co., Second Edition, 1897)
- Euphemism for the British expletive “bloody,” which remained extremely profane well into the 20th century. ↑