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Zsuzanna Varga

Bertalan and Polixéna: two 19th-century Hungarian Travellers Negotiating Alterity


My proposed paper offers an examination of the travelogue of Polixéna Wesselényi, the first Hungarian female travel writer who authored a monograph-length text and also exerted considerable cultural influence on her contemporaries. Her narrative, Travels in Italy and Switzerland, narrates the Countess’ s travels to Italy and Switzerland in 1835. Her Travels describe not only visual and aesthetic experiences, but also acutely document national stereotypes of other fellow-travellers from a specifically gendered perspective. Her understanding of alterity consists in focusing on gendered and domestic relations between Italians. This represents a marked contrast with the work of male Hungarian 19th-century Reform Age travellers (1825-1848), such as Bertalan Szemere and József Irinyi, who attempted to grasp concepts of alterity and difference through patterns of public behaviour in the political domain in England, France and Germany, and often articulated and promoted concepts of social and political development.

The most important, shared feature between male and female texts is the acute interest in the processes of double mirroring as seen in the systematic reiteration of the perception and opinion of Hungarians abroad. The contrast between Hungarian travellers’ keen and systematic, learned interest in Italy and France and England, and the misguided knowledge about Hungarians abroad lays bare an imbalanced power relationship between parts of Europe that Hungarian travellers are keen to document and also overcome by recording their travels. Polyxéna’s travel narrative, significantly less known by the posterity than those of her male contemporaries, offers a particularly gendered dimension of illustrating the imbalance. The revisiting of her work offers an important addition to the history of women’s travel writing in the 19th century.

Ask, September 2012

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