Vacations

Amazing Women Travelers of the Past: Mária Fáy, Mocsáry Béláné


One of the first Hungarian woman travel writers, Mária Fáy, also known by her married name, Mocsáry Béláné (Mrs. Mocsáry Béla: the -né suffix added to the man’s name means Mrs.), traveled extensively around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an era when few women traveled, even with a companion, she traveled throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Not only did she travel, mostly alone, but described her journeys in several books, published in Hungary between 1899 and 1905.

Why Mária Fáy?

When I decided to write a post about pioneer women travelers and travel writers I realized that I knew little of women who traveled in the past. As much as I read accounts from men travelers in the past, especially in the nineteenth century, I haven’t heard of women who traveled.

As I started researching women travelers and travel writers, I ran into the name Mocsáry Béláné, Mária Fáy.

Obviously, when her Hungarian name popped up as one of the first women travel writers (from anywhere) in the world, I was intrigued. Also a bit ashamed. As a Hungarian woman, I should have known about her. I guess growing up in Transylvania after it became part of Romania, at least partially explains it. So now here I am, in my fifties, living in America, finally learning about her – only because I am making it a point to research women travel writers. But better late than never… Then I realized that she started traveling alone in her late 40s, and publishing in her fifties. I was hooked, but I found little information about her.

So I signed up for a JSTOR account, where I found an academic paper written about her by Balázs Venkovits for the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, titled Proof of What a Hungarian Woman Is Capable Of: Travels of Mrs. Mocsáry in the United States and Mexico.

Being a Hungarian woman, the title intrigued me. Also, by now I realized that I was going about it all wrong. She was Hungarian, so why was I researching her in English?

As soon as I changed the language, I found more articles written about her. After reading about her everything I found on the Internet, I learned the story of a curious, educated Hungarian woman traveler and travel writer from the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th. In a nutshell, the following is what I found out about early Hungarian women travelers in general and specifically Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária.

Women Travelers, Specifically Hungarian Women Travelers in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, travel and travel writing was a privilege in Europe, dominated by the upper class male society. However, improvements to the transportation system in most of the world was making it more attainable, so even women started to travel. At least upper class women. Most, with her husbands, but a few started traveling alone.

Education was also more attainable for women, who learned to read and write, and some upper class women in Europe also learned foreign languages. Especially in smaller countries, like Hungary.

Still, traveling for women posed not only more dangers, but was still going against social norms and expectations. Women travelers, especially those who decided to travel alone, faced prejudice and judgement. 

Women who traveled, especially those who decided to write and publish their accounts were considered strange, though exceptional, but still members of the “weaker, less intelligent” sex. Their accounts were not taken as seriously as those of their male counterparts.

Still, they traveled and wrote about their journeys. By 1889, Hungarian women started writing travelogues either as coauthors with their husbands or on their own. Mária Fáy was one of these women, and the first one who traveled alone, the first one taken seriously enough to be published in the Hungarian Geographical Society’s magazine.

Who Was Mária Fáy

Born in Pomáz, Hungary on October 21st, 1845, Mária Fáy was the daughter of the well-off landowners Ignác Fáy and Francisca Kennessey. Since her mother died when she was only one year old, her father and his former guardian, writer András Fáy raised her, assuring that she had a great education. By the time she was fourteen, Mária was fluent in several languages, besides playing the piano and needlecrafts, two endevours more acceptable for women at the time.

Her father liked to travel, and often took her with him on his trips, most often to Venice and Vienna, among other places. Those trips started a lifelong passion for travel.

She was 16 when she married Béla Mocsáry, a landowner and avid traveler, who was her companion on multiple trips through Europe. The couple traveled extensively, visiting Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium, England, and Germany.

Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária, the World Traveler

The couple never had kids, and when her husband died in 1890, Mocsáryné Mária Fáy leased out her estate and set off on more extensive travels. In her fifties, she traveled alone, visiting Africa, India, and America, besides Europe.

Her first solo travels took her through the Tatra Mountains in her own country, and to Transylvania. For her next trip, in 1893, she ventured farther from her homeland. She didn’t go alone though.

She took her sister, Margit Beniczky, with her on this trip to the Balkans and the Middle East. The two women travelers visited Greece, Turkey, Palestine, and Egypt.

Mária Fáy learned English in two months during this trip, a language she would use later, on her next adventures.

Portrait of Mária Fáy, Mrs Mocsáry Béla. public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária from around 1901. Author unknown, photo public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Mária Fáy’s First Solo Trip and First Book

A few months after returning to her home country, she embarked on her first solo trip. This time she visited India, the Himalayas, and the Island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka today), places she dreamed of seeing since childhood.

The trip took her three months, and resulted in her first book, titled Notes from India and Ceylon, published in 1899, and released again with more details in 1901 and 1902. She donated all proceeds from the book to charities helping women and orphan children in Hungary at the time.

Like all women travel writers at the time, she was apologetic, stating that her accounts were only tourist description, intended as easy reads for women, in no way meant to compete with the travel accounts of her male counterparts.

If indeed she meant this, or it was the only way to get her book published, we’ll never know. Regardless, her accounts were taken seriously enough to get published in the Geographical Journal. She also became a member of the Hungarian Geographical Society, which prided itself of being the first society of its kind to include women members since its foundation, in 1872.

Travels to the Americas

Next, Mária Fáy traveled to North America. On her first trip on the continent, in 1896, she traveled through the US, including Alaska. On a later trip she also traveled through Mexico.

She published the accounts of her travels through the United States and Mexico as articles in two major, though very different publications. Her accounts published in the Geographical Journal had a more scholarly approach. Her more popular travelogues were published in the mainstream magazine, the Magyar Szalon, read by the general population.

While traveling in the Americas she took lots of photos to illustrate her books and articles. Partially because of her photos, but also because there weren’t many accounts of travels through the Americas in Hungary at the time, her travelogues were popular, in spite of being written by a woman.

Writing about the United States

Her accounts were a tourist view of North America, written in a descriptive, objective style. Her privileged background was obvious from her descriptions of the best hotels and places considered “tourist attractions” at the time.

She created early travel guides for future tourists by including tips of where to find the best hotels, prices of accommodations, different services, even adding what to wear in different setting or occasions. She had a journalistic approach, keeping her feelings, thoughts, and opinions hidden through her writing.

Writing about Mexico

When writing about Mexico, she also focused on tourist attractions. She visited Mexico City and a few other major cities, writing about places as destinations for future tourists to visit.

But her main contribution to travel writing about Mexico was a new way of looking at the country. Up until then Mexico was generally depicted by European writers as a dangerous country full of bandits. She strayed from this view, depicting Mexico a country safe enough for a woman to visit alone.

Mária Fáy’s Contribution to Travel Writing

Tourist guides and travelogues, the works of Mrs. Mocsáry Mária Fáy were neutral, didn’t include social commentaries or comments on politics. These were subjects unacceptable for women to get involved in at the time, and she was able to keep her accounts neutral. Instead, she focused on scenery and tourist sites.

Mrs. Mocsáry provided Hungarians with one of the first views of Mexico and the United States by a woman traveler. Though she was not the first Hungarian woman travel writer, she was the first to travel alone and write about the experience.

Her description of Mexico was one of the first written without comparing the country to its northern neighbor, the United States. Although her accounts lack depth, they provided an original account as a tourist (as reflected through her privileged background), and she offered a view of what was worth visiting. She moved away from the former depictions of Mexico in Europe as a country of bandits, depicting it safe enough for a woman to travel alone. 

In an age when travel writing was clearly dominated by white men, reflecting their point of view, Mária Fáy wrote as a woman, addressing to other women mainly (in her preface to one of her early books, she states that she intended her works as “light reading” for women from Hungary), inspiring them to travel, not only as companions to their husbands, but on their own when they can.

Though her travels were only possible because she had enough funds, and they reflect her privileged status, she used her status for good. Not only did she open new horizons for women, she donated all proceeds from her book sales, and more from her estates, to charities. She was helping a few organizations focusing on orphan children and women.

Mocsáry Béláné Mária Fáy’s published books:

Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária: India and Ceylon Notes, Budapest, 1899.
Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária: Journey to the East, Budapest, 1901.
Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária: My Journey on the West Coast of North America, Budapest, 1902.
Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária: My Journey to Mexico: Travel Notes, Budapest, 1905

Bibliography:

Venkovits Balázs: Proof of What a Hungarian Woman Is Capable Of: Travels of Mrs. Mocsáry in the United States and Mexico.Hungarian journal of English and Hungarian studies vol. 21, no 1 spring 2015. 

Terebess Asia Lexicon: Mocsáry Béláné Fáy Mária

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