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Ursula Phillips

Join the Action! Polish Women Writers before 1900: Production, Context and Reception


In this presentation I shall try to give a brief survey of the genres of writing in which Polish women were active from the 1550s until 1900, mentioning some of the more important figures. I shall swiftly review the general scholarly surveys, significant collections of articles, and bibliographical work that has so far been done on Polish women writers—the so-called “archaeological work,” as well as subsequent critical research, pointing out where gaps still remain. Opportunities for women to get published, as well as critical reception, will be considered. A significant issue in recent scholarship has been the impact of Western feminism and feminist theory: how has this been received by Polish critics working in this field? How has it been helpful, and where are the limits to its usefulness? - or rather what are the tensions between the “imported” theory and Polish women’s “own tradition,” if indeed we can speak of one?

I will pay heed to the larger, historical and ideological contexts of Polish women writers’ reception of European literature, and more specifically of other women’s texts, and to their own reception in Polish speaking regions and sometimes beyond. Of particular interest is the reception of e.g. Stéphanie de Genlis, Germaine de Staël, George Sand, Frederica Bremer, the Brontës, George Eliot (I will briefly refer to two chapters of my book on Narcyza ?michowska, where I illustrate how she drew on the conception of “enthusiasm” as exemplified by De Staël’s De l’Allemagne and Corinne; and how her version of “feminism” and attitude to religion coincides on many points with her almost exact contemporary, George Eliot).

In the 19th century, when there was no such country as Poland — it was partitioned in three stages, between 1772 and 1795, between its neighbours Russia, Austria and Prussia; all literary activity, conditions for publication and reception, as well as issues of censorship, were affected by these different political, religious and ideological contexts. The restoration of Polish statehood now became the dominant theme of Polish literary activity, while literature (written in the Polish language) was seen as a crucial element in preserving Polish culture and national identity. This engendered specific patterns of “patriotic” behaviour, for men as well as women, most significantly the “Polish Mother” stereotype, which combined aspects of patriotic self-sacrifice with ideals of submissive femininity. Polish women writers reacted in different ways to this cultural pressure, sometimes embodying complex interactions between national, religious and sexual identities: six different cases will be briefly discussed: Anna Mostowska (1762-1833?), Maria Wirtemberska (1768-1854), Klementyna Ta?ska-Hoffmanowa (1798-1845), Eleonora Ziemie?ska (1815-1869), Narcyza ?michowska (1819-1876) and Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841-1910).

AsK, September 2012

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