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Ursula Phillips

Narcyza ?michowska: Transgressing Gender in a Transnational Literary Context


My proposal is to discuss the one novel by Narcyza ?michowska (1819-1876), Poganka (1846, revised 1861) It is entitled in my translation (2012)* The Heathen. At the conference I will not address problems of present-day translation or cultural transference.

Instead I shall discuss two other "trans" aspects of this complex novel. The first aspect is the novel’s role as a product of contemporary European literary culture. I see it not so much as the expression of Polish national specificity (the usual interpretation), but of ?michowska’s assimilation of the European, and especially French literary heritage, and therefore accessible to anyone also familiar with the texts she was inspired by. She was fluent in French, and read the texts in the original French. She did not use translations into Polish (Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, for example, was translated into Polish only in 1853, by ?ucja Rautenstrauchowa). Later, she also read English literature (Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot) — first in French translations, but then in English; however, the current paper will concentrate on the time of The Heathen and her reading in the period leading up to it (1835-1846).

The literary influences on The Heathen are manifold and come from classical and contemporary German as well as French literature. I shall limit myself to discussing the importance for this novel of De Staël’s Corinne (1807) and De l’Allemagne (1810), most crucially the concept of “enthousiasme” as explicated in these two works and ?michowska’s transference of this notion into the Polish cultural domain and its bearing on certain aspects of The Heathen, such as the nature of the group of “protofeminists” in the frame (whom ?michowska designated: The Enthusiasts) and their discussions with male colleagues about “love”. I will also discuss George Sand’s Lélia (1833, revised 1839), in particular the probable influence of Sand’s protagonist on the personality of Aspasia, the heroine or anti-heroine of ?michowska’s tale, depending on how one interprets it.

I shall mention briefly, by way of contrast, the negative reception of these and similar texts by some of ?michowska’s female contemporaries, who had a more narrow, nationalistic approach underscored by traditional patriarchal models of femininity, and saw French influences as “dangerous”. The specific example will be the novel Karolina (1839) by Klementyna Ta?ska-Hoffmanowa (1798-1845), a thinly disguised fictional polemic with Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Varvara de Krüdener’s Valérie (1804) and De Staël’s Delphine (1802).

The second aspect of The Heathen that I would like to highlight is the transgender. I suggest a possible inspiration was Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) and the idea of a “third” sex or hitherto undefined sexual identity — there are many instances of sexual ambivalence in ?michowska’s novel, surrounding the “hero” Benjamin. Is this a novel in fact about a same-sex relationship (heavily disguised, but reflecting the author’s actual experience?) hidden behind a contemporary literary cliché (a vulnerable, sensitive and gifted young man with high ideals of romantic love, seduced and betrayed by an older femme fatale with cynical or demonic motives)?

Depending on time, I will include positive reactions to this interpretation from certain Polish writers and critics: Tadeusz Boy-?ele?ski, Irena Krzywicka, Tadeusz Ró?ewicz, S?awomira Walczewska, Izabela Filipiak, spanning several generations — though it is only the interwar critic Tadeusz Sinko who has so far linked ?michowska’s text to Gautier.

  • To be published by the Northern Illinois University Press on 15 November 2012.

SvD, November 2012

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