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Nancy Isenberg, Magdalena Koch, Adriana Kovacheva

Reputation and Reception. Looking east and west and across centuries


This paper explores the interplay between female writer’s reputations as women and their professional reception as writers. Through our work in the WomenWriters database and through discussions during our conferences we have come to know many women writers who in spite of their very different social, economic, cultural and national identities share the biographical trait of having boldly conducted their personal lives and literary careers. Our presentation will focus on three such writers and the connections between the personal and the public-professional facets of their identity: Giustiniana Wynne, an 18th century Anglo-Venetian writer, Isidora Sekuli?, a Serbian modernist writer and Mara Belcheva, a Bulgarian poet and translator. Each of these women made certain decisions in her personal life (or had a reputation for doing so) that defied social norms, and for which she was at some time during her life or later publically scorned or derided. In each case, this negative reputation, which in particular involved ‘questionable’ conduct with notable men, weighed heavily on their literary reception over time.

The 18th-century Giustiniana Wynne, during her lifetime and for several decades after her death, enjoyed a most respectable international fame, but her literary reputation would later be completely overshadowed by an erotic one thanks to a tale in Casanova’s posthumously published memoirs. The reception of the works of Mara Belcheva and Isidora Sekuli? (19th-20th century), on the other hand, was circumscribed by rumours and anecdotes about their marital status and – in Belcheva’s case – about her relationship with the prominent modernist poet Pencho Slavejkov. Their literary works were evaluated throughout the prism of their gender and both writers had to apply different strategies in order to defend their position of independent authors.

We are well aware of the substantial spatial, temporal and linguistic expanse encompassed by Wynne, Belcheva and Sekuli?. We are equally well aware, thanks to working in the database and in the network, that these three women writers are certainly not the only cases, that in fact they are representative – which is why we want to discuss them. We have indeed been able to identify certain common grounds and historical patterns, and therefore to construct a tentative working model that might serve for broader studies.

Based on our comparison of women writers in the Western European 18th century and the Balkan modernist period, we hypothesize, for example, that the former is comparable to the latter as a ‘golden age’ for women writers. In the differences that separate Wynne, Belcheva and Sekuli? in time and space, we also found clues that may help us construct a gender sensitive method for comparing the process of evolution of central (Western European) and peripheral (in this case, Balkan) literary histories and their comparatively disproportionate development. Furthermore by examining the reception over time of Wynne, Belcheva and Sekuli? and by paying special attention to the women’s and men’s networks within which they were well known, accepted or disapproved of as authors, we have been able to identify periods in which central and peripheral European literatures meet as far as the reception of women writers and their works are concerned.

Our study opens a larger discussion about the applicability to the case of women writings of certain theories about Balkan literary history (e.g. Gachev’s theory of accelerated development of literature). It also shows the need for revindicating the (gender sensitive) categories within which literary history has been written in the past, and needs to be studied in the future, in order to make a gendered literary history possible.

SvD, 2 June 2013

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