Narcyza, Our Contemporary

The first Polish woman writer to focus on women’s experiences and issues that particularly affected women’s lives.

On the bicentenary of her birth, Polish writer Narcyza Żmichowska is more relevant than ever. Though only one of her novels has been translated into English, her poetry, letters, and prose influenced feminist thinkers for generations after her death. Read on to learn about Żmichowska’s portrayals of same-sex relationships and her forward-thinking views on womanhood and religion. 

Narcyza Żmichowska (1819-1876), author of novels, other prose including educational tracts, poetry, and a vast lifelong correspondence, is regarded by feminists and literary historians as the first Polish woman writer to focus on women’s experiences and issues that particularly affected women’s lives. Often referred to as a “proto-feminist,” she was in fact a feminist by any standard, that is, someone who analysed discrimination against women on grounds of their gender and fought against it, in her case with the pen. She was not a “suffragette” fighting for political rights. The political context of the nineteenth-century Polish lands, divided since 1795 between three partitioning empires, where Polish men also had no political rights, is crucial to understanding the emphasis of her struggle; free-thinking women of her generation were confronted not only by a conservative, predominantly Catholic society with its ideologically entrenched ideals of womanhood, but also by political censorship that suppressed any mention of Polish political independence. That said, many of the issues Narcyza Żmichowska addressed were, in broad terms, similar to those addressed by women across Europe. Well-read in French but also other literatures in French translation and abreast of major developments in European science, including Darwinism, Żmichowska was a European writer par excellence, a fact generally unappreciated thanks to the relative obscurity of nineteenth-century women writing in Polish and other “periphery” languages, caused by their marginalisation by traditional mainstream literary criticism in their own countries and by the lack of translations.

Born in the same year as George Eliot at the opposite end of Europe, and in a completely different geopolitical environment (born in Warsaw, Żmichowska spent most of her life in the Russian partition and was a subject of the Tsar), she was likewise phenomenally self-educated in all philosophical and scientific topics of the day, and wrestled with many similar problems: women’s education and employment, their access to money as the cornerstone of independence, their confinement in marriage, problems faced by women writers in getting published, the role of women artists, as well as more broadly: class discrimination, greater emphasis on everyday life experience (Eliot’s “working-day world”) and small acts of goodness than on large-scale political movements, and unconventional religious affiliations. On the more personal level, both authors enjoyed close relationships with brothers; Narcyza experienced intense relationships with two of her brothers that mirror Eliot’s attachment to her brother Isaac, and found expression, as in the case of Tom and Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss, in several of her novels. Żmichowska was an admirer of Eliot, whom she read initially in French translations before learning English, as she was of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë, believing all three to be more insightful regarding women’s psychology than the French writer George Sand, whom she also read. There is no evidence that George Eliot ever knew of Narcyza Żmichowska’s existence.

This year, however, events have been held in Britain and in Poland to celebrate the bicentenary of Żmichowska’s birth and thereby enhance her visibility, emphasising her continued relevance to women today. In particular, Brixton Library, as part of Lambeth Libraries LBGT+ History Month, hosted a presentation in February by her present-day “Enthusiasts” (a reference to the radical group of emancipationist women surrounding her in the 1840s): bilingual poets and translators Anna Błasiak and Maria Jastrzębska, and the translator into English of the only novel by Żmichowska to be translated into any language (The Heathen, 1846, trans. 2012), Ursula Phillips. Żmichowska’s foregrounding of female friendship and sisterhood, her emphasis on women’s reliance on themselves, on the potential for fulfilled lives without dependence on men, the conviction that women’s identity should not be determined by male perspectives but by their own, and the key matter of financial independence, were points discussed by the participants that found a lively resonance in the audience: domestic violence against women, the #MeToo movement, sexist and stereotypical images of women in advertising and some public media, and verbal abuse of women on social media were some of the topics mentioned.

George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) felt bound, like the Brontë sisters, to write under a male pseudonym because of the prejudices of publishers and reviewers towards women’s literary production. Eliot retained the pseudonym even when it became known who she was. Żmichowska also used a pseudonym to initially hide her identity but, interestingly, it was a female one: Gabriella. There are differing theories as to its origin: was it a reference to the “Sapphic” poet Gabrielle Soumet (1814-1886), whom Żmichowska, whose very first published works were poems, may have encountered when she lived in France from 1838-1839, or was it to George Sand’s drama Gabriel (1839), which deals with gender ambiguity?

Speculation as to Żmichowska’s sexual identity dates back to her lifetime. And the choice of this pseudonym may hint at it. In the mid-nineteenth century, same-sex relationships were socially taboo and could only be suggested between the lines. The central love story in her novel The Heathen (Poganka, 1846), between a sensitive young man and an older femme fatale, has been interpreted by various critics, including the renowned Polish playwright Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014) as well as contemporary lesbian writers Sławomira Walczewska (b. 1960) and Izabela Filipiak (b. 1961), as a reflection of an intimate relationship that Żmichowska herself experienced with an aristocratic woman; there is evidence in her contemporary correspondence to support this theory. At the same time, the novel is a frame story wherein aspects are interpreted by a group of other characters. Here, she presents a series of female portraits inspired by the Enthusiasts, seven women taken from real life, followed by portraits of their male companions, based in turn on the equally radical young men associated with the progressive Warsaw journal The Scientific Review, where the novel was serialised. The young people debate “love” in all its personal and social ramifications in a kind of latter-day symposium. The key concept here is not so much emancipation as “enthusiasm”; this term, not used before in the Polish language, was most likely taken from Żmichowska’s reading of French literature, in particular Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807). It suggests not only poetic inspiration (the divine breath, as in its classical origins) but also the ideals of contemporary French social and religious utopianism. To Żmichowska and her group it implied an inspired egalitarian and liberational tendency in both personal and political spheres, a striving for universal good, where the religious and the political are fused.

Given the political repression at the time in the Polish lands, it is usually considered that Żmichowska’s characteristic use of language and metaphor relates first and foremost to the political aspect. For example, there are frequent references to the suffering “mother,” the actual living mother of the main protagonist; but a contemporary Polish reader would also have received them as cryptic allusions to martyred Poland. Such language has been called Aesopian, and was employed to circumnavigate the tsarist censorship. But it is conceivable that Żmichowska also used Aesopian language to conceal something else, namely the socially taboo, and that “enthusiasm” was additionally a euphemism for the love that “may not speak its name.” In the preparations for the Brixton event, the three participants likewise found themselves in danger of using this broader, more fluid and obscure term in certain contexts in lieu of “lesbian” or “gay,” as a strategy not to publicly alienate present-day conservatives in the Polish community or funding institutions.

The Heathen was the only novel that Żmichowska completed. Several others were nevertheless published in their unfinished forms. Subtle portrayals of same-sex attraction between the main protagonist and several other female figures form the subtext of the 1858 novel White Rose (Biała Róża), as do concerns associated with female authorship, not to mention the more obvious themes of societal objections to women’s education and the protagonist’s refusal to enter conventional marriage. Interestingly, Żmichowska had written an earlier version entitled A Double Life (Dwoiste życie, dated 1849 but not published in her lifetime), which anticipates the heroine’s survival strategy of superficial conformity, since she believes she has no alternative, while creating another secret life of the mind and emotions (as White Rose), not unlike, and even possibly inspired by, Russian writer Karolina Pavlova’s novel A Double Life (Dvoinaia zhizn’, 1848). In the 1849 version, the feminist claims of the female author, a character in the narrative as well as the narrator, are more boldly articulated. The 1858 version reappears, tellingly, within a wider context in the 1861 edition of Żmichowska’s collected works: namely, within a more involved, multi-layered structure of fictional pieces (some novel-length, others very short), commentaries, letters, and philosophical speculations, collectively entitled Several Writings by an Anonymous (Female) Author Published by a Completely Unknown Editor, as though Żmichowska felt more constrained and realised that society was not yet ready for her more radical demands.

Meanwhile, her last published novel, Is This a Novel? (Czy to powieść? 1876), is an attempt to write a woman’s life, that of “a female type between the second and seventh decade of our century,” a period that coincides precisely with Żmichowska’s own lifetime. As the title suggests, she raises uncomfortable questions surrounding the tensions between fiction and autobiography, and between autobiography and authenticity. Originally conceived as a collaborative project with one of her pupils, Wanda Grabowska, the collaboration is actually inscribed anonymously into the fiction. Only the first section was ever completed, and the woman’s own life is not described, yet the work is substantial: 250 pages of printed text in modern editions. After describing the origins of the project, it covers the lives of several generations of women on the heroine’s maternal side stretching back to the beginning of the eighteenth century and provides a very different portrait of the Polish noble manor from the idealised nostalgic portrayals in many other works of Polish poetry and prose: based on memories of family members, it was a place of misery, violence, and repression. What was the aim of this project? Żmichowska always valued practical “unhistoric acts” of goodness, to borrow Eliot’s term, over artistic creativity: writing was meant to serve a purpose, in this case to give succour to contemporary women, or, to quote Carolyn Heilbrun, “to write that other women might live.”

We may ask why these novels remained uncompleted. Perhaps the form of the novel genre, with its omniscient narrator and linear structure, was not suited to the polyphonic nature of Żmichowska’s approach and her need, for the times in which she lived, to present issues indirectly. In contrast, Żmichowska was a prolific letter writer; this freer form appears to have been better suited to expressing her authentic self.

Let us return to the question of Żmichowska’s relevance today, and indeed to the generations of Polish women that succeeded her. The group of Enthusiasts of the 1840s fell apart following the failed uprisings of 1846 and 1848 and Żmichowska’s arrest in 1849. After two years in prison and another two under house arrest in Lublin, she returned to Warsaw in 1855 and devoted herself to education. For several years (until 1862) she was a resident teacher at a girls’ school owned by her friend Julia Baranowska; there, she was surrounded by a second sisterhood, this time of the next generation, including Wanda Grabowska (mentioned above). During 1861-1862, Żmichowska delivered a series of informal lectures on women’s education, where she claimed that women’s academic abilities are commensurate with those of men, yet at the same time develops, within a broader social and spiritual framework, a vision of woman as “equal but different,” thus anticipating in general terms the conceptions of twentieth-century difference feminism; Grabowska published these only in 1902, by which time the debate on women’s education had advanced considerably. Żmichowska was nevertheless an important inspiration for more politically active feminists of the following generation: she had no biological children, but “motherhood” was identified by Cecylia Walewska (1859-1940), a founding member of the Union for the Equal Rights of Polish Women, as the chief characteristic of Żmichowska’s legacy. During the interwar period of 1919-1939, when Poland regained its independence and the national issue became less prominent as a theme in literature, Żmichowska enjoyed a revival. The critic Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński (Grabowska’s son) republished in 1929-1930 the three novels discussed above with his own introductions as well as a volume of her letters to his mother; he too alludes to the same-sex references. Meanwhile, the feminist Irena Krzywicka (1899-1994), in her review of the two novels published by 1929, referred again to the generational aspect: “Napolcia [the heroine of Is this a Novel?] is a woman who already has the courage to be herself . . . And the latest stage—that’s us.” During this period too, a number of scholars, notably Tadeusz Sinko and Wanda Morzkowska-Tyszkowa, explored inspirations for The Heathen in works of German and French literature, thereby revealing the thorough “Europeanness” of Żmichowska’s work.

An aspect that is often neglected in feminist readings of women of the past is their attachment to a faith. However, Żmichowska’s inclusive approach to religion is arguably the key to her egalitarian thinking, just as it may be the clue to her own perception of her true sexuality. Remarkably for a young woman reared exclusively in the Roman Catholic tradition, she rebelled at an early age, attracted first by the philosophers of French utopianism, including Félicité de Lamennais and Pierre Leroux, as her correspondence in the late 1830s and 1840s with her brother Erazm indicates. In the early 1840s, she published three short stories cum religious tracts in a similar utopian futuristic spirit, collectively entitled Excerpts from a Woman’s Journey. But then, in the early 1850s, having read for a second time the entire Bible while still in prison, she converted briefly to the millenarian sect of Andrzej Towiański, regarded by the official church as a heresy, but promoted in Paris by the exiled Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz and notable for its emphasis on the spiritual equality of women. By the 1860s, however, she was exploring non-conformist Protestant and Unitarian movements in Germany and America, as well as Christian denominations that could also accommodate the contemporary developments in modern science, as her correspondence at this time with Izabela Zbiegniewska (1831-1914) testifies. Why did she seek out these more inclusive movements? Was it perhaps because from an early age she was superconscious not only of discrimination against women, but also of her own difference even as a woman?

In a letter to Zbiegniewska from 1870, at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, she makes a prophetic observation, connecting women of the future with pacificism within a decidedly non-canonical understanding of Christian teaching: “Here I have the Moravians and Herrnhütters to choose from. I would vote, however, for some shade of American Quakerism [. . .] think what effect it would have on the future, if several thousand women shrouded in mourning, despairing of their losses, impoverished by plunder, were suddenly to run away and shelter under the care of a religious belief which restrains its followers—in the name of Christ, with the weight of several centuries of history—from war, killing and murder.”

Ursula Phillips is Honorary Research Associate of the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a writer on Polish literary history, and translator of Polish literary and academic works. A major aim has been to introduce works by Polish female authors of the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries to a non-Polish readership. Translations include Maria Wirtemberska’s Malvina, or The Heart’s Intuition (1816) and Narcyza Żmichowska’s The Heathen (1846). She received the Found in Translation Award 2015 for her translation of Zofia Nałkowska’s 1927 novel Choucas and the PIASA (Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America) Wacław Lednicki Award 2017 for her translation of Nałkowska’s Boundary (1935). Parts of her translations of contemporary author Agnieszka Taborska have appeared in online journals, including Asymptote. Her monograph on Narcyza Żmichowska appeared in Poland in Polish in 2008.


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