How Polish Women Writers Tried to Cope With Impossibility
Samanta Gorzelniak, translated by Violeta Topalova
This article focuses on texts by Polish Romanticist authoresses (Tańska-Hoffmanowa, Ewa Felińska, Sabina z Gostkowskich Grzegorzewska und Eleonora Ziemięcka). Its aim is to take a closer look at the utopian ideal of love in Romantic writing and in these female texts in particular. It soon becomes apparent, however, that through their writing these Romanticist women writers were trying to cope with the impossibility of fulfilled love in real life. The two phases of a woman’s life (1. Preparation for marriage and motherhood and 2. life after marriage as housewife and mother) are poignantly represented here. These writers start to deal with the emotion of Love as Leitmotif on the philosophical axis of free will: Are my feelings expressions of my self or rather my reaction to what is expected of me? And can the one be separated from the other?
Furthermore, however – and here this article merges with the topic of this anthology – these Romanticist authoresses contribute significantly to the laying of the foundations of the later women’s emancipation movements. In their writing they indirectly began a chain of communication of women’s topics among women, a chain later generations of women readers and writers could latch on to. In the preface to her anthology Vieldeutiges Nicht-zu-Ende-Sprechen (The ambiguity of unfinished utterances) Arja Rosenholm poignantly expresses an argument supporting the aim of my analysis:
„[…] the various ties and connections between authoresses are of the utmost significance. […] It must be the duty of feminist literary criticism […] to put authoresses and their works in relation to other women writers and their texts, be they contemporary or forgotten by the literary canon. The temporal horizon must be expanded. It is important to put these writings in a temporal context encompassing the past and the future“1 (Rosenholm, 10)
One of the then most widely read authoresses of Polish Romanticism is Klementyna Tańska-Hoffmanowa (1798 – 1845). In 1819 she published her first book: Pamiątka po dobrej matce (Keepsake from a Good Mother), a guidebook for young women regarding behavior, education, and philosophy of life. These guidelines were accompanied by the author’s personal best wishes and recommendations to a fictional daughter.
Klementyna Tańska-Hoffmanowa is one of the more popular female authors of her generation, as far as women writers of Polish Romanticism can be called popular, because their works have not been featured in any literary canon so far.
Tańska-Hoffmanowa had a career as a teacher and educator for girls. From 1825 she taught at the Instytut Rządowy Wychowania Płci Żeńskiej (Government Instutute of Education for the Female Sex), from 1828 she was inspector of the girls‘ schools in Warsaw (Borkowska, Czermińska and Phillips, 42). She only wrote guidebooks and rulebooks for conduct aimed at children – especially girls and young women and thus supported education for girls, which was not a given at the time. The pedagogic touch of her texts is unmissable. In her writings Tańska-Hoffmanowa also dealt with topics like Polish history, Christian religion and morale. But most importantly she wanted to prepare girls for their roles as housewife and mother. Girls should not study religious matters intensively, they should learn unquestioning piety. They should read, but not too much and only carefully selected pieces of literature. They should just „stay women“ and not aspire to more than their gendered socialization granted them. This postulation illustrates the gendered hierarchization in the hegemonial discourse of Polish society at the time.
„I cannot bear the ignorant voices demanding that […] women should teach alongside men, take part in government affairs and hold even the highest of offices. Apparently they should cease to be women […] alas! How terribly wrong is the woman who wants to be more than what God has destined her for!“2 (Hoffmanowa, 10)
Writing literature with didactic tendencies that supported such patriarchal, misogynist structures gave women an advantage: they had to remain in their niche as female authors but at least they could publish3. If this ostentatious femininity is read as a rhetoric rather than a natural category, it shows a willingness to comply with the given patriarchal environment for the chance to at least act publicly in restricted parameters. „Female emancipation is verbosely fractured in the male distorting mirror“4 (Ritz, 378), Ritz describes the general public’s reaction to published literature written by women. The authoresses therefore merely knew how to strategically work their masque of femininity and use it for their literary work, because they were confronted with a rigid mentality that strictly separated the two sexes. As Johann Gottlieb Fichte found, when he thought about love and the difference between the sexes:
„In a pure woman there is no venereal desire. It does not live in her bosom, but only love: And this love is the natural wish to satisfy a man […] for woman it is only a satisfaction of the heart. Her only desire is to love and be loved in return […] Love is to sacrifice oneself for another […] following such a natural desire.“5 (Fichte, 310–1)
Accordingly, for Tańska-Hoffmanowa happiness is to keep ones goals modest and suppress every desire and spark of rebellion – to avoid disappointment. On the other hand she motivates her readers to read extensively, educate themselves, to select good literature, and do so as early as possible:
„[…] Read little, but carefully selected books. Start to develop your intellect, it will adorn you. Sow in your youth, so that you may reap in your old age. […] In your virtues and in your studies never go backward, only forward. […] Do not wait for life to happen, but live in the present moment.“6 (Hoffmanowa, 243–4)
Especially the end of this passage is very salient and daring: Hoffmanowa basically equates the process of education with life itself (in the sense of being alive). Her advice to not wait for life to happen but rather seize the present moment fits into my thesis of Romantic women-writers trying to alter Utopia, the inaccessible, impossible time of happiness (I call it Uchronia, but more of that further on) and transform it into a liveable, possible, accessible time. In contrast to Luhmann’s claim of the 19th century starting to orient the idea of love towards the future7, I read in these tangible, real texts by women the desire to anchor love in the present. They search for livable love in the here and now instead of in vague and unreachable Utopia. This close relation to reality is the result of an emerging process of negotiating and reinterpreting the concept of love in contact with the following generation.
Tańska-Hoffmanowa gathered a circle of fellow writers around herself. The relationship she established with other women-writers as well as with the following generation of reading and writing women, will reappear later in this paper in the context of the chain of communication. These women recognized issues that were common to all of them and realized how relevant they were for the individual happiness of women, who were exposed to social mechanisms such as violence, power and hegemony only because of their gendered socialization. This recognition – and the act of communication that lies behind this act of Reading/Writing – are decisive factors for later developments in feminist and other social movements.
The book Pamiątka po dobrej matce reads as the last words of a dying mother to her underage daughter, a fictional and generic daughter, as the book is addressed to all young woman readers collectively. In her monograph about Narcyza Żmichowska (1819–1876), a Polish woman-writer of the generation directly following Tańska-Hoffmanowa’s era, Ursula Phillips describes among other things the influence of Tańska-Hoffmanowa’s writing on Żmichowska’s philosophy of life. This philosophy in turn applied in Żmichowska’s educational works for young women (Phillips, 2008). But let’s dwell on Tańska-Hoffmanowa’s Pamiątka po dobrej matce, focusing on the chapter o małżeństwie (on marriage).
“A young person, pleasant, well-behaved, well-off, can be sure of being married later on if she so wishes. You combine all these advantages, Amelia! So it can be taken for granted that one day you’ll be a wife.”8 (Hoffmanowa, 214)
Marriage is here depicted as desirable and apparently it is necessary and worthwhile to aquire a certain set of virtues in order to achieve it. A woman’s life at the time was ideally separated in the phase of preparation for marriage and wedlock and the phase of life as a wife.
When Tańska-Hoffmanowa wrote these words, she was only 24 years old, unmarried and childless. Despite appearances her writing is not autobiographical; during her writing process (for us the reading consumption process) she draws the book to a close; we see that she writes till her narrators death. Her fiction is addressed to daughters in general. On a superficial reading level the authoress encourages her readers to learn virtuousness in order to become a good wife and live a fulfilled life.
As many others Ewa Felińska (1793 – 1859), another contemporaneous women-writer, also seems to glorify marriage:
“Love stretches out its hand to lead toward an unknown homeland, a land which is promised to every woman. Its smile is so sweet, so encouraging, the palm of its hand so warm, the arm so strong […] it seems that long imagined things become reality, and the soul is full of confidence […]”9 (Felińska, 6)
Felińska calls this “rzeczywistość“, the reality of what awaits a woman. This uchronian (in allusion to utopian) space full of love – and I wish to emphasize that Uchronia (just like Utopia) is never reachable – is omnipresent in the prose of the Polish romantic women-writers whom I discuss here. The term Uchronia describes a wonderful expected time, Utopia an future place. But both of them, Uchronia as well as Utopia, are not accessible. Uchronia is derived from Utopia, it does not concern an unreachable place (utopian spaces are defined by their non-existance), but a time that will never come. A happy marriage is a Uchronia. The stories – based on life experiences – written by these female writers taught the readers that the ideal of love is a Utopia – and the happy marriage a Uchronia. Romanticism is not only characterized by proposing an unreachable goal, but also by an aversion to reaching the goal. This thought circulates again and again: it recalls the desiring-machine of Deleuze and Guattari: that desire itself is the productive force (Deleuze, Rösch and Guattari) overall.
So the impulse for writing in my field of research was desire – writing about a never achievable Uchronia; an utopian future. Here are texts about love that demand virtuous behavior, and texts about desires which are forever out of reach. If we take a look at the social context of the time, we see that women simply had to cope with existing structures – especially writing, self-authorizing women. Yet the inner mechanisms of these texts do not present this tension as a problem, but rather as an exigency. What I wish to propose, to uncover, is this: the production of such a utopian text is, more or less, a subversive strategy on the part of the subordinated subjects for coping with such tensions – tensions that exist as real facts in real life. The texts of the women-writers are based on a romantic ideal of love they are constantly confronted with – in a world in which identities are formed based on the dichotomy of the sexes. Luhmann calls this complementary asymmetry – woman is the Other of man. Gender identities are perceived as essentially different, which results in the dichotonomous pair Identity and Alterity.
My thesis is that the guidance-literature of these female romanticist authors uses the love-ideal of Romanticism as a model in order to anchor this utopian love-ideal in real life and real living, while at the same time exposing it as a Utopia/Uchronia. This method transforms Uchronia, the inaccessible, impossible future into a liveable, possible time and reality – based on the willingness to compromise, however. Apart from recognizing common issues and their relevance for the individual happiness among women this paper focuses on the communicative act behind the process of reading and writing.
Rousseau, then one of the most widely read and discussed authors on educational ideas, wrote about moral and amatory relationships between women and men:
“In the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way. From this diversity arises the first assignable difference in the moral relations of the two sexes. One ought to be active and strong, the other passive and weak. One must necessarily will and be able; it suffices that the other put up little resistance. Once this principle is established, it follows that women is made specially to please men. If men ought to please her in turn, it is due to a less direct necessity. His merit is in his power; he pleases by the sole fact of his strength. This is not the law of love, I agree. But it is that of nature, prior to love itself (Rousseau, 358).”
So, according to Rousseau, the morality of this fixed realistic relationship between women and men results from the very simple doctrine of nature, that is very hard to contradict. The only way to deal with this exigency, this rigid and strong construct, was to create a chain of communication.
The dogmatic belief in the naturality of the sexes could only be softened through the centuries by making it a issue, then questioning it and gradually making it negotiable and a matter that could be discussed. Such a discussion can be observed very clearly with the discourse of love.
These women took a first step in the direction we call the feminist movement – albeit a very small step. They openly recognized the issues that had relevance for all of them, that unified them and made them similar. But of course, they didn’t have the words we have to voice their needs. I read the efforts of these women-writers, of their work, to connect each other first and foremost in their ambition to speak to succeeding generations of women. Hence the chain of communication in question is primarily an imaginary link between the generations. The possibility to get in touch with each other was created by women who used their „natural“ feminine morality – as a strategy – and addressed themselves to other women. Writing non-relevant literature (in sense of non-canonical-literature) specifically for women, these authoresses excluded men. They were on the hand marginal – but they used their margin status to communicate with others.
Several steps were necessary to form such an alliance. Tańska-Hoffmanowa, Felińska and other contemporary (writing about 1800 – 1840) authoresses mostly didn’t know each other, but they chose similar imaginary addressees: daughters, young women, grandmothers and other undefined women. The titles of their books are Karolina (Caroline); Krystyna (Christin); Amelia matką (Amelia as a mother); Aniela czyli ślubna obrączka (Amelia or the wedding ring); Siestrzenica i ciotka (Niece and aunt); odwiedziny babuni (Grandma’s Visit) etc. This first move in the direction of an alliance was necessary for the next generation of women-writers.
They did not have terms like feminism, women’s movement, misogyny or emancipation at their disposal, and they were only vaguely aware of the imbalance of power in the unequal relationship of the (only two) sexes. By idealizing woman, Romanticist literature concealed the hierarchical assignment of gender roles and can therefore be regarded as a form of misogyny that is hard to detect.
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1 „[…] die verschiedensten An- und Verknüpfungen zwischen AutorInnen sind von wesentlicher Bedeutung. […] Aufgabe der feministischen Literaturkritik […] ist es auch, einzelne Autorinnen und ihre Schriften in eine literarische Beziehung zu andren schreibenden Frauen und deren Texten zu setzen, zu den jeweiligen Zeitgenossinen wie auch zu denjenigen, die vom Kanon vergessen worden sind; und so den zeitlichen Horizont zu erweitern. Es ist wichtig, die Schriften in Bezug sowohl zur Vergangenheit als auch zur Zukunft zu setzen.“
2 „Znieść nie mogę, kiedy się głos jaki nierozsądny odezwie i twierdzi: że […] równe mężczyznom [kobiety] powinny posiadać nauki, do rządu należeć, ledwie że nie pierwsze piastować urzędy, i chyba nie być kobietami. […] Ach! jak okropnie błądzi kobieta, która więcéj chce być nad to, na co ją Bóg przeznaczył!“
3 „Die Frauenliteratur entwickelt sich auf der Achse der didaktischen Literatur. […] das Modell der didaktischen Literatur bedeutet für die schreibenden Frauen nicht nur ein Abdrängen in die pädagogische Provinz, sondern es garantiert ihr gerade in der utilitaristischen Ausrichtung des Schreibens auch den Zugang zur Öffentlichkeit.“ (Ritz, 378–9)
4 „Die weibliche Emanzipation bricht sich wortreich im männlichen, satirischen Zerrspiegel“
5 „Im unverdorbenen Weibe äußert sich kein Geschlechtstrieb, und wohnt kein Geschlechtstrieb, sondern nur Liebe: und diese Liebe ist der Naturtrieb des Weibes, einen Mann zu befriedigen. […] für das Weib ist es nur Befriedigung des Herzens. Ihr Bedürfnis ist nur das, zu Lieben und geliebt zu seyn. […] Liebe aber ist es, wenn man um des Anderen willen […] zufolge eines Naturtriebs sich aufopfert.“
6 „ […] czytaj mało, ale dobrze dobrane książki, zawczasu pracuj nad ozdobą umysłu swego, zasiewaj z młodu, abyś w późniejszym wieku zbiérać mogła. […] tak w cnotach jak w naukach, nie wstecz, ale naprzód idź zawsze. […] nie czekaj życia, żyj w obecnéj chwili.“
7 „Im 17. jahrhundert […] musste gesagt werden oder sich herausstellen, dass der Liebhaber ein Prinz oder in anderer Weise ein ebenbürtiger Bewerber war. Im 19.Jahrhundert tritt an diese Stelle die Erklärung der Heiratsabsicht. Die Zusatzerklärung bezieht sich nun nicht mehr auf die Vergangenheit, sondern auf die Zukunft […].“ (Luhmann, 187)
8„Młoda osoba, przyjemna, dobrze wychowana, majętna, pewną być może, że pójdzie za mąż, jeśli tylko będzie chciała. – Łączysz te wszystkie korzyści, Amelio! Sądzić więc można, że kiedyś żoną będziesz.”