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A Great Woman and a Great Writer



Maria Rodziewiczówna: (i) before cutting her hair off, (ii) as a young farm manager, (iii) as an established Dame of Letters, (iv) in a bomb shelter during the Warsaw Uprising 1944.


80 years after her death, most of Maria Rodziewiczówna’s books remain in print, which is a testament to the timeless appeal of her prose. Yet, though she has her adherents (the Nobelist Czesław Miłosz said he read her compulsively), and remains popular with modern readers, she has been generally panned by critics, mainly on account of her unusual personality: she was a man-dressing lesbian, in a man’s job (a farm manager), living in a menage-a-trois with two women (not a fashionable lifestyle in 1900, though who knows if there was not a bit of envy there); she championed Catholic traditions (and was thus anathema to socialists); but did so only because she valued the sense of belonging such traditions engendered, while she herself was a Theosophist (which made her anathema to Catholics); and, a child and lifetime patriot of one of the most ethnically mixed regions of Europe (Polesie, today’s Western Belarus) she firmly rejected the emerging narrowly ethnic-based Polish nationalism of the prewar Polish regime. The critics who wrote about her in her lifetime concentrated on those aspects, having very little to say about the quality of her writing itself, except vague, banal, and often wrong generalities. But the critical kiss of death came under communism. The communist regime treated the teaching of literature as part of ideological indoctrination. To this purpose, some Polish authors (like Mickiewicz) were reinterpreted in schools, universities, and publishing as proto-communists, others were completely struck out form the record (Miłosz, Mackiewicz), and Maria, who was too popular to make her disappear and too recalcitrantly non-normative and too loyal to old Polish traditions to make her into an early communist heroine somehow, was ascribed the dismissive label of “Romatic twaddle.” This label has stuck and, as academic opinions will, is often repeated by modern scholars, including many who have never read one book by her.

But Maria is a wise and sensitive writer, and her prose can be astonishing. This is how she describes spring in Siberia, on the Tobol river (in my worthless translation):

AT last, the glorious spring days came, and the Siberian winter was gone. It did not retreat slowly as it does in the temperate climes, it did not offer a fight: it turned around and ran away, utterly crushed in the course of an afternoon.

Only the day before, a cold north wind blew, the snow lay heavy on the ground, and the ice was thick. But far to the south, in the warm desert, a mighty wind arose and rushed up north and fell like a hurricane upon the country. It came during the night and poured a stream of hot air over the ice and snow. And behold! In the morning, the Tobol shuddered and became dark. Then the ice broke, and from beneath it, water burst in jets. Floating chunks of ice commenced drifting northward, crushing, piling up on one another, crowding in on the shores, diving, and floating up, and announcing their march toward the north with a roar as of hundreds of cannons discharged all at once.

The mighty wind from the desert followed them, annihilating the snow on the steppe, striking the frozen swamp and the bunches of dried-up bushes, warming the hard ground, and hurrying on to the northern ocean.

Romantic twaddle, my foot!

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