Reading Between the Lines
Updated: May 20, 2022
A SUMMER OF THE FOREST FOLK: READING BETWEENTHE LINES
I have been reading this book, on and off, for 50 years—sometimes cover to cover, sometimes just a few pages at a time before going to sleep or while taking an afternoon break.
Why would anyone do that?
Well, for the best of reasons: pure hedonistic pleasure. And the very many layers of it: the many layers of pleasure.
On the surface
Even on the most superficial reading, A Summer of the Forest Folk is a joy. On its surface, it is a simple, heart-warming story of the healing power of nature: three city men spending a summer in a remote forest cottage, far from the maddening crowds and pressures of modern city life. The place to which the three retreat lies (the Pinsk Marshes, in today’s Byelarus) is the largest surviving stand of virgin forest in Europe. It is a mixture of forest, meadow, and marsh and is home to thousands of species of birds, fish, moose, elk, deer, wolf, bear, fox, lynx, snake, and the last remaining European bison. Early in the 20th century, three people had a cottage there and spent their summers hiking, fishing, growing vegetables in the garden, bird watching, picking mushrooms, and helping locals with simple farm tasks. If, like me, you are a nature lover forced to live in a city, the escape the book provides is itself enough to enjoy it.
It also helps that the book is beautifully written. If, like me, you have spent a lot of your life dealing with texts, you may have, from time to time, become fed up with well-written Strunk and White prose and may well wish for an occasional gulp of something more unashamedly poetic. And, to my ear, this book provides that. There it is, on page one:
We shall talk about an ancient people here, as ancient as the eternal forest.
Yes, it does sound a little old-fashioned: the rhythm, the scansion. Maybe I am weird that way, but oh, for a break from the daily prose and the news it brings!
Apparently, I am weird but not alone. These two aspects of the book – its topic and its style – have earned it a special place in Polish literature: 52 editions since 1920, never once out of print, not even under German occupation during World War Two (when paper was scarce). This book is known to absolutely everybody. And many phrases from it have worked their way into everyday language. It is a book grandparents read to their grandchildren – and, indeed, my grandfather read it to me. Because it is both heart-warming and well written.
But the book also has a fascinating history of interpretation. Some readers see it as a veiled statement of Polish political conservatism (even ‘reaction’) and others, more recently, as an LGBTQ roman à clef.
Like a French movie, the book does not say, it shows. And it expects you to guess, to read between the lines. And this makes it a richer read for me. A Summer presents the many delights of a Russian doll of meanings: a pean to nature, hiding within it a pean to traditional Polish gentry life on the Byelorussian frontier, hiding within it a fascinating story of a lesbian ménage à trois.
These multiple layers of interpretation have been a source of many pleasures (and discoveries) during my work on this translation, too. And I decided to write this essay to share them with you, hoping that my account of them may help you experience some of the same joys.
After all, pleasure in art is both its primary purpose – and it is catching. And best pleasure is a pleasure shared.
Rodziewiczówna, the national icon
Who was Maria Rodziewiczówna?
Most Polish readers know her as an author of patriotic novels describing Polish resistance to Russian occupation (1795 - 1918).
Her life was shaped by that resistance. She was the daughter of a Polish gentry family who participated (as non-combatants) in the 1863 uprising. The uprising failed and ended in a national catastrophe: a colossal loss of life and destruction of property, followed by mass ethnic cleansing, exile, confiscation of property, and total elimination of any and all forms of local autonomy. Following the crushing of the uprising, even as much as speaking Polish in school became a punishable offense (“Speak Russian, you dog!”).
Because they participated in the uprising, Maria’s family had their property confiscated and were exiled to Siberia.
During the amnesty of 1871, they were allowed to leave Siberia but were not allowed to settle where they had once lived (near Grodno, in today’s Lithuania) but only in a separate administrative area Russians assigned to Poles – a kind of “Polish Reservation” within the Russian Empire. The family ended up in very difficult economic circumstances in Warsaw, where her father took up a post as a building administrator, and her mother worked in a cigarette factory.
Their economic situation improved when they inherited a 3,000-acre property in Polesia (in today’s Byelarus). The property was mostly marsh and sandy soil and burdened by debt. In 1881, following her father’s death, 17-year-old Maria took over its management. At this point, presumably to make herself look more businesslike, and with her mother’s permission, she cut her hair short and adopted men’s clothing (and wrote in her journal: “I will never marry.”)
Maria turned out to be a very talented farm administrator and a strict but fair manager of men. Over the next two decades, she improved the farm’s productivity, paid off its debts, and built roads, schools, clinics, and churches for her employees and their families. She became involved in the scouting movement (a kind of crypto-patriotic organization) and the Theosophist movement. From the age of 18, she wrote and published novels.
Given her family background, it was natural that her novels tended to surround patriotic subjects: they dealt with the questions of foreign occupation, national survival, and national liberation. But, because they were published under Russian censorship, they could not address those topics directly. Instead, they had to approach them by a kind of symbolic code: since Polish writers could not write about Polish resistance against Russians, they wrote about Greeks resisting Romans or Poles fighting Tartars and Swedes (who conveniently happened to have been Russia’s enemies at times, so were topics Russian censors allowed).
We see an echo of this situation in A Summer. In the penultimate chapter, the heroes discover the grave of an 1863 insurgent and want to honor it, and one of them says:
Too many Moscovite informers around. Moscovites will come and despoil the grave and probably destroy it, too. And no point planting trees, either. Better we do something that only a few can recognize. So I will make a tombstone. But a secret one. Flat. Not seen from far away. And no one will know, only we.
A Summer was written relatively late in Maria’s career and was not published until Poland regained its independence (1918), but she began writing it under Russian occupation, and, as you read the book, you can see that the early chapters are heavily encoded. In the chapter in which a farmer teaches a teenager how to mow with a scythe, he says:
Here is your scythe, young man. See how it is set. Here is the blade mounted on the haft and fastened with an iron ring and a wooden wedge, like the letter L. Though it may sometimes happen with us that one may mount it upright, and then the mowers are called scythe-men and mow enemy heads. The instrument thereby becomes ennobled, so one must honor it and keep it in respect, the way soldiers keep their swords because no one knows when and for what purpose they may be needed. Do you understand?
The reference is to Polish peasant battalions who fought Russians with scythes in 1795, and, yes, a Polish reader would understand, but a Russian censor might not – and let the text slide by.
The book is filled with this kind of coded speech, and, to many readers, decoding it is one of its great pleasures.
As it happened, the book was not published until Poland regained its independence (1918), and some of the more openly patriotic parts of the story (the exhumation of the 1863 insurgent, for example) were probably added at that point and intended for uncensored publication.
Rodziewiczówna the Catholic
Maria is perceived as a political conservative not only because of her patriotism but also due to what people see as her Catholicism. You can see a lot of it in the novel: icons, prayers, blessings, etc.
But was Maria a committed Catholic?
It is hard to say. Under Russian occupation, Catholicism had become inextricably intertwined with Polish patriotism. Religious instruction was the only kind of instruction allowed in the national language, church organization was often used as cover for covert activities, and church festivals were the only occasion that allowed patriotic manifestations. And in this sense, it isn’t clear whether the book’s heroes light a candle before the icon of the Virgin Mary because she is the mother of Christ or because she is the titular Queen of Poland.
But it seems that Maria was religious. And thus, for example, A Summer features prayers like this one:
Quietly and slowly, he began, as if his thoughts detached from the bottom of his soul and floated upwards, looking to find expression: “Hail, to you, master of the wonders of beauty and wisdom! You are here with us in every shape, sound, and fragrance, and with you, we have spent this summer.”
It is hard to imagine that these beautifully wrought prayers were a mere literary exercise. In the book, the character of Wolverine is a profoundly religious person, but his religiosity is not very Catholic. For one thing, in the first half of the 20th century, the church discouraged the practice of praying with one’s own words (as untutored prayers could possibly be heretical). And the God whom Wolverine worships seems to be, above all, the creator of nature and the natural order. If anything, Wolverine’s religiosity is like that of Rudolf Otto’s (The Idea of the Holy, 1917), in which he says: “A sacred tree is like any other tree except that something about it makes us perceive it as sacred.” No hierarchy, no institutions, no popes, no priests: just a direct perception of the holy. It seems to me that Maria was personally religious in that sense; that as a member of the Polish gentry, she probably felt obligated to be outwardly observant, but in her personal religion, she was not especially Catholic.
And a Butch?!
So, there you have it: a religious, patriotic land-owner upholding the old social system and the old religion, safe enough for grandparents to read to their grandchildren.
And then an enterprising scholar (Krzysztof Tomasik, Homobiografie, 2014), prying about her personal life, broke a shocking story: “MARIA WAS A BUTCH! And the three Forest Folk (the heroes of the book: “Wolverine,” “Crane,” and “Panther”) were really three lesbians living in a ménage à trois!”
A triple exclamation mark is in order because the surprise was so great. Three lesbians living in a ménage à trois! Goodness gracious!
But the evidence was undeniable: letters, documents, journals, memoirs, articles in the press, photos.
The best we have been able to piece the story together, Maria lived alone on her farm for some time. But, eventually, she was joined there by Helena Weychert, another butch/gentry girl in the agricultural profession (and with considerable farm managerial talent: she is said to have made significant contributions to the improvement of the farm).
I close my eyes and imagine the two butches riding around on horseback – each on her horse, thank you – and ordering their peasants about (crop in hand?). (Maria was once prosecuted for striking a recalcitrant (male) worker).
Then, for reasons we do not yet understand, the two women decided to move back to Warsaw. They bought an apartment in the city and a small farm on the outskirts. Perhaps they were there to enjoy the musical and theater season (November – April). And maybe Maria wanted to be close to libraries, bookshops, and publishers. But from then on, they spent their winters there and returned to the estate for the summer.
And then – we don’t know when because the dates are sketchy – another woman appeared in Maria’s life: Jadwiga Skirmuntt, her much younger distant cousin. I don’t know the LBTQ terminology well enough to know how to describe her, but I gather from reading her book of memoirs (entitled something like A Memoir of Twenty-Five Years with Maria Rodziewiczówna, in which she speaks glowingly of their deep emotional connection without ever mentioning sex) that she was the “feminine type,” as in “girls in dresses and frills.” She took care of the “womanly” side of the household – cleaning, cooking, pickling, preserving, drying, gardening, running the dispensary and the village shop. In A Summer she is Crane, who is “the doctor” (people come to her for cures), and fussy (bathes way too often), pouts, is often disapproving, and on whom the manly Panther (Helena Weyhert) plays “tricks.”
Krzysztof Tomasik, who has published the most on the subject, says that Helena (“Panther”) and Jadwiga (“Crane”) did not get along and that the ménage à trois was riven with jealousy. He says that Maria was obliged to spend her time with one or the other and never (or rarely) together with both. There are echoes of this in A Summer, where Panther keeps picking on Crane, and Crane is sometimes seen as holding a grudge or going off alone in what may be a huff.
My perception fails me here a little; I am not lesbian. But anyone who has attempted to live in an open relationship, or any sort of ménage à trois,knows how hard that is: to overcome the most fundamental issue of jealousy. Invariably, one partner becomes dominant (“alpha”), and the other two (“betas”) end up competing with each other for his/her affections. In A Summer, because of her age seniority (Maria was much older than the other two) and her social status as the owner of the estate (and of the cottage where they are spending the summer) Maria (“Wolverine”) is the alpha. They call her “Chief.” She makes all decisions, and they are final.
And the competition between the other two isn’t always nice. The two betas in the triangle try to do the best they can to appear agreeable (because the alpha expects them to, and not to cooperate would appear unreasonably churlish), but they can be quite mean to each other. The novel pooh-poohs it. It says Panther put frogs in Crane’s tea caddy because he once had the runs due to Crane’s medication (“licorice powder”). But it seems that the conflict was more serious than that.
All of this makes me wonder: is A Summer a work of imagination, perhaps composed for the benefit of Panther and Crane to show them how they could get along with each other if they only tried? Or is it a record of a summer they did spend together, and which was perhaps not terribly successful, but which, Maria/Wolverine wanted to say – and show them – seen in a certain light, could well be considered a success? If you think of it that way, the chapter in which the two “betas” (Crane and Panther) go fishing, alone, just the two of them, and capture a giant wels, and then survive a thunderstorm on the lake seems especially imbued with symbolic meaning.
Now, for a student of history like me, here is the weird thing: the Polish reading public was surprised to learn in 2014 that A Summer is a book about lesbians. Maria a butch? A Catholic patriot in a conservative nation under the most reactionary regime of the times – a lesbian?
But we really should not have been surprised. For, while Maria never clearly stated that she was a lesbian, never wrote openly about the subject, and concealed the gender of the heroines of A Summer, she also never made much of an effort to conceal her identity. As this picture of her shows, or this photo of Helena Weychert, one could hardly accuse these women of being closeted in any sense. And we have the evidence of Romana Pachucka, a Polish feminist activist from the early twentieth century who wrote in her memoirs:
I knew in those days three pairs of inseparable women: Paulina Kuczalska Reinschmit and Józefa Bojanowska, Maria Konopnicka and Maria Dulębianka, and Helena Weychert and Maria Rodziewiczówna. And in those pairs, invariably one of them projected a masculine image, dressed in man’s clothing and flat shoes, moved swiftly and walked with a swagger, while the other, etc., etc.
Krzysztof Tomasik points to this passage as an example of “a lack of precise terminology for the relationship in the language of the day,” but it seems to me no more than a simple case of “don’t ask/don’t tell.” It seems that even in those otherwise very conservative times, it was okay to be gay, as long as one did it “the right way.” “Yes,” it seems people said, “Maria is… er… a little odd,” and… shrugged. Mostly, it just wasn’t their business.
Rereading this book now, with the “secret key” in hand, I had the feeling that I understood it a lot better than ever before. The psychology of the three Forest Folk and the attitudes of their neighbors makes a lot more sense if one knows that they are women, not men. That Wolverine and Panther might be worried, for example, when Crane (the girly girl) has gone off into the woods alone and isn’t coming back, or that their neighbors might feel protective about them.
Reading between the lines is so much fun.
Tom Pinch The Ardennes National Park Luxembourg