Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Author's Portrait: Eliza Orzeszkowa

Eliza Orzeszkowa in 1900
In 1909 the Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, but she wasn’t the only and above all not the first woman nominated for it. Hardly anyone is aware of the fact that already four years earlier, in 1905, the Polish novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa had been a runner-up for the prestigious award competing with no lesser authors than Leo Tolstoy and Henryk Sienkiewicz. It was a close decision between the three, in the end she didn’t get it, though (nor did Leo Tolstoy). Eliza Orzeszkowa was nominated for the Literature Nobel Prize again in 1909 and lost it once more because Selma Lagerlöf was given preference over her.

As far as I can tell, Eliza Orzeszkowa as the Polish pioneer of literary positivism and an important social spokeswoman is up to this day held in high esteem in Poland, but for the rest her literary work is largely forgotten and most of her books will be available only in very old translations archived in the darkest corners of crammed libraries. Thus I reckon that her name rings a bell only with a few passionate lovers of nineteenth-century European literature who stumbled over a free e-book on the internet or over the new translation of On the Niemen released just recently. I believe that Eliza Orzeszkowa deserves better and decided to draw attention to her life and her work.



Eliza Orzeszkowa was born as Elżbieta Pawłowska in Milkowszczyzna near Grodno (now: Hrodna, Belarus), Russian partition of Poland, Russian Empire, on 6 June 1841. She belonged to a wealthy and noble family entitled to bear the coat of arms Korwin. Her father, Benedykt Pawłowski, was an attorney and landowner in the area of Grodno, but died when Eliza was only three years old. Thus she grew up under the sole direction of her mother, Franciszka Kamieńska, who was a very reserved woman with exceedingly strict views regarding etiquette. Therefore Eliza didn’t have a particularly carefree and happy childhood.

At the age of ten Eliza was sent to boarding school with the nuns of the Order of the Holy Sacrament in Warsaw. During the following five years she received the good, though fairly limited education befitting a well-to-do girl of her rank at the time which meant that she learnt French and German, but for the rest gained only some general knowledge. In May 1857 Eliza finished school and returned to Milkowszczyzna. Intelligent and curious as she was, she completed her education on her own making use of her father’s extensive library with shelves full of Enlightenment writers.

In 1858, shortly before her seventeenth birthday, Eliza entered an arranged marriage with Piotr Orzeszko, a wealthy nobleman, and thus became Eliza Orzeszkowa. After the wedding the couple moved to Ludwinowo in Polesie and the young woman was soon disappointed by her marriage. Her husband was twice her age and shared neither her intellectual interests nor her patriotic zeal. It was Eliza who was active in the Polish January Uprising of 1863/64 against the Russian Empire running the “field hospital” for the insurgents and helping their leader Romuald Traugutt to escape, but it was her husband who was exiled to Siberia for it. Eliza didn’t accompany him.

Since their estate in Ludwinowo was confiscated when her husband was sentenced, Eliza Orzeszkowa moved back to her parental estate in Milkowszczyzna. There she took to writing fiction, an activity of which her class-conscious mother didn’t approve at all. Already in 1866 she made her literary debut with a collection of stories titled Obrazek z lat głodowych (A Picture from the Hungry Years) and the essay Kilka słów o kobietach (A Few Words About the Novel).

The private life of Eliza Orzeszkowa, however, remained unhappy for some more years. She fell in love with Doctor Święcicki and had her marriage annulled in 1869 to be able to marry him, but instead they broke up. The following year yet another big blow hit her: she lost Milkowszczyzna and settled down in Grodno where she had a relationship with the lawyer Stanisław Nahorski. He was married to a chronically ill woman and Eliza Orzeszkowa was ostracised until she took care of the relief works after a big fire in 1885 which destroyed the greater part of Grodno. Only after the ill wife’s death in 1894 the couple could finally get married.

In 1872 Eliza Orzeszkowa brought out her novel Pan Graba (Mr. Graba) which received positive reviews, but her true literary breakthrough as a writer didn’t come until the following year, when she released her novel Marta (Martha) which together with her study Kilka słów o kobietach (A Few Words About Women) dating from 1870 started the debate on women’s emancipation in Poland. Also her novel Eli Makover (Eli Makower: 1875) was favourably received by critics and she was thus firmly established in the Polish literary scene. Those early positivist works are marked by strong agnosticism and the biased, often simplified views of a mentor rather than a narrator.

The following decade saw the publication of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s most important novels starting with Meir Ezofovitch (Meir Ezofowicz; usually translated as An Obscure Apostle, also as Forsaken) in 1878, Widma (Ghosts) in 1881, Niziny (The Plains), and Dziurdziowie (The Dziurdzia Family) in 1885. In 1887 and 1888 the two novels which are considered this writer’s masterpieces came out, namely On the Niemen (Nad Niemnem; previously translated as On the Banks of the Niemen) and The Boor (Cham). Also those novels pursue a didactic purpose, but plots and characters are depicted in a more realistic way than before and remind of the work of Leo Tolstoy in some aspects.

Growing older Eliza Orzeszkowa’s idealism faded further and gave way to philosophical, moral and also religious reflections which she expressed most impressively in her short story collections Melancholicy (1896; Melancholic), Iskry (1898; Sparks), Chwile (1901; Moments), Przędze (1903; Threads), in her novels Australczyk (1896; The Australian), The Argonauts (1901; also translated as The Modern Argonauts) and Anastazja (1902; Anastasia) and in her literary dialogue with Tadeusz Garbowski titled Ad astra (1903).

The year 1905 brought Eliza Orzeszkowa’s first nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee had discussed dividing the award between her and the other two runners-up Henryk Szienkiewicz and Leo Tolstoy, but refrained from it eventually because it feared that it might seem an act of disparagement. Henryk Sienkiewcz alone won the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1905 and lasting world fame, while Eliza Orzeszkowa (and Leo Tolstoy) got nothing. Also the second Nobel nomination in 1909 didn’t bring her the prestigious prize.

During her lifetime the prolific writer produced altogether about 30 novels, some 120 sketches and short stories, a couple of plays, several translations into Polish and many articles about literature and social issues like women’s emancipation along with a huge number of letters. Her last work was her memoir Gloria victis published in 1910. Two of her books are available as free e-books on the Project Gutenberg site, namely Meir Ezofovitch – An Obscure Apostle and The Argonauts.

Eliza Orzeszkowa, now Eliza Nahorska really, died in Grodno (now: Hrodna, Belarus), Russian partition of Poland, Russian Empire, on 18 May 1910.

This portrait is based on:
http://www.angelfire.com/scifi2/rsolecki/eliza_orzeszkowa.html
http://literat.ug.edu.pl/autors/orzeszk.htm 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_Orzeszkowa


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