Eliza Orzeszkowa was a writer, journalist, and social worker. She was born on June 6th 1841 and died on May 18th 1910 in Miłkowszczyzna near Grodno.
Orzeszkowa's novels are rooted in the social life of her times and describe ideas, beliefs, doubts, and defeats. They were translated into 20 languages, the Swedish and Russian translations being the most popular editions.
She was born on June 6th 1841 in Miłkowszyzna near to Grodno as Eliza Pawłowska, daughter of wealthy landowners. She received a conventional home education, and she went on to stay at the school for girls led by Benedictine sisters in Warsaw, where she met Maria Wasiłowska, later Konopnicka. Their friendship, rooted in common literary interests, survived until Eliza’s death. She was sent to marry very young by her parents – in 1858 she married Piotr Orzeszko, the owner of the Ludwinowo property near Kobryń.
The marriage was not successful, but the stay in Ludwinowo became the writer’s first chance to engage in social life and the public debate about its shape. The defeat in the Crimean war and the folk rebellion were the reasons behind the discussion inititated by the Tsar on social and economic reform, especially about the possibility and ways of bestowing property on the peasants. The arena of discussion was committees of the gentry. Orzeszkowa was engaged in democratic reform against the egoism of the land owners – to the dissatisfaction of her husband, who finally, however, agreed, to her running a school for children from the village. She continued her social work after the January Uprising started. She was the contact person for partisans, gave them food, and transported Romuald Traugutt. The failure of the uprising changed her life completely. Her husband’s fortune was confiscated, and he was taken to Perm Governorate. Orzeszkowa returned to her family house in Miłkowszczyzna, that had the same problems as most properties in Lithuania: economic and political repressions, and difficulty coming to terms with the new situation after the bestowing of property…
Miłkowszczyzna didn’t survive these burdens: around 1870 it had to be sold. The time spent in her parents’ property was important for Orzeszkowa’s growth as a writer. She took charge of her father’s big library and studied 18th and 19th-century literature – not only fiction, but also philosophy, social sciences and economy. She studied Hyppolyte Taine, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Henry Thomas Bucle. Through the prism of her new-gained knowledge she tried to understand the causes of gentry’s defeat, the impossibility of adapting to new economic reality – causes which were both external and internal for her social class. She also looked for reasons why her patriotic tradition, so beloved by the gentry, was indifferent, if not hostile, towards the peasants.
At the same time she started working as a writer, contacted the milieu of Tygodnik Ilustrowany and Przegląd Tygodniowy – the magazine of the Warsaw positivists. She cancelled her marriage and got engaged to Stanisław Nahorski, although officially she married him only in 1894.
From 1869, she lived in Grodno. Between 1879 and 1882 she stayed in Vilnius, where she co-owned a bookstore which published books, calendars and humorous magazines. The tsarist authorities didn’t appreciate this work – the publishing house was closed and the writer had to go back to Grodno.
In 1905 and 1909 she was mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel prize. In 1906 she received the F. Kochman award.
She died on May 18th 1910 in Grodno and she was buried there. A museum to her and a statue by Romuald Zerych are also located there. Another statue authored by Henryk Kuna is in Warsaw. In 1920 the Eliza Orzeszkowa Society was founded.
The experience of her generation, the books she read, and her social work shaped her as a positivist, although she didn’t agree with their political servility and all her life stayed true to the romantic, patriotic tradition. Her views on literature and their evolution were also close to the dynamics of positivism.
Historians of literature agree on dividing Orzeszkowa’s work into three phases, designated by her changing views on society. The first phase takes place between 1866 and 1876 and is a total critique of the dominating nobility culture and an apotheosis of the rise of capitalism. The nobility wasn’t able to adapt to reality and became more and more anachronistic, slaves to dogma and prejudice. Neither the aristocrats with the salon’s moral emptiness, cosmopolitanism and laziness, nor the impoverished nobility, greedy and hostile towards the villagers, had the power or motivation to rise to the challenges of modernity. Their saving grace could be found in the development of science and education, in the creation of modern industries which could give work to the people, in promoting the rules of democracy, which would include marginalized groups such as women and Jews. In this way a new social group can be formed, composed by engineers, scientists, doctors and also representatives of the gentry, who support a modern, effective economy and the idea of solidarity. Caring for the common good and wise philanthropy can help all social classes, and public education can end the obscurantism of the gentry and the church. In these years Orzeszkowa was very optimistic and hopeful, when proposing the positivistic program of organic work.
In the second phase (1876-1888), this optimism collapses. Instead of common happiness, capitalism brings new conflicts and harm. The bourgeoisie doesn’t become the engine of social change but a class of exploiters. The working class degenerates physically and morally, sentenced to humiliating conditions. City culture, empty and lacking values, is no better, but sometimes worse than the rural ignorance. If it wasn’t enough, socialism appears with its aggressive rhetoric and vision of the revolution. Orzeszkowa still believes that the belligerence of capitalism can be controlled by moral and intellectual resources: democracy, philanthropy and education. At the same time she’s not sure of who should do it. In a text from 1882 O Żydach i kwestii żydowskiej (editor’s translation: On the Jews and the Jewish Question), she writes dramatically:
And if this faith of mine is just a vain dream, I’d rather die than lose it.
And yet she did. Last phase (1888-1910) is a time of hopelessness for the ailing writer, coping with difficult situations. Social rebellion and the socialist movement are strange to her, although she understand their cause. Her materialistic, evolutionistic and laic world view also collapsed: she turned to metaphysical and ethical subjects, in her literature focusing mostly on the individual’s inner life.
Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, July 2007, edited by SW 2013, transl. NMR January 2015.