Narcyza Żmichowska is a difficult author, and maybe that is why she's so often forgotten. Going through library catalogues we notice she belongs to a group of writers whose books were more often published in the XIX century – these editions were prepared by her students, friends and first critics – than in the XX and XXI combined. It might seem quite ironic, that the inscription on her grave reads: 'Let her memory be the relief of the future'.
Governess, courier, conspirator, pedagogue
I re-read her works, mostly her printed correspondence. My eyes opened, I got to know this woman and understand the spell she cast on those who met her. What struck me was the moving drama of her life, the drama of her work, which only in part could express this incredible individuality – wrote Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński in a foreword to her letters adressed to Wanda Żeleńska – his own mother.
Narcyza Kazimiera Józefa Żmichowska was born on March 4th 1819 (in the year when censorship was introduced in Poland by the tsar's governor) as the tenth child of Jan Żmichowski and Wiktora Kiedrzyńska. The family lived where the father work – in Nowe Miasto by the Pilica river. Soon after Narcyza was born, her mother died due to labor complications.
The baby was given a secular, floral name according to the revolutionary French custom – Jan Żmichowski, who fought in the Kościuszko uprising, belonged to the generation that worshipped its ideals. As the daughter of an impoverished nobleman, she joins the catalogue of Polish XIX century writers whose literary activity was an indirect consequence of such origin. Forced to finish their education and start work early, they formed a new 'intellectual class', characteristic of Poland – intelligentsia. Among these professionally active poets, writers, journalists, political activists and other conspirators, there were many women – many more than in Western Europe. Due to the XIX century emmigration, thousands of young men from their class – potential or real husbands – disappeared from the country (one of these emmigration waves took place right after the November uprising, when Żmichowska was a teenager), so women needed to start working and earning money.
As a seven year old girl, she was sent to a school for girls in Warsaw, and later to the Governmental Institute of Education for Girls – a school for gouvernantes and teachers, where Klementyna Hoffmanowa thaught. The education of choldren and teenagers, mostly girls, became for Żmichowska not only a profession undertaken because of life constraints, but also a passion and mission she devoted herself to for the rest of her life. Her pedagogics was based, among other things, on the critique of Hoffmanowa's programme. The author of Biała Róża / White Rose had a completely different outlook on the role of a woman in the life of the family and the state. Writing an introduction to the works of her teacher, Żmichowska added some scrutiny and irony, which was a scandalous precedent in this type of text. Most of her work, choices and friendships she made, were an attempt to realize this mission.
Żmichowska lived a life she herself called 'as active as possible' – dynamic and modern, which we can now get to know thanks to personal motives in her work and an abundant correspondence. She travelled to Paris, where, among emmigrants forming 'a culture of solitary men', one of her brothers lived. In this capital of the world she cut her hair, started smoking cigarillos like George Sand and enrolled, as one of the first women, into the French Academy. She read new philosophers and writers in the National Library. She was interested in the modern European education systems by J.H. Pestalozzi and his student F. Fröbel. With such intellectual background and a great knowledge of French, she became a popoular teacher in Polish mansions; she didn't limit herself to her profession though, but travelled through all three partitions, distributing brochures and books that were forbidden in Congress Poland. When in the 1840s she lived in Warsaw, she was at the centre of a group of suffragettes, students whom she called 'enthusiasts'; these girls wanted freedom when chosing their life partners and the right to education and public activity. They would form a sisterhood so many years before the feminist term caught on.
Żmichowska herself invented her own core curricula for girls: a scientific one and a home economics one; even the latter was quite revolutionary at the time. Around 1844 the activist attempted to open a modern school for girls in Poznań, but failed. Her ideas were implemented to schools only much later, in the XX century; one of them was named after her, which is possibly the most important commemoration of Narcyza Żmichowska.
The enthusiasts were were engaged in the political, democratic ferment of the late 1840s – the Polish Spring of Nations. They took the part of the 'anonymous', the conspirators who had no relation to elites, for example of students who, as a group, were much more active then in the early 1830s. After the fall of the Kraków Uprising (1846), they were sympathising with a group of conspirators connected to the so called 'conspiracy of artisans', in which Żmichowska herself was the treasurer. Conspiration – as Maria Janion and Maria Żmigrodzka wrote in the book Romantyzm i historia / Romanticism and History – for the youth was one of the elements of generational autoidentification, and becoming part of it was an initiation to adulthood. After the artisans' conspiracy was discovered in 1849, the writer was imprisoned in Lublin, and later, in 1852, she was convicted to three more years of home arrest in her family's apartement. This traumatic experience and solitude made her interested in Andrzej Towiański's Circle of God's Cause, but her natural scepticism won over this fleeting fascination.
The necessity of ending her underground political activity, gave her time to focus on pedagogy. During her arrest, she worked on programmes for the education of boys coming from poverty and courses for women. She started the latter in 1862, when she finally could return to Warsaw and settled in her apartement on Miodowa street. The courses were informal, girls described them as 'pedagogic talks', and their programme was an anticipation of positivist ideas: both science and humanities were thaught there, and the basis was a holistic understanding of progress.
This atmosphere of positivism and the experience of prison made her doubt the sense of military fight with the occupants. A letter from 1858, sent to Parisian emmigrants' milieu and very much discussed, is proof of this political diagnosis: she postulated 'everyday patriotism' among all social classes. She couldn't obviously be a supporter of the January uprising, even though she helped the wounded and imprisoned. The fall of the uprising, the following repression and Rusification which was especially hard on education, were incredibly depressing for Żmichowska. She decided to leave Warsaw and go to her sister's house in the countryside. She didn't fully recover until her death in 1876.
This rebellious and unique woman never married and had no children. Apart from the relations with her siblings, her family were her students. Without any doubt – we can read it in her letters – she had a lot of affection for these girls, which is sometimes interpreted as a homosexual passion, although professor Grażyna Borkowska calls it 'a question that will have to remain unanswered'.
Żmichowska planned to debut in Paris with a prose written in French, but she started her literary career in Poland, and with poetry. Only after Poganka / Pagan was published, prose started to dominate in her work. The main subject of her earliest works which come from the beginning of the 1840s is the relationship of the writer with his artistic and social duties, the relation between art and act. As researchers claim, in Żmichowska's early works it is possible to spot the tension characteristic of the youth in the times before the Spring of Nations. Imbued with the romantic ideology they were unsure whether to give themselves away to 'absolute art' or join serial uprisings and revolutions.
The dilemmas of a young and pretentious poet Julian are the subject of one of her early short stories, entitled Capriccio. Żmichowska breaks up with shallow romanticism and settles accounts with a pose she considers lacking ideals and productivity. For the first time she takes the position against art, treated as a value in itself. The first attempts to write prose seem to be only an excercise before writing the novel that will make her famous.
Żmichowska's only completed novel is Poganka / Pagan, which was published in its entirety in 1846. Written in a style quite difficult for the modern reader, it is though very modern – its construction resembles postmodern experiments of the XX century. In a way it is also a „story within a story” - reading it, one discovers more and more plots and alternative meanings. The composition consists of a narrative frame, the main story and different smaller elements: songs, apostrophes directed to the reader, a fable, a parable, a description of the protagonist's dreams, excercepts of letters and a piece of news. Such a sophisticated construct cannot be summarized in a few sentences, but some of the subjects can be named: Pagan is about carnal and Christian love, passion and callousness, patriotic and family duty, responibility towards one's own consciousness and the feeling of lack of sense in any act. The open way in which the author described love made the novel controversial from the very beginning, even though at first it was printed without the boldest scene. What added even more controversy is the fact that in a letter to her friend Żmichowska admitted she described her milieu in the novel, which provoked the question of which protagonist was actually her.
Yet another work which caused interpretative problems was Biała Róża / White Rose published in 1858. Historians of literature state that although it was formed as an epistolary novel, it's more of a psychological essay. It starts with a scene of a ball, during which a confrontation between two main characters – Kazimiera and a wealthy dame Augusta – takes place. The rest of the piece is composed of letters in which the latter explains the misunderstanding that happened during the meeting, and then starts describing her inner life, exposing a schizophrenic soul. Being an educated, well mannered, unmarried lady, in her mind she calls herself White Rose, the opposite of Augusta. The composition of the novel allows to create a 'multiplied portrait' of a female protagonist. It might lead to the notion that the truth about a human being – and moreover, about a woman! - is not obvious, even relative. There is also a male voice in the novel, Hieronim, whose order is to forget about one's dreams and keep it real. The moral of the book is, once again, unobvios, and we cannot know who the writer's porte-parole is.
In her unfinished work entitled Czy to powieść? / Is this a novel? the author attempted to make accounts with her own biography. The main subject of the novel (because a novel it is) are the memories of a fictional protagonist Napoleona Hołosko – her fate and her brother's are presented on the background of the history of their noble family. Napoleona sends her diary to a friend from long ago, a writer whose signature is 'N.Ż'. Once again we have two dimensions: an autobiographical story about the Hołosko family and an exchange of letters between former schoolgirls, in which N.Ż. Gives literary advice on what to write about. This time Żmichowska herself is divided into two: herself and the one she could become – a woman living with her brother in a poor mansion far away, lacking any intellectual ambition she mighr previosly have had.
It's worth adding that Żmichowska had a gift for titles and from today's perspective they might seem much more modern than the literary essence of her work: one of her novels was entitled A Book of Souvenirs found by Gabriella and read by the Fire. The title of a text sent to 'Biblioteka Warszawska' in 1854 seems very light-hearted when confronted with its content: A Letter I don't know from whom and to whom speaks about a generation of beautiful, noble and corageous people which is now disappearing and will possibly soon be forgotten.
Collected works by Narcyza Żmichowska:
Pisma Gabryelli, Warszawa 1861 (T.1-T.4.)
Pisma. Z życiorysem autorki skreślonym przez D-ra P. Chmielowskiego, Warszawa 1885-1886 (T. I-T. V.)
NMR, December 2016.