Dabrowska, Maria (1889–1965)

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Dabrowska, Maria (1889–1965)

Polish writer, regarded as one of the leading writers of the school of critical realism, whose masterwork Noce i dnie is one of the greatest novels in 20th-century Polish literature. Born Maria Szumska in Russów near Kalisz, Russian Poland, on October 6, 1889; died in Warsaw on May 19, 1965; read philosophy and sociology at Lausanne and Brussels; married Marian Dabrowski (a Polish Socialist), in 1911 (died 1925).

Selected works:

Dzieci Ojczyzny (Children of the Fatherland, 1918); Galaz czeresni (The Cherry Branch, 1922); Usmiech dziecinstwa (The Smile of Childhood, 1923); (short stories) Ludzie stamtad (Folk from Over Yonder, 1926); Noce i dnie (Nights and Days, 1932–34); (memoirs) Pilgrimage to Warsaw (1969); Przygody czlowiecka myslacego (The Adventures of a Thinking Man, published posthumously as a fragment, 1970); postwar diaries, covering the years from 1945 to 1965, began to appear in print in Warsaw (1996).

Maria Dabrowska, universally regarded as Poland's outstanding woman prose writer of the 20th century, was born into the lower szlachta (gentry), the daughter of an estate manager in what was then Russian Poland. After completing her preparatory studies in local private schools, she moved to Western Europe, studying science, economics, and sociology at the universities of Brussels and Lausanne. Typical of her generation, she combined being a student with intense political activity designed to free Poland of foreign rule. In 1911, she married Marian Dabrowski , a Polish Socialist who had been forced into temporary exile because of his activities during the failed anti-Russian revolt of 1905. To her already deep sense of social justice was added a sense of heightened political militancy. For a number of months in 1913–14, Maria was able to study social conditions in England while on a fellowship provided by the cooperative movement. Unlike many Polish intellectuals, Dabrowska was never attracted to Marxism, believing instead that the path of gradual reform taken by nations like Great Britain was preferable to that of a bloody revolution.

Returning to Poland in 1914, Dabrowska experienced the privations of World War I while earning a living as a journalist for Spolem (United), the journal of the national cooperative movement. Convinced that Poland was only as strong as the millions of souls at the bottom of society, the impoverished peasantry, she became their passionate defender, demanding for them elementary social justice based on sweeping land reforms and an intellectual-moral transformation of all aspects of rural life. Besides her polemical writings, Dabrowska began to publish short stories about rural life, the earliest of which appeared in print in 1911. The collections included Dzieci Ojczyzny (Children of the Fatherland, 1918) and Galaz czeresni (The Cherry Branch, 1922). After Poland achieved independence in 1918, she took a job in the newly formed Ministry of Agriculture in Warsaw, working there until 1924. One of her first major critical successes was the cycle of short stories based on her own memories of rural life, Usmiech dziecinstwa (The Smile of Childhood, 1923), which caught the attention of avantgarde literary circles because of its innovative, essentially Proustian, form of narration.

Already in the early 1920s and particularly after the establishment of a military dictatorship by Marshal Jozef Pilsudski in a bloody coup d'etat in 1926, Maria Dabrowska was identified with the liberal wing of Polish literary and political life. Her strong sense of social justice put her on a collision course with the Pilsudski elements whose extremist views and Polish chauvinism made many of them defenders of the social status quo and often vehemently anti-Semitic. Identified with the political opposition to the dictatorship, she fought against the demagogues. Dabrowska's writings of the 1920s and early 1930s were realistic depictions of rural workingclass privation and suffering. She portrayed people who retained their humanity despite the injustices under which they lived and labored in countless villages and estates. In another noteworthy book, Ludzie stamtad (Folk from Over Yonder), a collection of short stories published to critical acclaim in 1926, Dabrowska presented another realistic and, at times, even harsh portrait of the lives of peasants. Refusing to romanticize their misery, she aspired to create both a work of genuine literary art and a signal for political and social action on their behalf.

In Dabrowska's masterpiece, the tetralogy Nights and Days (Noce i dnie, 1932–34), she matched the quality of the great Russian novels by blending realism with an epic story, depicting the profound changes that had transformed Polish life from the 1860s through 1914. Detailing the inexorable decline of the gentry class, Nights and Days is a chronicle of the social and intellectual upheavals that impacted on both individuals and an entire nation. While showing sympathy for her protagonists, Dabrowska's basic view was that the wrenching social changes they endured were not only inevitable but necessary. She depicted men and women as part of an emerging moral order, better than that of the past; a society based on social justice and moral responsibility. Hailed by critics as a milestone in modern Polish literature, Nights and Days has been widely admired for its stylistic elegance; its clear and effortless style having been judged by guardians of the language as an example of standard Polish to be emulated by writers and editors.

Originally structured as a psychological novel, Nights and Days greatly outgrew its original framework, becoming instead a vast panorama of a half-century of Polish history. It matches the epic breadth of Tolstoy but belongs to the genre of family chronicle. The contemporary novels it most strongly resembles are Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. Dabrowska was also deeply influenced by the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose novel Niels Lyhne she translated into Polish. The two main characters of Nights and Days, Bogumil Niechcic and Barbara Ostrzenska, are more than isolated individuals, but rather function as representatives of their family, social caste and generation. The finely drawn characterizations are part of a much larger portrait of an entire society convulsed by profound changes leading to ever more turbulent ones. Many critics have commended Dabrowska for her skill in drawing a subtle portrait of Barbara, a highly complex woman whose life is a clear reflection of the social transformation that affected her not only as an individual but also as a

representative figure of altered family relations. The meticulous realism of Nights and Days gives the work a spirit of authenticity, which is not surprising in view of the fact that much of it is autobiographical, and the character Marcin is modeled after Dabrowska's husband Marian Dabrowski.

Politically sympathetic to the left but never a doctrinaire member of any political party or faction, Maria Dabrowska fought intolerance and injustice with her pen until the very last day of interwar Polish independence. Like her fellow Poles, she mourned for her nation when German troops occupied Poland in September 1939. Over six million Poles, half of them Jews, died during more than five years of brutal Nazi occupation. Dabrowska wrote no original works during this period, remaining active instead in the rich underground cultural life that flourished despite German attempts to destroy Polish culture. Her only literary production during these years was a translation of the classic Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Dabrowska remained in Poland after 1945, despite the fact that by the late 1940s the government of the Polish People's Republic had imposed a harshly Stalinist regime of intellectual censorship and repression. She maintained her artistic integrity, refusing to provide the government with either statements of support or literary productions of propaganda value. Instead, she continued to write works that measured up to her own high artistic and ethical standards. Unfortunately, she was unable to complete her second family saga intended as a sequel to Nights and Days, Przygody czlowiecka myslacego (The Adventures of a Thinking Man); it was published posthumously as a fragment in 1970. Fully aware of her unchallenged reputation as Poland's grande dame of letters, Maria Dabrowska was able in the final years of her life to speak out in defiance of the chilly blasts of censorship that regularly swept across Polish intellectual life. In 1964, she joined 33 other writers and scholars to sign a letter addressed to Premier Jozef Cyrankiewicz protesting ever-increasing censorship. While many of her colleagues abandoned their protest efforts at this point, Dabrowska continued to press the authorities for a significant change in policy. Later in 1964, she spoke out about the lack of intellectual freedom for writers at an open meeting of the Polish Writers Union, receiving a standing ovation from the 500 authors in attendance. Because of her incredible popularity at home and her considerable international reputation, the government took no measures against her. In fact, after her death in May 1965, she was given a state funeral, and there was extensive coverage in the media.

Maria Dabrowska's artistic reputation remains unassailable in Poland. Her finely drawn depictions of Poland's poor, particularly its long-exploited peasantry, continues to find resonance with readers. The endurance of the rural poor, particularly women, so movingly portrayed in Nights and Days, guarantees that this epic novel will continue to be a national classic in Poland, appearing in literally dozens of editions; it was also made into a film and a television series. A number of posthumous works appeared after her death, including a volume of memoirs published in 1969 entitled Pilgrimage to Warsaw. In 1996, her extensive postwar diaries, covering the years from 1945 to 1965, began to appear in print in Warsaw to considerable critical and public interest.


Dabrowska, Maria. A Village Wedding, and Other Stories. Warsaw: Polonia Publishing House, 1957.

Folejewski, Zbigniew. Maria Dabrowska. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1967.

——. "Maria Dabrowska's Place in European Literature," in Books Abroad. Vol. 38, no. 1. Winter 1964, pp. 11–13.

Kridl, Manfred. A Survey of Polish Literature and Culture. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1956.

Kuncewicz, Maria. "A Great Provincial," in Polish Review. Vol. 10, no. 4. Autumn 1965, pp. 3–7.

Milosz, Czeslaw. The History of Polish Literature. NY: Macmillan, 1969.

Polanowski, Edward. Maria Dabrowska: 1889–1965. Wroclaw: Zaklad Narodowy im. Ossolinskich, 1990.

Scherer-Virski, Olga. The Modern Polish Short Story. The Hague: Mouton, 1955.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia