Orzeszkowa, Eliza (1841–1910)

views updated

Orzeszkowa, Eliza (1841–1910)

Polish advocate for women's rights and novelist. Name variations: Eliza Orzeszko or Orszeszko. Born Eliza Pawlowska in 1841 in Milkowszczyzna, Lithuania; died 1910 in Grodno, Poland; married Pietr Orzeszko (a Polish noble), in 1857; no children.

Eliza Orzeszkowa is one of the best-known Polish writers of the 19th century. Born into a rural gentry family in Lithuania in 1841, she was well educated in Warsaw. She married a fellow student, Pietr Orzeszko, when she was 16. They were forced to flee their home during the Polish revolt against Russian rule in 1863. When the revolt failed, many of its supporters, including Eliza's husband, were sent into exile in Siberia by the Russian government. Orzeszkowa never saw him again, and undertook a long struggle to have her marriage annulled. His estates were confiscated, while she lost her own inherited lands due to high taxation, thus losing her only sources of income.

Orzeszkowa settled in Grodno (in present-day Byelorussia) in 1866 and turned to writing as a means of supporting herself. Her experiences during the rebellion against Russia combined with her intellectual upbringing to lead her to write novels and short stories that are at once patriotic, feminist, and humanitarian. Perhaps her most powerful novel was her second, Marta, published in 1872. In it, Orzeszkowa drew on her own story to depict the life of a young Polish widow struggling to survive in a society which denied women basic legal rights. Writing with the pragmatism and realism characteristic of the period's Positivist literary movement, Orzeszkowa addressed the need to free women from the tradition of arranged marriages and for increased employment opportunities. She viewed education as fundamental to the emancipation of women, especially poor women, and advocated a free public education system for all Polish children. By the 1870s, Orzeszkowa had become a well-known and outspoken proponent of women's rights, a role she maintained both in her fiction and politically throughout her life. A leader of the emerging feminist movement in Poland, Orzeszkowa wanted to expand women's roles in Polish society beyond the conventional roles of wife and mother.

Her works are often openly anti-Russian and strongly Polish nationalist. Orzeszkowa was also moved by the desperate situation of the Polish peasantry and wrote with sensitivity about their struggles against oppressive landowners, for example in Cham, published in 1889. Several novels, most notably Eli Makower (1874) and Meir Ezofowicz (1878), addressed the widespread religious and racial intolerance faced by Polish Jews.

Her realistic characters and frank, sympathetic depictions of the hardships endured by the Polish underclasses brought Orzeszkowa a surprisingly wide readership. Her popularity marked an increasing recognition of women writers in her native country, although she was one of only a handful of Polish women able to support themselves as authors. It also marked the emergence of progressive ideology in a society whose literature had previously been characterized by conservative secular and religious themes. Orzeszkowa achieved a considerable foreign audience as well.

Her novels of the 1890s coincided with and helped shape the period of Polish literature called "Young Poland." Like other works of the period, they addressed the disillusionment of Polish intellectuals with the economic and cultural impact of industrialization being felt across Europe, which had brought little prosperity to Eastern Europe. As more and more Polish women began to work outside the home in the newly industrialized towns, activists like Orzeszkowa fought for protections in the workplace and for higher wages. In 1896, she converted her own home into a sort of underground school for young women, to provide the learning she believed was necessary for them to become truly equal members of Polish society.

Orzeszkowa died at age 69 at her home in Grodno. As the leading advocate in the 19th century for women's equality in a period of economic and social transition, Orzeszkowa was perhaps the major influence on the later development of the Polish women's movement.


Jaworski, Rudolf, and Bianka Pietrow-Ennker, eds. Women in Polish Society. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, 1992.

Morska, Irena. Polish Authors of Today and Yesterday. NY: S.F. Vanni, 1947.

Laura York , Riverside, California

More From encyclopedia.com