Przybyszewska, Dagny Juel (1867–1901)

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Przybyszewska, Dagny Juel (1867–1901)

Norwegian-born writer who was a central figure in Berlin's avant-garde. Pronunciation: Pshi-bi-shef-ska. Name variations: changed the spelling of her surname from Juell to Juel. Born in Kongsvinger, Norway, on June 8, 1867; killed by her lover Wladyslaw Emeryk on June 5, 1901; second of four daughters of Hans Lemmich Juell (a doctor and attendant physician to the king of Sweden) and Minda (Blehr) Juell (sister of Otto Blehr, a Norwegian prime minister); married Stanislaw Przybyszewski (1868–1927, a Polish writer), late summer 1893; children: son Zenon P. Westrup (b. September 1895); daughter Iwa Dahlin (b. October 1897).

A Norwegian-born writer and wife of a well-known Polish playwright, Dagny Juel Przybyszewska was a central figure in Berlin's avantgarde movement of the 1890s, the muse of the city's Schwarze Ferkel artist's circle. Painted by Edvard Munch (1863–1944), and a model for characters of August Strindberg (1849–1912), she was also a talent in her own right, writing four plays, a short story, and a collection each of prose and lyric poems, and serving as an agent for a number of Scandinavian artists. In a scholarly biography entitled Dagny, Mary Kay Norseng describes her subject as "mysterious, provocative, and inexplicably beautiful," haunted by her bourgeois past and conflicted over the roles she assumed as wife, mother, and writer. Unfortunately, her life was too short for any resolution. She died three days short of her 34th birthday, shot by a neurotic young man in a hotel room in Tiflis near the Black Sea. "Even as she lived, Dagny was perceived to exist in a borderland between myth and reality, sensationalism and silence," writes Norseng. "Compounded by the distortions effected by time, she has slipped almost irretrievably from view."

What is known of Dagny's early years reveals that she was raised in a close aristocratic family. She was born on June 8, 1867, in Kongsvinger, Norway, the second of the four attractive and talented daughters of Hans and Minda Juell . (A son, born to the Juells shortly after Dagny, died when he was a year old.) Dagny's father, of Danish lineage, was an attendant physician to the Swedish king, and the family lived in a 13-room estate (Rolighed), set on 25 acres of cultivated land on which were located a shooting gallery and one of the area's first ski jumps. A large number of Minda Juell's family (including her brother Otto Blehr, who in 1891 would be the Norwegian prime minister to the king of Sweden and Norway) lived on nearby estates and farms, providing an extended familial network for Dagny and her sisters.

Dagny completed the traditional six grades of school, but did not continue her education, perhaps out of a growing rebellion and disdain for "the academic." As a teenager, she took up the piano, becoming quite proficient and taking great joy in performing for her family and friends. During her 21st year, she worked as a governess to the children of an aunt and uncle who lived in the west coast town of Førde. She was genuinely fond of the children, and they later recalled her sense of humor and the stories she told to them. While living in Førde, she frequently traveled to visit other relatives in Bergen, where she was enchanted by the city's social and cultural life. Following her year as a governess, she returned home to Rolighed.

In the early 1890s, Dagny may have lived in Christiania (now Oslo), or possibly made frequent trips there from home to take piano lessons. She often traveled with her younger sister Ragnhild Juell , who was studying voice, and stayed with her mother's sister Maria Blehr , who ran a school for young girls in the city. During this time, the sisters befriended a group of Christiania's young aspiring artists and writers, including the journalist Hjalmar Christiansen, with whom Dagny may have been romantically involved. In early February 1892, she traveled with Ragnhild to Berlin, probably to study music. Little is known of her activities during this visit, although the 1892 date on a Munch painting of Dagny and Ragnhild, Two Music-Making Sisters, indicates that the women may have been in Åsgårdstrand, Munch's home, during the summer of that year. (There is some confusion as to when Dagny met Munch. Norseng supports a theory that the two met in Christiania in the early 1890s, but believes that his painting of the sisters was probably done at a later time.) Dagny

returned home to Rolighed in the fall, but was restless and eager to leave again.

She embarked for Germany once more in February 1893, ostensibly to study piano. In March, she made her first appearance at Zum schwarze Ferkel (The Black Piglet), a Berlin tavern which served as the meeting place of the city's most avant-garde artists and thinkers, among them Munch, Strindberg, and the modernist playwright Stanislaw Przybyszewski ("Stach"), whom she would marry within a month. "Dagny Juel caught the imagination of the Schwarze Ferkel group and, indeed, 'held it captive,'" writes Norseng. "Tradition has it that she instantaneously became their muse, turned their heads and broke their hearts. They all were said to have fallen in love with her, vying with each other for her favors…. Supposedly Munch brought her to the tavern and loved her first, and then came Strindberg and others, and then Przybyszewski, whom she finally chose. Some saw her as a modern love goddess of the literati, akin to Lou [Andreas-Salomé ], sensual, intelligent, provocative, and free. For others, such as Strindberg, she was a femme fatale without equal, a destructive, erotic queen in the midst of these hungry bohemians."

At this time, Edvard Munch ("the hero of the young Expressionists") had just broken with the Norwegian art establishment and was coming off his first controversial exhibition in Berlin. While it remains unclear whether or not his relationship with Dagny was sexual, he would become her devoted friend and champion. "After her death he gave the only positive account of her life to appear in any Scandinavian newspaper," writes Norseng, "portraying her as an intellectual, cultured, and kind woman who actively participated in the creative endeavors of the Ferkel circle." Munch was also inspired by Dagny's ethereal beauty, once remarking: "You had to experience her to be able to describe her." His portrait Dagny Juel Przybyszewska (1893) is as enigmatic as the woman herself, her pale image seeming to float out from the black of her dress and the misty deep blue of the background. "Her expression is open, inviting, seemingly benign, somehow sad," writes Norseng. "Her eyes are veiled. She may be holding her hands provokingly behind her back or protectively in front of her. She is at once spirit and flesh, angel and demon, in ecstasy and in mourning, of life and of death." An equally haunting portrait of Dagny was painted later, in 1901, by Konrad Krzyzanowski.

The exact nature of Dagny's relationship with Strindberg is also unclear, although it was certainly complex. He was 44 at the time of their meeting and secretly engaged to Frida Uhl , his affair with Dagny taking place during a three-week period in March 1893 when Frida was out of town. Although little is known of Dagny's reaction to Strindberg, she provoked intense feelings in him. According to Norseng, "[H]e interpreted her as his persecuting demon, and he waged a vicious war of words against her, as only a writer could, attacking her first in his letters and later in his literary works." She later served as the model for several of Strindberg's destructive women characters: Aspasia in Inferno and Svarta fanor (Black Banners), Laïs in The Cloister and Karantánmästaarns andra berättelse (The Quarantine Officer's Second Story), and Henriette in Crimes and Crimes.

Despite her obvious attraction to many men within the Schwarze Ferkel, it was Stach Przybyszewski whom Dagny chose to marry. The couple fell in love in the spring of 1893 and wed late that summer. The union seemed doomed from the start. In addition to his purported "satanic" practices, Stach was a serious alcoholic, a philanderer, a pathological liar, and dirt poor. (Dagny claimed they got married because they happened across a mark one day, the exact cost of a marriage license.) What apparently united the two was their shared contempt for order. During their first years together, the couple remained at the center of the Schwarze Ferkel group, entertaining them day and night in their modest one-room apartment. They sought recognition for the Scandinavian artists within the group and were a motivating force behind Pan (1895), an art journal for which Dagny supplied the title. While they encouraged the group, they also inspired each other. Stach wrote prolifically during his marriage to Dagny, using her for a model and dedicating all his work to her. In short order, she also began writing, her short story "Rediviva" appearing in December 1893, and her play Den sterkere (The Stronger) published in Norway in 1896.

The couple would have two children, son Zenon (b. 1895) and daughter Iwa (b. 1897). Both would be born at Rolighed and entrusted to Dagny's mother for long intervals while Dagny joined Stach in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris, or Spain. Poverty continually drew Dagny back to Rolighed throughout her marriage, as did the uncertainty of her life with Stach, whose drinking and philandering grew more destructive.

In 1896, a tragic event tested the marriage even further. That June, one of Stach's longtime mistresses, Marta Foerder (a Polish woman with whom he had had three children), committed suicide. Stach had several children with other women and ignored them all. "In the beginning there was sex," he wrote. News of Foerder's death reached the couple in Copenhagen, where they had reunited after a three-month separation. Together, they returned to Berlin, where Stach was implicated in the suicide, arrested, and jailed for several weeks. As a result of the scandal, the couple were abandoned by their friends, causing Stach to become depressed and dysfunctional. Dagny literally held things together during this difficult period, rewriting Stach's manuscripts, dealing with his publishers, and giving piano lessons to earn some money, which Stach then drank away. As was now her pattern, however, Dagny returned to Rolighed in March 1897, both to receive emotional support from her family and to await the birth of her second child, Iwa.

In the fall of 1898, the couple were reunited in Cracow, where Stach had taken over the editorship of Źycie (Life), the journal of the avantgarde Young Poland. Although Stach was embraced as a hero by the Cracow bohemians, who even provided the family with a rented house, the marriage had deteriorated further, and Dagny was additionally concerned about her father's declining health. In January, her father died and the journal went under, jolting the couple into another crisis. Starting in June 1899, Stach began an affair with Aniela Pajakowna , with whom he would have a daughter, Stanislawa Przybyszewska (1901–1935). He would also become involved with Jadwiga Kasprowicz , whose husband was one of his best friends (and Poland's major poet), and whom Stach married after Dagny's death. Dagny, perhaps in desperation, embarked on her own liaison with Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski, one of her and Stach's good friends.

In January 1900, Dagny left Stach yet again, this time fleeing from city to city with a young poet by the name of Vincent Brzozowski. In May, she was convinced by her sister Gudrun Juell to return home to Rolighed once again. She stayed for half a year, publishing her prose-poem cycle Sing mir das Lied vom Leben und vom Tode (Sing Me the Song of Life and Death) in Norway late in the fall. In 1901, she briefly reconciled with Stach in Warsaw, then embarked on what would be her final journey, leaving Warsaw for Tiflis in Russian Georgia with her son Zenon and Wladyslaw Emeryk. A Pole of Russian extraction who owned a salt mine near Tiflis that was nearly bankrupt, Emeryk was a delicate and unstable young man who purportedly loved both Dagny and Stach to excess and lavished money on them. There are several theories as to why Dagny left with him: some believe that Emeryk was going to help the couple establish a new life in Russia, others that Stach used Emeryk to get rid of Dagny. Whatever the case, Dagny, who was traveling without a passport, continually telegramed her husband from various cities along the route asking him to send the identification papers he had promised to obtain for her. "I'm about to lose my mind," she wrote the day before she died. "Not a word since a month ago. I have telegraphed to Kraków, to Lemberg, to Warsaw. No answer…. I am dumbfounded, completely dumbfounded." Around noon the next day, June 5, 1901, Emeryk shot Dagny, then took his own life. He left behind several sealed letters, written days before. "I'm killing her for her own sake," he wrote to Stach. To Zenon: "She was not of this world, she was far too ethereal for anyone to understand her true nature." (Norseng suggests that Emeryk may have suffered a mental breakdown due to the bankruptcy of his business, which drove him to murder and suicide.) Dagny was buried in Tiflis on her birthday, June 8, 1901.

Dagny's shocking and violent death aroused interest in her works in Poland, although in her native Norway her writing was thought of little consequence until the 1970s, when there was a renewed interest in women writers of the past. A collection of her lyric poems, Digte (Poems), was published in 1975, the short story "Rediviva" appeared in 1977, and a collection of three plays, Synden og to andre skuespill (The Sin and Two Other Plays), in 1978. Norseng describes Dagny's writing as " fin de siècle works, exotic literary flowers that seemed to grow from the darkness of the heart." She further defines Dagny's style as "daring in its themes, its imagery, and its techniques. Her heroines make bold, if often criminal choices, they cross sacred boundaries, and they accept the tragic consequences. Her landscapes are gothic, full of dead spirits, rare flowers, cold dark tombs, and bloody rivers. Her techniques are expressionistic, designed to project a dark, internal world into the light."

While she lived, Dagny Przybyszewska was ambivalent about her work, even after she had achieved moderate success. She was, according to Norseng, far more assertive as an agent for others than in promoting herself. In addition to her involvement with the journal Pan, she attended to the work of her friend Munch and others, arranging exhibitions and negotiating sales. For her husband, she served as editor, translator, and agent. Even in their final months of estrangement, she was concerned with the progress of his career and was attempting to persuade him to change publishers.

Dagny's short life invites speculation. Had she lived, what would have become of her, as a woman and as a writer? For Norseng, Dagny represents a personal and historical transition never realized. "In any transition the changes are wrenching," she writes, "often threatening and seldom elegantly executed. No exception was made for Dagny. Yet she brought to her life, in all its stages, a seemingly inevitable dignity. Her powerful attraction, for her contemporaries and for us, seems to me to derive not only from her remarkable life but from the intensity with which she embraced it."


Norseng, Mary Kay. Dagny: Dagny Juel Przybyszewska: The Woman and the Myth. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts