Z°michowska, Narcyza (1819–1876)

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Z̊michowska, Narcyza (1819–1876)

Polish novelist. Name variations: Narcyza Zmichowska; (pseudonym) Gabryella. Born on March 4, 1819, in Warsaw, Poland; died on December 25, 1876, in Warsaw; daughter of Jan Z̊michowski and Wiktoria z Kiedrzyńskych; educated at the school of Zuzanna Wilczyńska and the Institut Guwernantek in Warsaw, 1835.

Published works:

Poganka (The Pagan Woman, 1846); Ksiąz̊a pamiąstek (Book of Remembrances, 1847); Biala róz̊a (White Rose, 1858); Kasia i Marynka (Kasia and Marynka, 1869); Czy to powiećś? (Is this a novel?, 1876).

Narcyza Z̊michowska was born in 1819 in Warsaw, Poland. Her father had participated in the rebellion under Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and her mother died soon after giving birth to her. She was educated at home and then attended the school of Zuzanna Wilczyńska before enrolling at the Institut Guwernantek in Warsaw, where she also later worked as a teacher. Following an unsuccessful uprising against Russian domination in 1830, and the resultant death, exile, or imprisonment of many of the country's men, Z̊michowska presided over a group of intellectual women who had come together for collective support. However, lacking funds to establish her own school, she left for Paris in 1838 and reunited with her brother in Reims, who had previously fled Poland for political reasons.

Z̊michowska reportedly refused a proposal of marriage from astronomer Jan Baranowski, and supported herself as a tutor, thereby establishing her reputation as an "emancipated woman." Concerned not only with the status of women but for the welfare of the peasantry, Z̊michowska sought general social reform in Poland. In 1839, she became active in a political group that committed such illegal acts as helping prisoners and teaching workers. In 1843, she was prevented from establishing a school in Poznanˇ by the Prussian authorities. She aligned herself with a group of women, including Anna Skimborowicz, Kazimiera Ziemiecka , and Wincentyna Zablocka , as part of a women's emancipation movement that was later called the Enthusiasts. As a writer, she became the best known of the Enthusiasts. Returning to Warsaw in 1846, she resumed her illegal activities, but was arrested and spent three years in a nunnery at Lublin. Upon her release, she once again taught courses for young women and advocated for women's schools.

Although her work went largely unread in the 20th century, Z̊michowska was a leader of her contemporary literary circles and a prolific, though highly self-critical, writer. She read extensively in French and German literature, which informed her own writing. Her early contributions of poetry and poetic prose to periodicals, from 1839 to 1845, are considered critically less important than her later work, Poganka (The Pagan Woman, 1846), which is classified as one of her finest examples of romantic fiction, depicting the illusory character of romantic love fusing the real and the fantastic. Z̊michowska's next novel, Ksiąz̊a pamiąstek (Book of Remembrances, 1847), proved more realistic, presenting a character's growth from selfish ambition that brings others to ruin. Her social and psychological novel Biala róz̊a (White Rose, 1858), portrays a woman who struggles against her oppressive environment but finds refuge only in a dream-like escape. Another failed political insurrection in 1863 caused Z̊michowska to abandon romanticism for positivism, placing hope in science for eventual human progress. In Kasia i Marynka (Kasia and Marynka, 1869), she embodies contemporary scientific and literary theories into a story about love, the structure of the family, and heredity. Czy to powiésć? (Is this a novel?, 1876) realistically and dispassionately draws a psychological portrait of a woman of Z̊michowska's generation. Many of Z̊michowska's writings were not published in her lifetime due to her strong vein of self-criticism. At her death in Warsaw on December 25, 1876, many fragments were left unfinished. However, a large volume of letters, which attest to her literary originality, was published posthumously.


The Penguin Companion to European Literature. Ed. by Anthony Thorlby. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1969.

Reader's Encyclopedia of Eastern European Literature. Ed. by Robert B. Pynsent. NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

Wilson, Katharina M., ed. An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. NY: Garland, 1991.

Dorothy L. Wood , M.A., Warren, Michigan