The Anthologization of Polish and Russian Women Writers, 1812-1900

Andrea Lanoux, University of California, Los Angeles

One striking difference between the Russian and Polish literary canons is the historical treatment and subsequent canonization (or not) of women writers; while nineteenth-century Russian women writers were virtually unknown in this century before their recent "re-discovery" by feminist scholars, Polish women writers (such as Narcyza Zmichowska, Maria Konopnicka, and Eliza Orzeszkowa) have been recognized as important literary figures from the time of their literary activity to the present. The lack of nineteenth-century Russian women writers in the canon could be attributed to women's lack of power, social clout, and quality education were it not for the fact that three heads of state in eighteenth-century Russia were women; in fact, a number of Russian women writers enjoyed widespread popularity in the nineteenth century (Nadezhda Durova, Evdokija Rostopchina, Karolina Pavlova, Nadezhda Soxanskaja), with several supporting families by their pen (Nadezhda Xvoshchinskaja).

The problem, then, is not a lack of women writing in Russia or even a lack of critical acclaim and resonance in their own time, but rather a question of the treatment of women writers in the socio-historical process of literary canonization. I will examine the categories of gender and nation as two factors influencing nineteenth-century literary evaluation to test the hypothesis that the reception of women writers in strong empires and small nations (or in the case of Poland, a stateless nation) is marked by varying degrees of conflict between the categories of gender and nation. While recognizing that the notion of "identity" is a twentieth-century construct, I will employ this concept to help articulate this apparent conflict: while one of the most important evaluative criteria in both Russian and Polish nineteenth-century literatures is "nationalness" ("narodnost'" in Russian and "narodowosc" in Polish), Polish women writers are critically received as writers of the nation--that is, as "Polish" writers first--whereas Russian women writers are evaluated primarily as "women" writers. This problem has important consequences for a number of other issues related to canon formation, such as the distinction between an "official" literary canon institutionalized in the state school system and an "unofficial" canon of underground literature (a distinction which would be later exaggerated under the Soviet regime), women as functionaries of nation and state, as well as the social function of literature in strong empires and small nations.

I will test this hypothesis by examining the anthologization of Russian and Polish women writers from the publication of two of the earliest Polish and Russian literary anthologies, Szymon Bielski's Wybor roznych gatunkow poezji z rytmopisow polskich (1811-1812) and Nikolaj Grech's Izbrannye mesta iz russkix sochinenij (1812) to the critical reassessment of women writers with the advent of Russian and Polish Modernism.