“Thesis novel” or pastoral elegy: key tensions in Eliza Orzeszkowa’s Nad Niemnem
Ursula Phillips

Completed in 1886 and originally published in 1888, Nad Niemnem (On the Niemen) is Orzeszkowa’s best known novel and the most acclaimed by Polish readers, critics and literary historians. It has recently been translated into English by Michelle Granas (2014), an event to be welcomed for increasing the accessibility of the work outside Polish speakers[1]. This had been an egregious omission regarding a writer who was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize (1905, 1909): when other Polish writers were awarded the prize (Sienkiewicz, Reymont, Miłosz, Szymborska) English translations already existed prior to the event.

A potential earlier translation was offered to Hutchinson in 1946, but never published. This may have been due to the report requested from British translator Harry C. Stevens who, irrespective of shortcomings discovered in the translation, was also dismissive of the author herself, because “she cannot but rank as a secondary writer of a past age – an age which saw greater writers like Sienkiewicz, Prus, Reymont, and others, who have not yet been revealed to the world outside Poland.” Of the novel itself, he says: “by its theme, as by its style, the work very definitely dates; nor does the writer’s art in this case rise to the sense of timelessness that transcends the period” (Stevens 1946)[2]. Such views may have sealed her fate in translation, since few English speakers were able to assess her without the “expert” opinion of critics of recognized authority and hence influence, who could read Polish.

The aim of the current article is not to take issue, however with these specific points, patronizing as they are, but rather to make a case for why the novel might be enjoyed by students of Polish literature and culture today. The recent translation is not a dated, anachronistic or uncomfortable read: it conveys, in my view, in unencumbered language the emotional baggage loaded within the text, and thereby aptly conveys the narrator-author’s conflicted retrospective portrayal of the historical events lying in the backdrop of the fictive present. The novel is an important witness to a type of Polish cultural consciousness in a particular geographical territory—the Niemen River region of the Grodno guberniya, which from the late eighteenth century until 1918, including at the time of writing (mid-1880s), was a western province of the Russian Empire.

Despite the relatively sympathetic, though hardly thundering endorsement of Czesław Miłosz in his History of Polish Literature, Orzeszkowa has enjoyed little attention from English-language critics and translators, thus compounding the lack of positive reception. It is time to challenge the view of her as a “dated” and inaccessible writer with nothing much to offer the contemporary non-Polish reader. If we dwell briefly on some of Miłosz’s less complimentary statements, such as: “Orzeszkowa was a provincial. […] Her writings are permeated with a love of human beings; their technique is old-fashioned and, perhaps, not up to the level of the exceptional mind which she revealed in her correspondence with the most eminent intellectuals in Poland and Europe” (Miłosz 1981, 303), and read carefully between the lines, we can see how reception of the novel may have suffered as a result of such assessments, since Miłosz had acquired by the time he wrote these remarks (just like Stevens before him) the status of an authority, and there were few others writing in English.

In recent years, a few scholars outside Poland have written articles on Orzeszkowa or translated the work of recent Polish specialists. In 2001, Grażyna Borkowska’s book Cudzoziemki (1996), which contains a large section on Orzeszkowa, appeared in English and has become an invaluable source for students of Polish women’s writing outside Poland, especially in Canada and the United States. (Borkowska 2001) A few further articles by Borkowska on Orzeszkowa have appeared subsequently in multi-authored volumes (Borkowska 2005, 2012). In 1995, my article on Orzeszkowa and the Jews appeared—a topic well trawled now by several scholars, writing not only in English, and in 2010 my long article on the January 1863 Uprising and Orzeszkowa’s short-story cycle Gloria victis (Phillips 1995, 2010). Meanwhile Orzeszkowa gained some prominence among European scholars of the history of women’s writing by being in included in the COST-funded European project Women’s Writing in History (2008-2012) and its publications through the involvement of Swiss scholar Corinne Fournier-Kiss, who is particularly interested in Orzeszkowa’s dialogue with contemporary Czech women writers. However, none of this research published in English concentrates exclusively, or even primarily on her novel Nad Niemnem. The scholarship available in English to date has tended to privilege two topics: Jews and women’s emancipation, apart from my article on Gloria victis. Unlike in much of Orzeszkowa’s fiction, however, there are no Jews in On the Niemen, which is striking in comparison with her other novels and short prose, where Jews feature significantly. Women’s emancipation, or at least the contemporary condition of women’s lives (of all social classes) is, however, touched upon in On the Niemen but it is not the centre of attention.

Miłosz translates the title as On the Banks of the Niemen, which strictly speaking more accurately reflects the sense of “nad” than Granas’s On the Niemen, but I can understand why she chose a shorter alternative, closer in number of syllables to Orzeszkowa’s title. Granas’s translation makes Orzeszkowa’s masterpiece available for the first time not only to the non-Polish-speaking audience worldwide, but also to university students and researchers in North America, Britain, Australia and elsewhere, where students are increasingly less likely to read literary texts in the original Polish, even if they are so-called heritage speakers, and especially if the texts are long. It now has the potential to be included in a wide range of courses not only on Slavic literatures, but also on comparative topics. American, Canadian, British and other teachers now have the opportunity to include Orzeszkowa’s novel in their “transatlantic” canon, as well as in comparative research projects on, for example, European women’s writing of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century (Shallcross 2014). Some specialists would even claim that the very continued existence of Polish literary studies at North American and British universities, given the cutbacks in funding for “minority” languages in recent years (a situation that is unlikely to improve), depends on the inclusion of Polish texts in comparative contexts[3]. The appearance of the new translation is therefore an apt starting-point for my considerations in this current essay, because it means that the novel can now be included in such contexts, and because my essay is directed primarily at this same audience: students and researchers outside Poland. My aim is to make a case for why this novel should be included in these programmes.

Returning briefly to the translation history, it is significant (though not surprising, as the same is borne out by the translation history—or lack thereof—of other dead Polish women writers, such as Zofia Nałkowska) that fewer translations of Orzeszkowa have appeared in English than in some other languages, for example in Russian and other Slavonic or neighbouring languages (Estonian, Lithuania), or German (Gacowa 1999). Since the exceptions listed in the compilation by Coleman (1963), a second translation has appeared of Meir Ezofowicz, as well as a limited number of new translations of novellas, for example Helen Goscilo’s collection Russian and Polish Women’s Writing (1985) contains her translation of the novella “Miss Antonina.” This means that there is no reception history of On the Niemen in English-speaking contexts of which we may speak. In contrast, there were a number of contemporary translations of Orzeszkowa’s novel into Russian, German and French, and more recently, into Belarusian (Gacowa 1999).

Thus we may note a tension between the past perception of Orzeszkowa as a “secondary writer of a past age” (Stevens) or as “provincial” and “old-fashioned” (Miłosz)—with allegedly little appeal to English-speaking readers, and so remaining untranslated until very recently, and the desire of myself and other scholars working outside Poland on Polish literary history to rehabilitate her—or rather make her seriously visible at all for the first time—to those same readers and, in the current article, specifically to non-Polish-speaking students and researchers of Polish cultural studies and of comparative literature. For the novel is not merely a source of information about Polish society in a specific geographical milieu in the second half of the nineteenth century, but also of universal human identification: collective tragedy and personal grief, on the one hand, and commitment to creating a socially just society, on the other, are in constant tension not only with each other, but also with the narrator’s all-embracing, life-affirming faith in the beauty of the natural environment and its spiritual benefits, a faith which—although rooted in, and inspired by a specific geographical locality—is universal and timeless, and appeals to Polish and non-Polish readers alike. All great literary texts contain such contradictions and ambiguities, since neither art nor experience can be reduced to comfortable, satisfying solutions; and like all good art, such texts offer the reader something more than the place-specific social or political.

The most fundamental tension would appear to be between Orzeszkowa’s Positivist ideology with its didactic but progressive social intentions, and her own arguably Romantic attachment to the land, as well as to a specific Polish form of insurrectionary national patriotism connected with the history of Polish presence in that land—or, in other words, between her exploitation of the genre of the novel in order to illustrate how the general welfare of rural (in the present case) society might be improved were the various classes better disposed to one another, better educated, and less politically divided and economically differentiated (viz. my description of the novel as a “thesis novel” or roman à these, in which the position of the narrator almost invariably reflects the didactic intentions of the author herself), and the narrator’s emotional attachment to a specific socio-political line, which is much more convincing, in fact, as Orzeszkowa’s true standpoint, perhaps precisely because of the emotional intensity associated with it, tangible in her language and imagery.  In addition, there is a parallel tension between those characters who represent particular social types or embodiments of a certain opinions (Witold, Darzecki, Dominik, Kirło, Różyc), whom Orzeszkowa no doubt encountered in real life and then reflects here, and those—relatively few—characters who are portrayed with greater psychological depth, such as Justyna, Marta or Pani Andrzejowa, where we learn more about their backgrounds and the reasons for their mental and emotional formation. However, I believe it is fair to say, in general, that Orzeszkowa’s characters tend to represent points of view, social attitudes, rather than be interesting individual psychological studies in themselves: they have particular functions to perform in conveying different perspectives on the ideological content of the novel, as does the development and denouement of the plot.

And here, there is another tension: between the general issue, more strongly represented however in other novels by Orzeszkowa, of women’s emancipation, in particular the theme of pampered, unfulfilled and wasted lives, and the socio-economic causes of them (e.g. Emilia, Benedykt Korczyński wife, and her frustrated eccentric companion Teresa, who arouse only amusement or pity in the reader) and the cultural stereotype of Pani Andrzejowa, a figure full of contradictions as far as the reader is concerned. On the one hand, Pani Andrzejowa represents the standard self-sacrificial, eternally grieving wife and mother widowed by the nineteenth-century uprisings against foreign rule (the so-called Polish Mother or Matka Polka), a form of obligatory behaviour requiring constant mourning and devoted deferment to her husband and his ideals, even after his death (we never learn her own forename, she is invariably Andrzej’s wife), and outwardly expressed by the continual wearing of black mourning clothes and stark silver jewellery, usually with religious symbolism; on the other hand, being neither unintelligent nor uncaring about peasants, whom she attempts to educate, Andrzejowa raises her only son (Zygmunt Korczyński) to be a spoiled self-important snob, devoted to dilettante art and fashionable clothes, divorced from ordinary life, deliberately brought up to regard himself as separate from and superior to the “inferior” common people around him, the source not only of his neglect of his inherited estates and total lack of political commitment, but also of his personal tragedy, having been forced by his mother to abandon his earlier love for Justyna in order to marry someone else of more socially compatible background.

Orzeszkowa is generally described by literary historians, including by Miłosz, as a Positivist writer, i.e. in the Polish understanding of this concept. Basically, this social and literary movement, the most important representatives of whom were the critic Aleksander Świętochowski (1849-1938) and the novelist Bolesław Prus (1847-1912)—the frequent inclusion of Henryk Sienkiewicz in this category is even more problematic in my view than of Orzeszkowa—was a reaction to the ideals of the Romantic poetry and drama written by Polish patriots in exile in the years immediately preceding or following the defeat of the November 1830-1831 Uprising, namely Adam Mickiewicz’s Konrad Wallenrod (1828), Part III of his verse drama Forefathers (Dziady)the so-called Dziady drezdeńskie since the work was written in Dresden (1832), and his epic poem, regarded ever since as the Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz, published in Paris in 1834. Additionally, there was the exiled work of the two other Romantic bards: Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-1859) and Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849), although it will be Mickiewicz who is the significant one in relation to Orzeszkowa’s disavowal, or not, of the Romantic legacy. Her evocative and emotionally charged descriptions of the natural beauty of the Niemen valley, alongside her strong cultural attachment to an imagined golden age of the noble (szlachta) manor, indeed have much in common with the similar epic idyllization of these same phenomena in Pan Tadeusz (Sztachelska 2001), and likewise express a nostalgia for a way of life already past, or in the process of passing, in the fictive present of her literary works.

The January Uprising of 1863-1864 is usually regarded by literary historians, who like to conveniently divide literary history into distinct periods usually mapping onto key political developments, as the culmination and close of the Romantic period in Polish literary history and the start of Positivism, associated from 1863 initially mainly with the Szkoła Główna in Warsaw and the critic Świętochowski. In 1866 Orzeszkowa published her own critical article Several Observations on the Novel (Kilka uwag nad powieścią). The overall idea of Positivism, in a nutshell, was the rejection of the insurrectionary tradition, sustained by exiled Romantic poetry and idealizing blood sacrifice, as a desirable or achievable means of restoring Polish political independence and self-governance. Romanticism saw Poles primarily as victims, but advocated no practical solution for improving their lives in an intransigent political situation, other than through death for the now imaginary “fatherland” in armed insurgency. It offered no practical suggestions as to how the restored Polish independent state might function, should it be regained, or what would be its economic or social base—it is telling that Roman Traugutt’s brief period of success in Warsaw functioned as a dictatorship, driven primarily by the need to maintain control (Kieniewicz 1972; Davies 1981).

The January Uprising was the culmination of this tradition, and its failure was followed by even greater repression than Poles had experienced hitherto, especially in the Russian partition. Positivists therefore decided to concentrate on improving the life of Poles within the existing restrictions, emphasizing economic development and education, reform of agricultural practices and development of manufacturing industries, thereby encouraging people to participate in building up a just society and viable economy within the existing political confines; the movement was also marked by other progressive ideas such as the emancipation of women, in the sense of greater educational and employment opportunities, and Jews. Regarding society itself as an organism, its bywords or slogans were: “organic work” (“praca organiczna”) and “work from the bottom up—or from the foundations” (“praca od podstaw”). Influenced by utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer), contemporary scientific developments like Darwinism, and other west European progressive philosophers such as Auguste Comte, Positivism thus emphasized alongside economic development, a programme of social justice and inclusion[4].

In it is within this Positivist programme that we should understand Orzeszkowa’s commitment to the Jewish Question: despite her enormous self-education in the field and personal contacts with Jewish circles in Grodno, where she lived, Warsaw and Saint Petersburg, despite the many sympathetic portraits of Jews in her fiction, and despite her publicly expressed outrage at the pogroms of 1881-1884, she remained a convinced assimilationist and anti-Zionist. However, in On the Niemen, as mentioned above, there are no Jews, and no real peasants either—I will explain below what I mean by this. But there is certainly the topic of agricultural reform: the need to modernize farming techniques and machinery, as well as prevent landed estates from going to rack and ruin because of irresponsible landowners and becoming an additional cause of farm workers’ poverty. The young hero of reform is Witold Korczyński, while the neglectful landowners, who basically milk their ancestral estates in order to maintain a luxurious cosmopolitan lifestyle, are amply represented by his cousin Zygmunt Korczyński, as well as by Kirło and Różyc. Despite this evidence of commitment to Positivist ideas, the overall theme of the novel and the sympathies of Orzeszkowa’s narrator arguably lie elsewhere. The overarching theme of the novel is the January Uprising and its aftermath, especially the divisions between the Polish-speaking social classes, who in 1863, according to the perspective provided by the novel’s narrator, had fought together for allegedly common aims. Although well-coded in order to avoid interventions from the tsarist censorship, to a contemporary Polish-speaking reader, or to a literary scholar writing today informed of Polish nineteenth-century history, the ideological import of the novel is hardly hidden.

It is no exaggeration to say that the most important single event in the life-story of Eliza Orzeszkowa was the January Uprising, and her own participation in it (Jankowski 1988; Phillips 2010). Its defeat was to remain with her throughout her life and was perhaps the deepest trauma affecting her psyche and emotions. Despite the Positivist elements in On the Niemen, this novel is first and foremost about the uprising, and its lasting legacy for the rural population of the region, for nobles and peasants, landowners and farmers, and the implications for Polish society and patriotic activity within the Russian partition. However, for Orzeszkowa, this was not just a moment of collective significance, where her identity as a Polish patriot overrode all personal considerations; it also changed the course of her personal life, unquestionably for the better: it marked her liberation from a stifling and unfulfilling marriage (ill-matched, perhaps we should say, since there is no evidence that Piotr Orzeszko treated her cruelly), and the beginning of her independent life as a writer. Although she was to focus her future works primarily around social and collective causes, this personal element, this radical choice in fact, was crucial, because that moment turned a frivolous but frustrated young woman into one with a purpose, while retrospective comments about her own participation in the events, or their reflection in parts of Gloria victis (e.g. in Oni, They, the first story in the cycle), are marked by youthful enthusiasm, passion and extraordinary excitement. In some ways, for that overshadowed but never forgotten young woman, it was a time even of joy (Borkowska 2001; Phillips 2010).

When preparations for the uprising were underway in the Russian Partition, Orzeszkowa was not living in Grodno, where from 1870 she was to spend the remainder of her life and wrote most of her works including On the Niemen, but in the Kobrzyń region of Podlesie, on the estate of her then husband, Ludwinów. Married to Piotr Orzeszko in 1858 at the age of barely seventeen, she was already disillusioned by her marriage in 1862 (Jankowski 1988; Wiśniewska 2008; Phillips 2010). The uprising galvanized her morally and gave her purpose. Her involvement in some of the roles open to women (as bearers of intelligence, nurses, harbourers of arms) is also reflected in the short story cycle Gloria victis, published over forty years after the events. Only when the censorship rules in the Russian Empire were relaxed in 1905, though not removed, did she risk publishing openly on the subject closest to heart. The theme of the uprising and its aftermath appears well-hidden in her earlier novels, but nowhere so comprehensively as in On the Niemen. Not mentioned directly, to the Polish readership at the time, the allusions would have obvious, not least the mention a few times in passing of “twenty-three years ago” (the novel was completed in 1886).

When Orzeszko was exiled to Siberia and Ludwinów was sequestered, she did not, unlike most loyal wives, accompany him into exile, but returned to her deceased father’s estate at Milkowszczyna, near Grodno. Here, in the depths of the countryside, more or less alone and with little means of support but with a roof over her head, she began her writing career. Following the failed uprising, she would continue to support the patriotic cause through writing. As she wrote in 1907, at the time she was planning the Gloria victis stories, to Marian Dubiecki, the one-time leader of the resurrection in the Austrian partition:


“I looked upon it [the tragedy of 1863] with very young eyes […] and […] I participated in it. That moment had a decisive influence on my whole future. […] That moment ignited in me the desire to serve my country [literally: Fatherland] according to my strengths and the nature of my abilities […]. Later I suffered much grief, but none compared with the pain I felt over its misfortune […]. The year 1863 did this to me and in me. If it were not for its hammer and chisel, my destiny would most certainly have been different and I probably would not have become an author.” (Wiśniewska 2008, 1863: 1; Phillips 2010, 73-74, my translation)[5].


What she intended was not so much overt support for further armed uprisings as preservation of the Polish language and culture in the region—through the production and distribution of literature. In a sense, it was a drive to keep not only the language, but the memories alive, and hence of the identification of Polish-speaking populations with the land, with this specific territory. In an age of rising nationalisms, including Zionism of which she was intensely aware, she must have been concerned about the potential threat to continued Polish cultural dominance in the region. Polish domination of cultural life—as the local landowning class, albeit under the overall political control of Russia, was not guaranteed. Poles, despite being the majority of landowners, were the decided minority in numerical terms. According to Orzeszkowa’s biographer, Edmund Jankowski, in 1870, when she settled permanently in the city of Grodno, its population was roughly 20,000, fifty per cent of whom were Jews and only thirty per cent Poles. In addition, from 1865 to 1871, a form of martial law was in force, following the suppression of the uprising, forbidding, among other things, the use in public of the Polish language (Jankowski 1988, 127-128). Furthermore Orzeszkowa, as a result of her patriotic activities and especially after the impounding in 1883 of the bookshop and publishing outlet she owned in Wilno (Vilnius) which defiantly published exclusively in Polish and promoted Polish authors, was kept under police surveillance and had to apply for permission each time she wished to leave her home city of Grodno.

It is therefore important to emphasize that, in contrast to many of her works where other ethnic groups also feature: Jews, peasants identified by their speech as ethnically Belarusian (Dziurdzowie, Cham, the novella “Tadeusz,” or the peasant Teleżuk in Gloria victis), and even Russians, On the Niemen is exclusively about the Polish population, including the so-called peasants, who speak Polish on this occasion, not a dialect of Belarusian. I say “so-called” because what we essentially encounter here are contemporary, relatively independent peasant farmers who were once nobilitated but who over the centuries have become reduced economically, known as the “szlachta zagrodowa” or “szlachta zaściankowa,” represented in the novel by the Bohatyrowicz clan (based on a real family of similar name whom Orzeszkowa knew personally: the Bohatyrewicz family). Her aim in the novel is to show exclusively Polish historical attachment to this land, through the history and current activity of this clan, as well as through the life of the local manor (also ethnically Polish but of a “higher” social, economically privileged class), at a time when she felt it to be threatened: by political and cultural repression from the imperial authorities, by economic decline, by the pressure of other rising nationalisms, by the fact that contemporary ethnic Poles showed no unity between classes. Yet the unity advocated in Nad Niemnem is primarily a “noble” one: between landed gentry or ziemiaństwo and “peasant farmers” who retain an historical claim to their own once proud nobility. Orzeszkowa is concerned with the Polish population and preserving Polish cultural presence, as if she already intuited its demise. In a letter to Leopold Meyet of 11 August 1886, she expresses her intention as follows:


“In this novel you encounter almost a hundred individuals from the citizen class [here she means the landowning ziemiaństwo—U.P.] and the szlachta zagrodowa, against the backdrop of local relations and the Niemen countryside, which I want to represent within the widest possible framework. For the sake of this novel, I have pursued in the company of men and women of the szlachta zagrodowa my formal botanical studies, as well as [researched] the songs, folktales, riddles and sayings of the local Polish population [my emphases—U.P., she uses “lud” here not “naród”].” (Jankowski 1988, 291)


The local speech and songs of this szlachta zagrodowa are evident in the colourful speech of Fabian and Anzelm Bohatyrowicz, as well as that of the village women in the harvest scenes, for example, at the village wedding and in the numerous “folk” songs inserted into the text that add to the charm and nostalgia of the general atmosphere. It is difficult even to describe this as a separate “dialect”—but it is undoubtedly and intentionally Polish, and not Belarusian (which would have been the speech of the large majority of poorer peasants in the region). In another letter to Meyet, of November 1886, when recalling again one of the local families that inspired her portrait of the szlachta zagrodowa in On the Niemen, she comments approvingly that “they speak in Old Polish, without a trace of Russicism or Ruthenianism (“bez cienia rusycyzmu i rusinizmu”), reminiscent of Rej or Górnicki [Renaissance writers—U.P.]” and praises the young farmer about to get married: “he reads and writes Polish very correctly.” (Jankowski 1988, p. 296).

At the same time, however, Orzeszkowa’s concern about the preservation of Polish or Polishness should not be regarded as a narrow-minded chauvinistic one. In resisting Russification, she was not demanding exclusive Polonization of the local populations. It is more the case that she feared the potential elimination from the region of the Polish language under pressure from not only Russification but also from the emerging Belarusian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian national movements, which also had historical claims to this and adjoining territories. In a letter, also of 1886, to Ivan Franko, the leading Ukrainian poet (1856-1916), at a time when she was learning Ukrainian and reading Ukrainian literature, she writes: “Getting to know the Ukrainian language (“język małoruski”) does not present much difficulty for me since I grew up in the Grodno gubernia and a large proportion of my life was spent in the countryside among the local Ruthenian inhabitants (“rusińska ludność”), and so my knowledge of their language and sympathy for them stretch back to the earliest dawn of my thought and feelings.” (Jankowski 1988, 347) Here and elsewhere, Orzeszkowa tends not to use the designations “ukraiński” and “białoruski” but the imperial “małoruski” for Ukrainian (she does recognize it, however, as a separate language, not a dialect of so-called “great” Russian) and simply “rusiński” for Belarusian.

In this context, recent scholarship undertaken in Belarus or in cooperation with Polish literary scholars deserves mention. Thanks in large part to the work of Svetlana Musienko of the Polish Philology Department at Yanka Kupala State University in Grodno, who has done much to restore memory of both Eliza Orzeszkowa’s and Zofia Nałkowska’s connections with the region, several conferences have taken place over the past twenty years resulting in volumes of scholarly articles, including Twórczość Elizy Orzeszkowej i kultura białoruska (2002) and Eliza Azheshka u estetychnai prastory slavânsky krain (2013). Whilst it is not my intention to play down the importance of this scholarship—far from it: such studies exploring previously overlooked multilingualism and cultural interdependence in border regions such as this are extremely valuable—it has to be acknowledged that in the case of On the Niemen, there are no Ruthenian (Belarusian)-speaking peasants but only various classes of Polish-speaking nobles, ex-nobles and peasant farmers. Orzeszkowa was concerned above all about divisions among ethnic Poles, and sought to encourage unity among them, because she perceived unity as the keystone of Polish linguistic and cultural survival in this land.

Unity is the crucial factor, and it is where the memory of 1863 plays its most important role in the ideological underpinning of the novel: joint participation in the uprising was a time of unity when the Bohatyrowicz clan fought alongside the noble owners of the manor. They had a common aim, but since that time, this essential element of ethnic survival has been lost. The symbol is the shared grave, simply called Mogiła (The Grave). This symbol, however, is balanced by another: the grave of Jan and Cecylia, the founders of the Bohatyrowicz clan, in the early sixteenth century, thus symbolizing their attachment to this particular region and soil (the modest stone bears the words: “Jan i Cecylia, Rok1549, memento mori”—no surname is recorded on the grave). These two graves, both based on real existing monuments, provide the structural underpinning of the novel: the first is introduced in the last chapter of volume one (chapter 6) and the second in the last chapter of volume 2 (chapter 5), exactly one third and two thirds of the way through the text; their common purpose will be symbolized by the coming together of Jan Bohatyrowicz, son of the slain hero of 1863, and Justyna Orzelska, a poor but noble relative of the family resident at the manor, which had likewise lost its leader (Andrzej Korczyński) in the uprising, i.e. by a marriage between social classes that is portrayed in positive and hopeful terms. This marriage had in fact been the main focus of Orzeszkowa’s original idea for the novel since its inception and was to have been entitled Mezalians (Mésalliance), thus referring to the supposedly insurmountable class differences between the lovers. However, despite the very real challenges for Justyna (note: it is she who has to adapt to the “peasant” life, to hard agricultural work and lack of home comforts, not Jan to her…), in the fictive present (mid-1880s), this option is not perceived by Orzeszkowa’s narrator, nor by the more progressive representatives among the novel’s characters as being socially or morally inappropriate, such as Witold Korczyński, who openly supports the alliance, or eventually his father Benedykt, who eventually gives the marriage, as Justyna’s legal guardian, his blessing.

To emphasize the significance of this decision, both on Justyna’s part and on Benedykt’s, a contrast is introduced in one of the novel’s subplots: a similar attraction in the older generation, i.e. the 1863 generation, between Andrzej and Benedykt’s cousin, Marta Korczyńska, like Justyna a poor relative of the family resident at the manor, and Jan’s uncle Anzelm, brother of the dead hero Jerzy, Jan’s father. The two older people are shown to have suffered greatly as a result of their failure to marry; devastated emotionally, their physical health (Marta’s persistent cough and premature ageing) and mental health (Anzelm’s several-year “breakdown”) having paid the price. This rift is shown to have been Marta’s decision: because, so she confesses to Justyna, when she perceives the direction in which Justyna’s own heart is moving, she was afraid of two things: hard work, even though she works like a slave to maintain the daily routine of the manor, since no one else is capable; and fear of being a laughing-stock, due to the prejudices of her family and other acquaintances of her social class. She clearly regrets her decision. However, for Justyna’s generation, although the prejudices survive in the minds of most of her own class, they prove easier to overcome; part of this is perhaps the general recognition of the economic decline of this social class, and the fact that a penniless young woman would have few life prospects anyway. It is indicative, however, of Justyna’s own realistic assessment of her situation, and also of her determined loyalty to the healthy, attractive man she falls in love with—since she rejects is his favour the marriage proposal, quite unexpected to her family, of the rich, though rapidly declining landowner, Teofil Różyc, a morphine addict with a profligate past, hardly an attractive sexual prospect.  Such a proposal would have been unlikely, in fact; one senses that Orzeszkowa includes it rather to emphasize the positive, “correct” decision of Justyna.

Both tales of “mésalliance”—Jan and Justyna, and the earlier unfulfilled love between Anzelm and Marta—have their precedent in the history of the founders of the Bohatyrowicz clan, Jan and Cecylia. The couple, he from the common people and she from a noble family, were said to have fled to this part of the Niemen valley during the late fifteenth century, from their families in Poland proper. In this sense, then, they were early, pioneering colonizers. From literally nothing, Jan and Cecylia began to till the wilderness, and founded a whole clan of farming descendants. Sparsely populated, the region nevertheless had a “Ruthenian” population in and around the not-too-distant town of Grodno, to which their sons travelled in order to trade. By intermarrying with this local population, the clan grew but remained predominantly Polish-speaking. For Orzeszkowa’s purposes in this novel, this fact is key. Jan and Cecylia were Poles, as Anzelm explains, in his long summary of the history of the Bohatyrowiczes when he and Jan take Justyna to the founders’ grave at the beginning of Jan and Justyna’s friendship:


“One of the sons took a wife for himself from among the fisher folk […], and the sixth, while trading in fish […] brought himself a lifelong companion from the town of Grodno, which was then, because of the quantity of gardens there, called Horodno in Belarussian (“po rusińsku”). That girl was Belarussian too (“Rusinka”), but at the time, the two bloods living in one land were not infrequently mixed together and it never hurt anyone or caused any offence. Where the sons found wives, from there too came husbands for the daughters, and marrying them, never departed, but built houses here and, clearing the forest, cultivated ever more fields.” (Orzeszkowa 2014, 187)


So the local Ruthenian (or Belarussian, in Granas’s translation—she prefers this form to the more usual present-day form Belarusian) spouses were absorbed into the Polish settlement. The most significant event in its history, however, was its alleged discovery, while on a hunting expedition at least half a century later, by the Polish king Zygmunt August (reigned 1548-1572). Impressed by its size and prosperity, the king demands to meet its founders, by then at least eighty or ninety years old, he learns of their origins (“from those parts through which the Vistula flows”) and then bestows upon the “heroic” Jan and his clan the noble status, as Anzelm relates:


“The king turned to Jan. ‘You, old man, by your own desire shall remain nameless, and as you were born a commoner, so shall you be laid in your grave. But you have been a bold hero, wresting this land from the wild wilderness and the fierce animals and conquering it not by blood and sword but by work and sweat, opening its breast to a numerous people, and thereby increasing the wealth of the kingdom. Therefore, to your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to the furthest generations and until the extinction of your clan, I shall give a surname derived from your heroism.’

“Here, with his right hand extended above the astounded people, the king solemnly said: ‘Let this clan, springing from a man born to the common condition, be raised to the level of the country’s nobility and, from now until its extinction, have all the rights and duties proper to the estate of knighthood to enjoy and to perform. I hereby ennoble you and order that you bear the name of Bohatyrowicz […].’” (Orzeszkowa, 2014, 191-192)


The Bohatyrowiczes treasure this aspect of their past. The year of the king’s visit (1549) is the one recorded on the grave, not the dates when Jan and Cecylia died. They regard themselves as nobles, szlachta, and thus feel themselves to be as good in terms of self-worth and social status as the szlachta living at the manor. Although never as rich as the landed ziemiaństwo—represented in the novel by the Korczyński family and the various relatives, social acquaintances and hangers-on associated with the Korczyn manor, the conferring of the noble status separates the Bohatyrowiczes from other “peasants”. Yet, compared to many peasants, they are prosperous (despite the differences between them—Anzelm and Jan, for example, are better skilled as husbandmen than their neighbour Fabian Bohatyrowicz,  relatively inept and constantly resentfully disposed towards the manor), certainly not without their own patches of land, livestock and farming skills, and not merely hired labour on the verge of starvation, although, as Witold observes, improvements could indeed be made in agricultural methods, as well as in relations between the village settlement and the manor on occasions when his father requires its labour, for example during the harvest.

Set in 1886, the novel’s action takes place not only twenty-three years after the January Uprising, but twenty-five years after the Emancipation of the Serfs in the Russian Empire (1861). It is not entirely clear from the novel’s text how this specific change has affected relations between the Korczyn manor and the Bohatyrowicz village settlement, or whether the Bohatyrowicz lands had ever been brought at some point in history under manorial control; but clearly, these manorial lands had not been sequestered as part of tsarist repressions following the defeat of the Uprising (as had happened to Piotr Orzeszko’s Ludwinów). Clearly, Benedykt Korczyński is dependent on “peasant” labour to bring in the harvest from the manor fields, and his own attitude to the villagers is shown to be wanting in many respects, as his son Witold points out to him and which causes the quarrel and temporary breakdown of relations between father and son: Benedykt treats the farm workers as fools, accuses them unjustly of breaking machinery, shows them no human respect and generally behaves like the traditional, dictatorial lord of the manor. The suggestion is that the manor still has some rights over “peasant” labour (?), or maybe it is now simply a question of establishing just procedures for hiring that very same labour, over which landlords no longer had an automatic right. At the same time, similarly misguided misconceptions, prejudices and resentful sentiments are harboured by many of the “peasants” towards the manor, as exemplified by the reckless court cause pursued by Fabian against Benedykt Korczyński about a piece of land over which he has no legal claim at all. These tensions on the level of agricultural relations are indicative of the bigger picture in the fictive present portrayed by Orzeszkowa. Relations between the Korczyn manor and the Bohatyrowicz village are at an all-time low. This, however, was not always the case, and the restoration of communication and goodwill, is the aim at the heart of the narrator’s and author’s purpose.

In 1863, at the time of the Uprising, the two groups of nobles or ex-nobles-cum-farmers were led by Benedykt’s elder brother Andrzej Korczyński, while the Bohatyrowicz clan was represented then by Jerzy Bohatyrowicz, brother of Anzelm and father of Jan. The class cooperation and ideological unity displayed during this shared bid for Polish independence lies buried in the mass Grave (Mogiła) on the hillside above the Niemen, along with the bodies of the forty slaughtered insurgents, a secluded place kept concealed for political reasons and forgotten by everyone except those most closely affected: Anzelm, Jan and Pani Andrzejowa. The translation here perfectly catches the elegiac tone of the description of the grave, as well as of many of Orzeszkowa’s other descriptions of the local nature in the novel, on one level timeless and indifferent, and yet imbued with tragic memories of the recent past, even when death gives rise to new prolific life from the soil:


“The meadow was covered with low uneven grass, sparsely sown with lilac savory and self-heal, white yarrow, the small flower-heads of clover and the stars of everlastings. Juniper bushes grew at the edges and ran toward the center, sprinkled as if with a dew of shining, hard, black berries, or here and there showing rusty-red, like spots of blood against the dark green. From their dry, spiky tangle, the yellow flowers of wolf’s palate leaned out and an extended garland of numerous types of bindweed, ivy, and clubmoss crawled over the ground and into the distance. Here and there under the bushes and among the low grass there were red or yellow mushrooms of the most peculiar shapes or the musty odor of white mold in the ground. In the forest depths, under the dark column of several intertwined firs and covered by their straight shadow, a mound like a bulwark or barrow rose, of moderate size, with gentle slopes obviously made by human hands, and, like that whole low meadow, grown over in uneven clumps of bentgrass.” (Orzeszkowa 2014, 336-337)


Returning to her bedroom at Korczyn after this first visit to the grave, full of new knowledge and awareness, Justyna has a vision in dream or in imagination of the river bank illuminated by a lamp like the one she had seen on Anzelm’s chest-of-drawers:


“It seemed to her again that over the world a dusk reigned, transparent, but without daylight or sun, and she was sailing upwards, her gaze embracing a wide sweep of land, so wide that she saw clearly the Korczyn manor house and the village, and in the thick greenery, the hidden tomb of the legendary pair, and at the other end of the horizon, a sad desert of sand, and beyond it, in a closed circle of forest hills, the great grave mound. […] It was clear where she had taken it from [i.e. the lamp] and now she raised it high, and its rays, which were meagre in fact, narrow, fell on the roofs of the houses, throwing gold threads on the bonding network of paths and fences; the rays reached on one side to the ancient tomb and on the other to the deserted grave mound, lighting them and seeming to tie them, to bind them together like links in a chain.” (Orzeszkowa 2014, 403-404)


The metaphor of the links in a chain (“jak ogniwa jednego łańcucha”) symbolizing the key issue of need for social unity is one Orzeszkowa often uses in her fiction (as, for example, in her 1895 story Ogniwa, about the need for Polish and Jewish social cooperation). This cooperation and unity is deemed by the narrator’s voice to be an essential precondition for Polish self-determination. However, as noted above, this is conceived of in the novel as an exclusively Polish effort, where the “peasant” side is in fact a degraded noble one, the szlachta zagrodowa, not local peasants of latter-day “Ruthenian” or “Belarusian” cultural and linguistic stock. And ultimately, Orzeszkowa’s concern, as expressed in her letters and as suggested by the elegiac tone of the novel, especially the parts associated with the Uprising and the Grave, would appear to the very survival itself of Polish linguistic and cultural presence in the region. Was this concern linked to some astonishing, or not so astonishing, premonition of its eventual, or inevitable perhaps, demise?

In the context of the demand for “unity,” another form of behaviour, clearly marked negative by the narratorial voice in On the Niemen, as well as later in the short-story cycle Gloria victis, is the perception of so-called “betrayal” or “treachery” (“zdrada”). In On the Niemen, the chief culprits are some of the close relatives of the fallen hero Andrzej Korczyński: namely, the middle of the three brothers Dominik (Benedykt is the youngest), who has made a glittering career for himself as a tsarist civil servant (a privy councillor hoping even to rise to the rank of senator) in Saint Petersburg, thus turning his back on helping Polish national interests; Darzecki, Benedykt’s brother-in-law, concerned above all with securing personal wealth and maintaining his family’s position in the social hierarchy, shown to be unscrupulous in extracting his wife’s dowry from the already indebted Benedykt; and Andrzej’s son, Zygmunt, the selfish dilettante aesthete with an inflated sense of his own superiority, and likewise uninterested in supporting collective patriotic efforts, yet painfully realistic in his showdown with his mother, Pani Andrzejowa, about the certain failure of all rebellion against the status quo (volume 3, chapter 2: “Only madmen and radical idealists defend to the last a battle that is completely lost”). Dominik’s letter to Benedykt meanwhile, (volume 3, chapter 4) urges Benedykt to give up a lost cause, offering to use his position to assist him, if only he would abandon his “biases and prejudices” (Orzeszkowa 2014, 516, 596). Given the political realities, the decision to build a civil-service career or enhance one’s personal wealth within the confines available rather than follow a doomed cause, however morally elevated, may not seem unreasonable to the objective gaze. However, Orzeszkowa’s narrator is not objective but engaged, and the positions adopted by Dominik and Zygmunt Korczyński and by Darzecki are marked negatively, and implicitly condemned—by portraying the behaviour of these individuals in this and other spheres as morally flawed and generally unpleasant; for example, Darzecki’s financial exploitation of Benedykt, or Zygmunt’s treatment of both Justyna and his wife Klotylda. In contrast, historically, the two levels of nobles (ziemiaństwo and szlachta zagrodowa) are shown to have fought alongside each other for a shared cause—not only in 1863, but also at other decisive moments, as in Domuntówna’s grandfather’s memories of Napoleon’s campaign of 1812 (volume 2, chapter 5).

It is interesting that in On the Niemen, “treachery” is confined to the landowning class. The Bohatyrowiczes are shown, in contrast, as loyal to the patriotic cause. In some other works, Orzeszkowa’s portrays class divisions that affect the unity of oppressed populations under tsarism, where such divisions have an ethnic as well as class component. In story the Hecuba from the Gloria victis cycle, the heroes of 1863 are betrayed by a local peasant, Teleżuk, whose speech clearly identifies him as Belarusian and not Polish. This element, repeated as a typical scenario by certain other Polish writers (such as Stefan Żeromski in his Faithful River, 1912, or Tadeusz Konwicki in his Polish Complex, 1977), where peasants or non-Polish peasants betray the Polish insurrectionary cause, is absent in On the Niemen.

“Zdrada” is a potent accusation occurring even today in Polish political debates. Nowadays, it basically implies betrayal of some allegedly shared and binding exclusive national identity based on a standard conception of “Polishness” as purely Catholic and ethnically Polish. To an outside observer, accusing a fellow citizen of being a traitor (“zdrajca”) appears out of place in a modern democracy. However, in Orzeszkowa’s day, the political situation was different, and the patriotic cause, understood here as the movement for Polish political independence from foreign rule and freedom from cultural oppression, was a cause that in her view required the unity of all social classes in order to have any chance of being effective; in effect, it meant loyalty to the insurrectionary tradition. In On the Niemen, therefore, while it is difficult not to regard Orzeszkowa’s narrator’s position as exclusively polonocentric, such polonocentrism should not be understood here as chauvinistic; as already mentioned, there are no Jews or Belarusians, true, only Poles are shown to inhabit this land, but within the context of the novel, this should not be understood as a deliberate desire to “polonize” or “eliminate” others, but rather as an act of self-defence, the defence of the Polish language and Polish culture as one of several competing claimants to the territory, under threat of demise. Whilst on one level, this might seem a rather extreme interpretation, on another—if we look ahead to the history of this region in the forthcoming sixty years, its absorption after 1945 into the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and remaining after 1989 as part of the independent state of Belarus—it reveals an uncanny sense of foresight, as though Orzeszkowa already intuited the fate of Polish presence there. Hence, possibly, the origin of the deeper consciousness behind the elegiac tone of the many descriptive passages: not merely the Grave itself, but all the evocative forest and meadow scenes are imbued with a distinct tension between the joyful and the elegiac, brimming with nostalgia for something in fact already lost. The happy and symbolic union of Jan and Justyna or the Positivistic optimism of Witold Korczyński are somehow less convincing, because they are far less emotionally invested than the narrator’s more dominant voice of mourning and longing. The most positive and impressive aspect meanwhile is the narrator’s affirmation of the natural beauty of the Niemen valley.

In this context, i.e. of intuition of impending loss, it is telling to consider the recent research by Kraków scholar Kataryzna Konczewska, who visited present-day rural settlements in the region portrayed not only in Nad Niemen but in other novels by Orzeszkowa such as Dziurdziowie (1885). The aim was to inquire of present-day Belarusian inhabitants what they remembered of the Polish manor-houses, zagrodowe farmsteads, or specific village and family names (Dziurdź, Bohatyrewicz), immortalized by Orzeszkowa. Perhaps not surprisingly, only a few old people had any recollection of this lost presence, one or two were actually descended from the particular families from whom the novelist took her inspiration. So perhaps soon we will “know the Bohatyrewiczes only from the pages of Orzeszkowa’s works” (Konczewska 2012, 175), thus adding to the conviction of the majority of today’s readers that the world she recreated was an imagined, fictional one (173). It is thanks to Orzeszkowa’s novels that the once rich Polish landowning and farming presence on the Niemen banks has been recreated and immortalized. And if we add here the other population described (in other novels, not On the Niemen) by Orzeszkowa and eliminated by history, then it is thanks to her works alone that “we are able to recreate today the life of those times” (173). An elegiac, nostalgic, Romantic tone predominates, even if we are unable to decide how far it is intentional or merely intuitive, and despite the optimistic Positivist social programme strongly articulated by some of the novel’s characters. A constant challenge to the latter is presented by the overarching reference to the insurrectionists’ Grave. The novel thereby not only rescues a linguistic and cultural presence otherwise lost to living memory along with the lost territory, it also preserves, in the emotional undercurrents tangible in its narratorial voice, the deepest ideological commitments of its author. It opens for present-day students and researchers of Polish literature a window onto a particular conflicted mentality rarely articulated so powerfully elsewhere.


  1. Eliza Orzeszkowa, On the Niemen. Translated by Michelle Granas. [s.l.]: [Printed in Great Britain by Amazon], 2014. The translation is self-published and available for purchase in printed form from amazon.com. It is unabbreviated and generally competent, although certain decisions taken by the translator might be questioned by another. For example, Granas (see her brief “Translator’s notes”) prefers to replace the Polish forms “pan,” “pani” or “panna” with English equivalents, including before forenames, thus creating such unnatural quaint formulations as Mrs. Emilia and Mr. Witold. One strictly incorrect point, however, introduced maybe to emphasize the link with “bohater” (hero), is the use throughout of the form “Bohaterowicz” and not “Bohatyrowicz” as in Orzeszkowa’s usage, or the real family name that was its inspiration: Bohatyrewicz.
  2. I have not managed to find the name of the translator, or whether it was a complete translation, or whether the translation has been preserved somewhere. No information is given in the correspondence. However, I intend to pursue this matter. I am grateful to Sylwia Szulc for bringing the letter to my attention.
  3. I grateful to the following for conversations and email exchanges on this topic during the past two years: Tamara Trojanowska, Halina Filipowicz, Bożena Shallcross, Ewa Małachowska-Pasek, Elwira Grossman, Stanley Bill, Katarzyna Zechenter.
  4. The peasants or serfs bonded to landowners had been emancipated in the Russian Empire only in 1861. This had happened earlier in Galicia, in the Austrian partition, in 1848. In the Congress Kingdom, also after 1815 absorbed into the Russian partition, peasants had been liberated in 1807, due to the introduction of the Napoleonic Code in the Duchy of Warsaw. In the western guberniyas, as in the case of the territory portrayed in On the Niemen, the legislation was imposed only in 1861, barely two years before the January Uprising.
  5. I am most grateful to Iwona Wiśniewska for sending me an electronic version of this invaluable source (see Bibliography), otherwise only available in hard copy in the library of the Institute of Literary Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences (Warsaw). All quotations, apart from those from Granas’s On the Niemen, are my own.




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—. 2005. “The Feminism of Eliza Orzeszkowa.” In Gender and Sexuality in Ethnical Context: Ten Essays on Polish Prose, edited by Knut Andreas Grimstad and Ursula Phillips, 77-97. Slavica Bergensia 5. Bergen: Department of Russian Studies, University of Bergen.

—. 2012. “Żmichowska versus Orzeszkowa: A Feminist Parallel.” In Women’s Voices and Feminism in Polish Cultural Memory, edited by Urszula Chowaniec and Ursula Phillips, 100-111. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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Konczewska, Katarzyna. 2012. “Eliza Orzeszkowa a Grodzieńszczyzna – studium pamięci.” In Sekrety Orzeszkowej, edited by Grażyna Borkowska, Magdalena Rudkowska and Iwona Wiśniewska, 172-181. Warsaw: Instytut Badań Literackich Polskiej Akademii Nauk.

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Musienko, Svetlana, ed. 2002. Twórczość Elizy Orzeszkowej i kultura białoruska: zbiór artykułów naukowych. Grodno: Uniwersytet Grodzieński imienia Janki Kupały. Katedra Filologii Polskiej.

Musienko, Svetlana and Mikalai Khmial’nicki, eds. 2013. Eliza Azheshka u estetychnai prastory slavânskykh krain: zbornik artykulau. Minsk: Knigazbor, 2013.

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Phillips, Ursula. 1995. “The ‘Jewish Question’ in the Novels and Short Stories of Eliza Orzeszkowa.” East European Jewish Affairs 25(2): 69-90.

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