Foreword: A Writer in Search of Her Foremothers

In: Women’s Literary Tradition and Twentieth-Century Hungarian Writers
Free access

Rewriting literary history, making people aware that well before our own time women also participated in the literary field: this is one of the objectives of the Women Writers in History collaboration.1 It means not the dropping of some additional female names, adding them to those of the small number of writing women that made it into the transnational literary canon – such as George Eliot, George Sand, Selma Lagerlöf or Harriet Beecher Stowe. It means: looking differently, adopting another perspective, taking women writers – of the past, the present and the future – more seriously.

Women like these four would often be presented as very exceptional cases in the midst of large groups of male authors, comparable to the relatively small numbers of women authors nowadays receiving literary prizes. In older, but still influential, historiography, women’s exceptionality as authors would be linked to their behaviour, which was not always similar to that of the ‘average’ European woman. However, conclusions, often drawn, about the exceptionality qua numbers, and the suggestion that so very few women would have published or would have written interesting works, have been found, during the last decades, to be false.2

In such reliable sources as catalogues of private and lending libraries dating back to the seventeenth century, or review articles and advertisements in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century periodicals, traces exist of many of women’s publications – and of their impact on readers. We can admit that – because of a lower degree of literacy, and frequent death in childbirth – there were, obviously, fewer women than men publishing; but from these sources we have to conclude that there were many women who succeeded in finding audiences for the books they wrote. Being well educated, they had often decided to remain single – yet they may deserve being known.

There is clearly a need for new histories that illustrate the active roles played by women in the literary field, and integrate those writers who were, at some point in history, lost or ‘forgotten’ – in spite of their having been published by publishers, reviewed in the periodical press or included in compilations of famous women. Such compilations found their origin in Boccacio’s Illustrious Women (1361) and Christine de Pizan’s response in her City of Ladies (1405), forming a genre that manifested itself in numerous European countries, particularly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Hilde Hoogenboom has demonstrated, the compilers (both male and female) borrowed heavily from each other and reacted to predecessors, from one country to another, creating an international genre which assured remembrance for women writers.3

The enduring presence – in these compilations – of considerable numbers of women presented as ‘famous’, suggests that ‘forgetting’ earlier women authors was not a natural process, but rather a conscious decision, taken by those ‘influencers’ that were (male) historiographers of general national literatures – in particular those who were active during the nineteenth century. For such elimination, historians often found reasons in the women’s behaviour, which tended to be discussed in articles supposed to comment the books.

The case of Christine de Pizan (the fourteenth-century compiler just mentioned, and a famous French poetess) is quite telling.4 Copies of her poetic works were mentioned, for instance, in eighteenth-century catalogues of Dutch private libraries, and Christine herself is frequently presented – in compilations other than her own – as the first woman who succeeded in living by her pen.5 Yet, several nineteenth-century (male) compilers6 stated she was not modest enough, because of the ‘un-feminine’ degree of knowledge which she had not been hiding. Her erudition was indeed exceptional, and therefore often considered reprehensible – according especially to Gustave Lanson, who pronounced, in 1894, something like a verdict, which seems to concern all women authors. He presented Christine as:

the first one of that unbearable lineage of women authors, who think they can treat any subject, and who during all their God-given years, do no more than multiply examples of their tireless superficiality, which is only equalled by their collective mediocrity.7

While for Christine de Pizan this ‘attack’ was without long lasting impact, for others it did work: they were pushed out of history – and remained outside for some time. To take another example, it lasted until the early twenty-first century8 for George Sand to reach again something approaching the ‘level of international celebrity’, which was hers at the end of her life.

From Christine de Pizan to George Sand and up to the twentieth century, women writers were aware of difficulties over their professional life; and they seem to have been curious about the ways in which other women authors coped. They not only read, translated, and commented upon each other’s works, but some of them entered into correspondences,9 decided to compile bio-bibliographic information about female predecessors,10 were proud of them, and happy to help young or future colleagues. The very existence of such (potential) connections between them, today provides important help for researchers: they allow finding the names of those who were ‘forgotten’ – especially as these documents now tend to be presented on-line. For us as researchers it becomes possible to give these women their due place within literary historiography, by describing the roles they played within the literary field of their own time and presenting them as possible models for future writers.

Important international ‘networks’ of women created themselves around successful and influential writers like, again, George Sand: for instance, those who translated her include Elizabeth A. Ashurst and Matilda M. Hays (into English), Claire von Glümer (into German), Suze Andriessen (into Dutch), Sofie Podlipská (into Czech), Elizaveta Nikolaevna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia (into Russian), Júlia Szendrey (into Hungarian)11 and many, many others. Either inspired by the works they had translated, or not, often they decided – as a next step – to write and publish their own texts, in many cases addressing themselves also to women or girls.

George Sand is an interesting example, because controversies around her generated many negative reactions among male readers, which may have either inhibited women from following her example, or inspired them to do so. Most of the successful women were less controversial and easier accepted. Several of them living in smaller countries and writing in smaller languages, depended on being translated, and were actually translated – like Fredrika Bremer (Sweden), Camilla Collett (Norway), Matilde Serao (Italy), Caecilia Böhl de Faber (Spain), Božena Němcová (Czechia), Carmen Sylva (pseudonym of Queen Elisabeth of Romania). They exerted influences, all over Europe: research is being carried out about them.

The book presented here adopts another perspective: Anna Menyhért is not only the researcher who wants to know and make known what had been left out of history. She is also a fiction writer and poet herself: she is searching for her own foremothers, those who wrote in her own language, Hungarian, at the end of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century. In Hungary the history of women’s authorship began later than in many other countries, actually thanks to several male intermediaries who played an important role, around 1800, in encouraging Hungarian women to take up their pens. These male efforts were indebted to women’s work in other countries – as Anna Fábri pointed out.12

Anna Menyhért looks back to five Hungarian female predecessors in a way similar to how Dutch/Swiss Belle de Zuylen/Charrière (eighteenth century) looked to her predecessor Marie de Sévigné (seventeenth century), or our present-day Dutch contemporary Nelleke Noordervliet feels inspired and encouraged by Belle de Zuylen. Menyhért compares her own feelings about these ‘foremothers’ to the current discourse on their personalities, which – as she sees it – is not doing justice to their literary merits: she is actually rewriting history from the female perspective.

This book was first published in Hungary in 2013.13 Other Hungarian women authors were clearly happy to see their own needs formulated. Orsolya Rákai says for instance:

I must say that it was painfully familiar. Yes, I remember how strange it was to me that girls were simply not present in young adult books and compulsory reading texts, and how difficult that was to get used to.14

Others also recognized her book as

a wide-ranging monograph that undertakes to do nothing less than overturn our conventional view of literature and how we define it in favour of a more complex system of criteria and a historical approach that will also legitimate women writers’ texts, and shape the canon.15

Even male critics were convinced that things

are beginning to change in Hungarian society and in the field of Hungarian literary studies. And this is due to the impact of books like Women’s Literary Tradition.16

It seems to us, as members of the Editorial Board of the Women Writers in History book series, that Anna Menyhért’s search for predecessors, role models, or just earlier colleagues in her own country and language, corresponds completely to our transnational intentions. It provides an illustration of the way in which the need for new historiography can be experienced by present-day women authors in search of those who came before her.

1

After a series of national and European funded projects now a dariah-eu Working Group entitled Women Writers in History. See webpage: https://www.dariah.eu/activities/working-groups/women-writers-in-history/.

2

Thanks to research carried out by colleagues too numerous to be all mentioned here. Many of the data to be found in the database neww (New Approaches to European Women’s Writing): http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/womenwriters/.

3

Hilde Hoogenboom, “The Community of Letters and the Nation State: Bio-Bibliographic Compilations as a Transnational Genre around 1700”, in Amelia Sanz et al. (eds.), Women Telling Nations. Amsterdam-New York, Rodopi, 2014 (Women Writers in History vol. 1), p. 274.

4

Given my own expertise I am now principally referring to examples taken from French literature.

5

Cf. Suzan van Dijk, “Women Authors’ Reputation and its Relationship to Money Earned: Some Early French Writers as Examples”, in Carmen Font Paz and Nina Geerdink (eds.), Economic Imperatives for Women’s Writing in Early Modern Europe. Leiden–Boston, Brill–Rodopi, 2018 (Women Writers in History vol. 2), p. 24.

6

For instance : Paul Jacquinet (1886) and Henri Carton (1886).

7

In the French original : “la première de cette insupportable lignée de femmes auteurs, à qui nul ouvrage sur aucun sujet ne coûte, et qui pendant toute la vie que Dieu leur prête, n’ont affaire que de multiplier les preuves de leur infatigable facilité, égale à leur universelle médiocrité.” (Gustave Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française. Paris, Hachette, 1894, pp. 165–166. [Quote also in: Angus Johnston Kennedy, Christine de Pizan: A Bibliographical Guide. London, Grant & Cutler, 1994, Supplement, vol. 2, p. 5, nr. 916].

8

Interestingly last year Le Monde published as one of its Hors série: Une vie Une œuvre: George Sand, edited by Martine Reid.

9

Cf. Suzan van Dijk et al. (eds.), “‘I Have Heard about You.’ Foreign Women’s Writing Crossing the Dutch Border: from Sappho to Selma Lagerlöf”. Hilversum, Verloren, 2004. The quote in the title is from a letter sent by the famous Dutch learned woman Anna Maria van Schurman, to Lady Dorothy Moore; see the article by Mirjam de Baar, “‘God has chosen you to be a crown of glory for all women!’ The international network of learned women surrounding Anna Maria van Schurman”, in the same volume, pp. 108–135.

10

In France Christine de Pizan’s example was followed by (among others) : Louise de Kéralio (1786), Fortunée Briquet (1804), Stéphanie de Genlis (1811), Fanny Mongellaz (1828).

11

Éva Martonyi, “George Sand et les Hongrois”, in Tivadar Gorilovics and Anna Szabó (eds.), Le chantier de George Sand. George Sand et l’étranger. Actes du Xe Colloque International George Sand. Debrecen, 7–9 juillet 1992. Debrecen, Kossuth Lajos University, 1993, pp. 273–280.

12

Anna Fábri, “Authoress or Romantic Heroine: the Problem of Plurality in the Hungarian Literary World around 1800”, in Suzan van Dijk et al. (eds.), Writing the History of Women’s Writing. Toward an International Approach. Amsterdam, knaw, 2001, p. 53.

13

Anna Menyhért, Női irodalmi hagyomány: Erdős Renée, Nemes Nagy Ágnes, Czóbel Minka, Kosztolányiné Harmos Ilona, Anna Lesznai. Budapest, Napvilág, 2013.

14

Orsolya Rákai, “Amit (ott)hagytak: Menyhért Anna: Női irodalmi hagyomány” [“What They Left (There). Anna Menyhért: Women’s Literary Tradition”]. BUKSZ – Budapest Könyvszemle [BUKSZ (‘Books’, written in English, with Hungarian spelling) – The Budapest Book Review], 2014/3, pp. 102–106.

15

Csilla Nagy, “A hagyomány neme. Menyhért Anna: Női irodalmi hagyomány, Borgos Anna: Nemek között. Nőtörténet, szexualitástörténet” [“The Gender of Tradition. Anna Menyhért: Women’s Literary Tradition, Anna Borgos: Between Genders. Women’s History, Sexuality History”]. Műút [ArtRoad], 2013, 040, pp. 73–76.

16

Gábor Csiszár, “Írónő írónőket olvas: Menyhért Anna: Női irodalmi hagyomány” [“A Woman Writer Reading Women Writers. Anna Menyhért: Women’s Literary Tradition”]. Socio.hu, 2014/10. http://socio.hu/uploads/files/2014_1/10csiszar.pdf. Accessed March 16th 2019.