Women’s History Month – guest, Milena Benini

My guest today is Croatian writer Milena Benini. I love her writing (and just ordered a volume that contains a vampire story by her), but I asked her if she’d write for this year’s WHM because she understands the language barrier that we all face when the best writing is not in a language we read or a culture that’s on our doorstep, and also because of something that struck me when I visited Croatia a few years ago as a guest of Croatian fandom.

Croatian literary culture is amazingly rich. It’s also complex. We’ve seen one aspect of the former Yugoslavian literary cultures in the work of Alma Alexander, and now we’re seeing quite a different one. Simple generalisations do not work when we’re trying to understand popular culture or fiction by women or fiction in languages that we ourselves don’t speak, yet we take refuge in them all the time. We also choose token authors. We choose a single writer as the only one we should take note of when we look at a gender, or a culture, or even a nation. These token authors can be brilliantly gifted writers, but they write as themselves, not as representatives. Milena shows us just how much we can miss when we don’t ask “What writers do women from this particular background read? How important are they?” Ask these questions and then we who come from other places, other cultures, can begin to understand fiction by women writers.

The best kept secret of Croatian (popular) culture: Marija Jurić Zagorka

Every country has a popular culture canon: Britain has Jane Austen, BBC comedies, and Vivienne Westwood; Americans have jazz and blues, Hollywood, and the hard-boiled writers; Italy has Calgari’s pirates, la Cinecittà, and Bonelli comics. Croatia is no different in that respect: it has a tradition of journalism (now largely devastated, but that is a different issue), popular novels, and film (again, largely devastated nowadays, but a different issue). The trick, however, the problem, the key element of this particular narrative is that all of these threads lead back to one woman: Marija Jurić Zagorka.

Born in a prosperous family on March 2 1873, Zagorka did not have a particularly happy life. She was educated in Zagreb and Varaždin, but plans to send her to Switzerland to a young ladies’ finishing school fell through due to her mother’s opposition. When the fifteen-year-old Zagorka expressed a desire to become an actress, her family reacted by arranging a marriage for her: her husband, Hungarian railway official whom she hadn’t even met before the marriage, was seventeen years her senior and required from his wife absolute obedience: later, she described her marriage as similar to being constantly “subjected to a moral inquisition” (Prohaska, quoted in Jakobović Fribec, 2006, 196). After three years, in desperation, Zagorka fled from her husband and Hungary, and returned to Croatia, where her family refused to accept her, even though her father secretly supported her with small sums of money, and helped her obtain a divorce. Because of her escape, and due to her own mother’s testimony, the divorce procedure left her husband blameless and Zagorka destitute, with no right to alimony of any kind. She settled in Zagreb, and started looking for a way to sustain herself independently.

Her first article was published in 1896 in Obzor, one of then most popular dailies. This made her the first female journalist in this part of Europe. After the article, Bishop Strossmayer, a hugely influential figure, personally supported her getting a job at the paper. The opposition to the very idea of a female journalist was so strong that, at first, she had to work in a separate room, for fear that the sight of a female colleague would be too much for the male journalists to bear, and that the newspaper itself would lose readership if they found out that a woman was working for them. She covered politics, both national and international, and quickly became a go-to anonymous expert in Croatian-Hungarian relations – anonymous, because the idea that a woman might not just be following but understanding and explaining political situation was inconceivable, so she was never signed under her articles. Later on, in 1925, she also founded the first Croatian women’s magazine, Ženski list, which she edited and wrote for. She also founded and edited another women’s magazine, and served as journalist or editor in a number of other prominent magazines and dailies in the region, including a period when she single-handedly edited the Obzor daily, while most of the male staff was in prison for counter-government activities. All of this should be enough to have her name in every textbook, but, of course, it wasn’t. Until very recently – and I mean the last ten or fifteen years, well within the 21st century – Zagorka’s name was barely mentioned in journalism histories of Croatia, and when it did appear, it was usually as a footnote, a curiosity, a “fun fact” for those too bored to read the actual text. Part of the reason for this lies, of course, in the mere fact that she was a woman. Another reason, however, can be found in Zagorka’s astounding second career, that of a novelist.

Zagorka started writing fiction even before she started working as a journalist: she published her first short stories in 1886, and even as a child, before her marriage, she had worked with local theatre, writing short plays. But true literary fame – of a peculiar sort – will come to Zagorka in the early 20th century, when she started writing historical novels. It is accepted lore that she was spurred to do so by the aforementioned Bishop Strossmayer, who apparently told her that historical novels would be the best way to awaken national awareness in the general public, resisting the pressure of Hungarian and Austrian cultures that produced most popular entertainment at the time. This is probably true, up to a point: however, to dismiss a literary career spanning more than half a century and producing literally thousands of pages and thousands of devoted fans as the result of a single sentence is to reduce Zagorka, once again, to the role of a poor lost female soul who wouldn’t know what to do with her life if a man hadn’t shown her the way.

Zagorka’s first historical novel, written in the period between 1912. and 1918., remains probably her most popular work: Grička vještica (The Witch of Grič) is a behemoth of a novel, consisting actually of seven tomes, of which the first, Tajna Krvavog mosta (The Secret of the Bloody Bridge) can be read independently, even though it shares characters with the rest of the saga. Set during the reign of Maria-Theresia, it tells the story of a young Croatian noblewoman, countess Nera, who is fighting against prejudice, particularly against the then still current witchcraft trials. The story, which includes dark passages, even darker secrets, forbidden love and court intrigue, but also social commentary, women’s issues and political question, could hold its own with anything written by Walter Scott or Charles Dickens, or any other famous writer.

Even here, the traditional story claims that it was supposed to be a one-off, and that it was the publisher’s thoughtless promise that there would be more of the story after the end of the first novel that produced the remaining six tomes. Some sources even talk about the “yoke of everyday writing” (Croatian Wiki* ) that forced Zagorka to produce her novels.

The first novel in the series was, indeed, very popular, and the first locally-written popular novel to truly capture the public; but it will be with the second one, Countess Nera, that Zagorka will become the legendary name that she is today. The sheer number of children named Nera (and Siniša for the boys, after the main male character of the saga) even today shows the enduring popularity of Zagorka. Published and re-published (with around 20 separate editions since World War 2, not including the repeated serializations), the brave young countess and her adventures left her trace on generations of Croatians.

She also wrote or at least co-wrote the script for the movie based on the novel, as well as the script for another historical spectacle, Matija Gubec, based on the life of a real serf from Zagorje who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1573 and was later executed for his role in the events. Neither one of these movies (made in 1920 and 1917 respectively) was preserved, but, judging from the materials that did survive, they are today considered as key works in the development of Croatian cinema. Both are mentioned in just about every story of early Croatian film; again, Zagorka’s name only began appearing and her work credited in the 21st century.

But Zagorka did not stop there: she also wrote the first Croatian mystery novel (Kneginja iz Petrinjske ulice, Dutchess of Petrinjska Street, 1910), the first Croatian science-fiction novel (Crveni ocean, Red Ocean, 1934) numerous other historical novels (including a saga even more ambitious than The Witch of Grič, a 12-tomes story of Gordana, set in the 15th century) and a number of other works, among which the most famous is Kamen na cesti (A Stone on the Road, 1937), a semi-autobiographical novel in which Zagorka spoke about her life, particularly the pressures and hardships that she encountered in the first half of her life. Completely different from the rest of her work, this novel alone should have, again, put Zagorka’s name into Croatian literary canon, as it provides a chillingly realistic image of a woman trying to make her way through life alone in Zagorka’s time. Not only did this not happen: for decades, Zagorka was considered a worthless female hack who had only produced “stories for cowgirls” (reputedly this was the assessment by Ksaver Šandor Đalski, himself one of the immutable parts of Croatian literary canon whose works have not produced a single child’s name that I know of). This expression, “cowgirl” or “cow-herder”, kravarica, which also encompasses women working with dairy products, had followed Zagorka for a long time. Famously, her own first editor in Obzor called her “a cowgirl from Zagorje and, what’s more, infected with a socialist mentality and feminist notions” (Lasić 1986, 69).

The infection with socialist mentality did not help her much in the supposedly socialist post-World War II Yugoslavia: old and frail, Zagorka spent some time on the brink of starvation: when her still strong fan-base found out about her circumstances, they provided her with help. This show of affection restored Zagorka’s spirit, and inspired her to write again – or at least, that is the accepted story, since obviously the woman must have been incapable of desiring to write without outside support. Her last novel, Jadranka, was published in 1953. Zagorka died in 1957, still beloved by her readers, yet decades away from any serious critical appraisal or recognition.

Today, her apartment houses the Zagreb Centre for Women’s Studies and serves as a museum for her work: they have digitalised part of their collection of papers, and held numerous scientific gatherings dedicated to her life and work, in all of the areas where she left a trace. Her novels still get new editions every few years, and still get read. And, although this is not a personal essay as such, I must add, at the end, that most Croatian female writers I know inevitably count Zagorka as the gigantic, sometimes decisive influence on their lives and careers – myself included.

* Croatian Wikipaedia has been hijacked by a group of traditionalist, rightist editors with nationalist leanings: for them, Zagorka remains immensely important because of her open support for Croatian language and culture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; however, it is obvious that they do not want to give her too much credit, since she is a woman.

Jakopović Fribec, Slavica. “Jurić, Marija (1873-1957).” In: A Bibliographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms: Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries. Eds. Francisca De Haan, Krassimira Daskalova, Anna Loufti. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2006. 195-199
Lasić, Stanko. Književni počeci Marije Jurić Zagorke (1873–1910): uvod u monografiju. Zagreb: Znanje, 1986.

1 comment

  1. I read one of her books, oh SO many years ago. Thank you for this…

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