By Ossoliński National Institute
Natalia Szumna, Book Storage and Circulation Department of the National Ossoliński Institute
180th Anniversary of the Writer's Birth
Maria Konopnicka is one of patronesses of the year 2022. The writer was honoured in this way, as this year marks the 180th anniversary of her birth. She was born as Maria Wasiłowska on 23 May 1842 in Suwałki, in a house at Petersburska Street, today 31 Kościuszki Street.
Maria Konopnicka around 1885 (1885)Ossoliński National Institute
Biography in a nutshell
The family moved to Kalisz in 1849. When Maria was 12 years old, her mother died. A year later, the young girl started studying at a boarding school in Warsaw, where she met Eliza Pawłowska (later Orzeszkowa). Their friendship lasted for the rest of their lives.
Aged twenty, Maria was married to Jarosław Konopnicki, an impoverished member of the landed gentry. The young couple moved to Bronów, where the writer made her first literary attempts. Her husband did not support her in developing this passion, instead preferring her to focus on raising their eight children who were born during the ten years of their marriage (two died in childhood).
A Successful Debut
Although Konopnicka’s first published poem is In The Winter Morning which appeared in “Kaliszanin” newspaper in 1870, it is In The Mountains cycle from the 30th issue of “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”, dated 22 July 1876, that is often regarded as her proper poetic debut.
"Italia" A portrait of Maria KonopnickaOssoliński National Institute
A Life Change
The poem was acclaimed by Henryk Sienkiewicz and won his favourable review. Encouraged by this praise, Konopnicka, who had been considering leaving her husband for some time, decided to move with her children to Warsaw in order to make a living as a writer.
She corresponded with Sienkiewicz between 1902 and 1906, as well. The letters they exchanged were connected with a campaign the poetess organised to protest against the Prussian Germanisation policy. The latter intensified after the children’s strike in Września. Konopnicka was also the author of a poem entitled About Września.
Firstly: a Poetess
In 1878, the poetess settled in Warsaw, with tutoring becoming her main source of income. She established herself on the literary scene by publishing three Poetry series (1881, 1883, 1887).
Secondly: an Editor
Between 1884 and 1887, magazine called "Dawn: Illustrated Weekly Magazine For Women With Supplementary Hadicraft and Women's Clothes Sewing Patterns" came out in Warsaw. Konopnicka acted as the editor of the magazine’s literary part. She also regularly contributed her own works to other periodicals.
"Imagina" (1912) by Maria KonopnickaOssoliński National Institute
Thirdly: a Scandalist
Although today Konopnicka appears as a flawless figure, during her lifetime she was considered a scandalist. The publication of her Imagina poem and the dramatic fragments of From the Past reverberated around society and caused some critics accuse her of anti-clericalism.
Konopnicka is amongst most prominent Polish authors of children's texts, however the relationships she had with her own offspring were rather strained. She openly divided her six children into “good” and “bad” ones. She was so averse to one of her daughters, Helena, that she did not mention her by name even in private correspondence.
Fourthly: a Novelist
Apart from poetry, she also wrote novellas. Her texts often dealt with poverty (The smoke), social exclusion (The mercy of the community) and anti-Semitism (Mendel Gdański). Critics praised them for interesting narrative solutions and realistic descriptions.
The writer spent only part of the year in Żarnowiec and travelled around Europe in the remaining months. Both in her travels and during her stays in the country, for the last twenty years of her life she was accompanied by her life partner, Maria Dulębianka. She was a political and feminist activist, as well as a painter. She left behind several portraits of Konopnicka, as well as a beautifully painted door in the house in Żarnowiec.
The writer died on 8 October 1910 in a sanatorium in Lviv. The funeral took place three days later. Although there was no speech from a clergyman (due to the author’s past statements), the funeral ceremony turned into a great patriotic manifestation. Nine years later, Maria Dulębianka died, and her remains were placed in the grave of Maria Konopnicka. In 1927, however, she was moved to a separate grave in the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lviv.
Museum in Żarnowiec
After Konopnicka’s death, her daughters made Żarnowiec their home. The Maria Konopnicka Museum was established there in 1957 based on deeds of gift. It was opened in 1960 and to this day it houses the largest collection of Konopnicka’s memorabilia in Poland.
Fifth: Author of Children’s Books
For many readers, Konopnicka is and will remain known mainly as the author of books for the young audience. Her most recognisable work in this genre is a literary fairy tale entitled On Dwarves and Little Orphan Girl Mary, first published in Warsaw in 1896.
"Picking Blueberries!" Pages 3 and 4.Ossoliński National Institute
Her second best-known children’s story is Picking Berries! from 1903, which is actually a free translation of a children's story entitled Puttes eventyr i blåbærskogen by a Swedish writer and illustrator Elsa Beskow.
The writer also published several collections of illustrated poems for children. They were praised for their humour, which was previously rare in children’s literature. The poems were also written in simple language and without exaggerated moralising.
First printing of "Rota" poem in "Przodownica" magazine (1908) by Maria KonopnickaOssoliński National Institute
Sixthly: the Author of Patriotic Texts
In November 1908, two magazines reprinted Konopnicka's poem Rota ("The Oath") almost at the same time. These were “Gwiazdka Cieszyńska” (No. 90) and “Przodownica: pismo dla kobiet wiejskich” (no. 11).
Initially unnoticed, the poem gained popularity after Feliks Nowowiejski complemented it with music, and thus made Konopnicka the leading author of patriotic poetry in the country. And while this was indeed an important part of her writing, it should be remembered that it consisted of many other elements, too.
Text prepared by:
Natalia Szumna, Book Storage and Circulation Department, the National Ossoliński Institute (https://ossolineum.pl).
Photographs prepared by:
Andrzej Niedźwiecki, Copy and Photo Workroom, the National Ossoliński Institute.
The origin of the collection:
Serials (periodicals) – Department of Periodicals, the National Ossoliński Institute;
Non-serial prints (books) – Book Storage and Circulation Department, the National Ossoliński Institute;
Photographs – The Museum of the Lubomirski Princes, the National Ossoliński Institute;
Manuscripts – Manuscripts Department, the National Ossoliński Institute.