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Forgotten sapphic myths of Polish modernism

Paulina Pająk


Although Polish queer modernism has been mapped (Sobolczyk), to date the field has been dominated by the study of canonical male writers, such as Witold Gombrowicz and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Any attempt at the reconstruction of sapphic modernism in Poland risks a confrontation with a widely held opinion that such a phenomenon has never existed. Though some counterevidence has been collected within gender studies, queer researchers bemoan the lack of sapphic myths and works within Polish modernism (Warkocki) and locate the emergence of lesbian* themes in Polish prose no earlier than in the 1990s (Śmieja). And yet, my research shows that openly sapphic themes emerged in Polish literature in the 1930s, sixty years earlier than has been previously accepted. In my paper, I will present three Polish modernist texts that offer vast potential for sapphic myths: Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński’s essay “Romans Gabrielli” [Gabriela’s Romance] (1928), the translation of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness with a preface by Irena Krzywicka (1933), and finally Maria Modrakowska’s novel Anetka (1933). I will focus on the sapphic and transgender myths within these texts and explore how they are remembered, marginalised or forgotten within Polish queer studies. Żeleński’s “Romans Gabrielli” has been widely discussed and reprinted, creating a founding sapphic myth in Polish literature. The translation of Hall’s novel – banned after the obscenity trial in the UK – has been marginalised and lasted within Polish cultural memory through Krzywicka’s preface. In the 2000s, Krzywicka’s essays and articles have been rediscovered by gender and queer scholars while Hall’s The Well of Loneliness has attracted little attention, though the novel offered a proto-queer hero(ine) along with sapphic and transgender themes to Polish interwar readers. The third text, Maria Modrakowska’s Anetka, is probably the first Polish novel with sapphic themes that were not overlaid with a veneer of heteronormativity, Modrakowska inscribes sexuality into a mythical realm, in which the protagonist Anetka and her beloved Tea are represented by lunar and solar imagery, or become the incarnations of an Egyptian queen and a Greek priestess. The writer presents love as a life-changing emotion set within the cultural mosaic and illuminates the world of multi-ethnic Poland lost in the Second World War. Tellingly, Anetka has faded into complete oblivion and the only known copy is held in the National Library in Warsaw. In my paper, I will explore the cultural implications of existence of these sapphic myths within Polish modernism, focusing on intersectional overlapping of ethnicity, gender and sexuality in their reception both in the interwar period and within contemporary Polish queer studies.


Paulina Pająk is a lecturer at the University of Wroclaw (Poland). Her research interests include modernist, memory and queer studies. She has published in several international volumes and journals, including Virginia Woolf and Heritage and “Woolf Studies Annual”. Currently, she is co-working on the book The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and Contemporary Global Literature.

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