When I was growing up I found the older generation’s nostalgia for the past suffocating. Have I become backward gazing myself?

I now realise it was their immense grief – trauma – the loss of so many people during the war and the occupation of Poland, the devastation of a whole country, that was overwhelming for a child. The other thing about the past – a bit like the proverbial sales rep joke – is it all depends how you tell it. Which version gets handed down? The dominant, sanitised, simplistic, version or the more complex and inevitably more interesting, inclusive one? (Even children can get excited about history. I have a 6 year old friend who will happily explain to me how it was when she ‘was young’.)

History became exciting when I could find my own experience – my own questions – somehow mirrored in it. Not only exciting but empowering, strengthening, reassuring. I wasn’t alone in how I thought about things and I wasn’t the first – not by a long stretch.

Three events I have been at about the past recently have nourished me. IMG_8499Firstly Dr Aviva Dautch, poet and scholar, gave a wonderful talk at the Progressive Synagogue in Brighton about First World War poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg. She gave us a close reading of his famous poem Break of day in the Trenches in which, as he goes to pick a poppy to put behind his ear, a rat brushes past his hand: a rat free to move between Englishmen and Germans, unrestricted by borders and frontlines, a droll rat, inwardly grinning. It’s an extraordinary poem, clearly at odds with the dominant narrative of nationalistic pomp and glory. A young working class Jew, Rosenberg was helped to pay for his studies by two women artists Lily Joseph and Violet Schiff, women who understood the importance of education, themselves educated – though never to the same extent as their brothers. Joseph and Schiff helped East End women as well. Tragically Rosenberg was killed aged 28 before the war ended.Isaac_Rosenberg_by_Isaac_Rosenberg

Next was Jane Traies in the Nightingale Room in Brighton who introduced contributors from her new book Now You See Me (Tollington Press) and talked about the research she’s carried out into the lives of older lesbians. The readings were funny, poignant, powerful. So is the book. As she points out these stories will simply vanish if we don’t write them down or record them in some way; silence is ‘ how we disappear from history’. The contributors were joined by marvellous author V.G Lee reading from her new book Oh You Pretty Thing (just out from Tollington Press) and as if that wasn’t enough there followed a melodramatic romp about the Ladies of Llangollen, two aristocratic women in the 18th century who eloped to Wales, escaping abuse and enforced religion to live together, reading, writing, drawing and gardening. The drama was written and joyfully performed by Jane Hoy and Helen Sandler of Living Histories Cymru. Everyone left with a smile on their face.

 

Last but not least I took part in an event to commemorate the bicentenary of Polish writer Narcyza Żmichowska with the scholar and her translator Ursula Phillips plus translator-poet Anna Błasiak and myself. We had been asked by Ursula to respond to Żmichowska and her brand of Enthusiasm as part of Lambeth’s LGBT history month in London. Enthusiasm was a philosophical, spiritual movement in Europe often at odds with religious authorities. EnthusiastsEntuzjastki – was also the name given to the group of women surrounding Żmichowska who were the first openly emancipationist, or proto-feminist group of women in Poland. Here was a woman in the 19th century looking for a more inclusive spiritual framework for her ideas, grappling with the vicissitudes of being a woman writer – she published a collection of texts in 1861 entitled: ‘Several Writings of an Anonymous Female Writer Published by a Completely Unknown Editor’ , a title which made me laugh out loud and encouraging debate and discussion between women. While valued and respected in some circles, Żmichowska was also viewed with suspicion and accused (sic) of being an atheist as well being criticised for supporting a divorced friend. She was clearly someone who was not prepared to limit herself to being only a good Polish mother – in fact she did not marry at all. At the heart of her novel The Heathen translated by Ursula Phillips is a love story between a young man and an older woman which Ursula is convinced is a disguised story about two women, based on Żmichowska’s own experience. If divorce was such a scandal then how much harder to speak of same-sex relationships. In this context the word Enthusiasts can also be seen as code, for women’s friendship, sisterhood, sexuality.

I am indebted to Ursula Phillips for her work on Polish women writers of the 19th century. Their stories are both poignant and inspiring. It is a history I knew nothing about when I was growing up.

Now especially, living in strange and retrogressive times, as clocks get turned back to prejudice and narrow-mindedness we need to look back to stories just like these in order to be able to look forward.

 

 

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The amazing women at Damesnet have also written about this last event and a longer piece about it by me appears in the next issue of Pamiętnik Literacki journal of the Union of Polish Writers Abroad .

Photo of Ursula Phillips, MJ and Anna Błasiak courtesy of Urszula Sołtys.