Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Any research done in relation to the period of Les Misérables, whether for fanfiction or fanart purposes or otherwise.
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Elwen Rhiannon
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Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Elwen Rhiannon » Tue Mar 16, 2010 2:42 pm

A topic inspired by a seemingly popular character from Polish history, who made HER way into the fandom - if you wish, also a topic on everything Polish connected (or not) to the works of Victor Hugo you want to ask (unless you don't, and I'm the only person interested whom did Feuilly know and what did he learn from that person).

Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas: the text below deals with a legend; the conclusion is up to you.

The myth and the modern image of Emilia Plater owes a lot to a veeeeeeeery (believe me) famous poem on her which began her legend, therefore as an object of the legend she interests philologists (more) as well as historians (less). Polish Wikipedia in its article on Emilia includes a part of a book by the university professor Józef Bachórz, one of the best living specialists on Polish literature of the 19th century and one of my most memorable teachers (reviewer of my master's degree thesis on a topic irrelevant to this discussion). He writes that contrary to popular belief, she never had a distinction of an officer and did not die of battle wounds because she did not take part in military actions. Yet what is really important is the social receptiontion of her attempts to be a woman-soldier. "Plater was a woman who wanted to stress her presence in the national affairs, she wanted to transgress the mental habit, according to which a woman can be only a nurse. She wanted to follow Jeanne d'Arc and Mickiewicz's Grażyna*, who had lead her husband's army against the Teutonic Knights. Her perticipation in a military uprising, according to diaries and documents, had various conotations. Most of the opinions are critical, basing on the opinion that a woman on a war is more of a hindrace than actual help. Some diarists complain that the soldiers had to be sent to take care of the heroine and her female companion. And this was an absorbing thing, more embarassing than helping. Emilia Plater stayed with the insurgents against the advices of her family or those of the people aware that her staying means more trouble than benefits".

I quote after Wikipedia because I don't have this one book, but if you find it important, I may get it, as well as check other sources (the grandmother of Polish feminist literary criticism Maria Janion et al.)

According to the diarists, she didn't have the Enjolraic type of beauty: according to Ignacy Domeyko, as quoted on Wikipedia, she was small, pale, rather not pretty, with a round, yet nice face, blue eyes and not a strong body built, serious, rather strict than charming, not talkative, with a gaze forcing people to respect her.

This graphic is very well-known http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/c ... Plater.PNG but this one is probably closer to the truth and I like it even more http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/c ... ater_2.PNG

Here's the poem about Emilia by the most famous Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz http://pl.wikisource.org/wiki/%C5%9Amie ... %82kownika Children still do learn this poem at schools, or at least I have had. I'm sure I have an English and probably a German translation of it, I'll try to find it ("Emilija" in the last line was the 19th century written form of current "Emilia": it used to divide in four syllabes in speech, while nowadays there're only three).

By the way, she wasn't the only woman participating in 19th century Polish uprisings. Because of them, our whole feministic movement of the 19th - early 20th century took a specific turn, as it was considered a necessity and something obvious for a woman to take on her male duties when the men were fighting or dead.

* Grażyna is a poema by Adam Mickiewicz on a fictional female character living in the 15th century, who, as a protest against her husband coming to an agreement with Teutonic Knights, secretly puts on his armour and leads the army into battle with the Knights. When lacking the military knowledge she looses the battle, a mysterious warrior appears, concentrating the rest of the troops around him and leading them into victory. It's the husband of the heroine: Grażyna dies in his embrace.
Last edited by Elwen Rhiannon on Tue Mar 16, 2010 2:55 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Tue Mar 16, 2010 2:54 pm

Fascinating. Wonder how many counterparts she may also have in French lit, or lit from other countries....
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Frédérique » Tue Mar 16, 2010 4:33 pm

That was interesting - 99,9% of what I had known of Plater so far came from a very small paragraph dedicated to her (or rather, indeed, to 'a number of women, the best known of whom ...') in Adam Zamoyski's "Holy Madness" (who in turn names Andrzej Walicki's "Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Poland" as his source).

One thing that piqued my curiousity in her English Wikipedia entry is this: Other literary works based on her life were published, mostly abroad, both by Polish emigres and by foreigners. Among them were Georg Büchner [...]-- do you have any idea what that could refer to? I'm relatively sure of having read every single work of Büchner's made available to the public in his lifetime and beyond, and none of them deal with her even by association. The closest he comes to treating the 1830/31 Polish uprising is describing the reception of Ramorino he witnessed in Strasbourg in a letter. Was the entry's author merely confusing him with Władysław Buchner (who appears in the same paragraph, nonetheless)?

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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Col.Despard » Tue Mar 16, 2010 7:38 pm

This is fascinating, Elwen - as you know, most of that didn't make it into the English wikipedia, although what was fairly clear from that was Plater's status in popular culture in Poland. I did a quick Google around back when her name first came up, but found that usual abominable langugage barrier and could find much in the way of translated primary sources. What did come through was a self-conscious modelling on Jeanne d'Arc. It's interesting how many woman in the 19th Century looked to her as a role model, in spite of her supposedly unfeminine traits of cross-dressing and participating in battle...there was a poem by a Southern woman at the outbreak of the American Civil War that - after spilling a few paragraphs of bile at Abraham Lincoln ("comet of satan/boast of the dark") concludes with a warning that "the fire that sleeps in our southern eyes dark/Would lighten in battle - we're Joans of Arc!", which is suggests not just the roles women were traditionally allotted in times of war, but an actual desire for combat.

I found it difficult to get a handle on her appearance beyond the general prettification as exemplified in the first pic you posted - large eyes, large forehead, full cheeks and pointed chin, which seems to emphasise the feminine ideals of beauty to contrast with her masculine attire and to reassure the viewer that yes, she was really, really a girl who just happened to dress up in men's clothing and wear it quite stylishly (again, it's a relief in 19th century art when you find a depiction of Jeanne that doesn't make her look as if she just happened to forget to put on her crinoline that day). Naturally, when in doubt, I went with my own ideas of attractiveness - there's a conscious revelling in the myth in the pic I did of her with Enjolras...I couldn't resist putting them both in the Romantic breeze that seems to accompany both, Plater in the artistic depictions and Enjolras in the text!

Very interesting to find what the contemporary male military figures thought of her...I'd love to see a cross-section of views across the ranks and also an indication of what was contemporary predjudice and what was reasoned criticism of her actions. As for her subsequent reputation in Poland and abroad, it sounds on the surface like a bit of a man-who-shot-liberty-valance situation: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Ulkis » Wed Mar 17, 2010 7:25 pm

I have nothing to add, unfortunately, but I just wanted to chime in and say I found this very interesting as well; thanks for writing it up.

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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Elwen Rhiannon » Fri Mar 19, 2010 1:24 pm

I'll try to do some research, Despard, as I'm now interested myself; I'm composing bibliography from what I have at hand now and then looking for a trustworthy biography (if such exists... we're dealing with historical person as well as myth). Still haven't found English version of the poem: in case someone's interested, German one was put on my LJ (not my translation). Yet I have something in English, a 1843 book on the heroine http://www.archive.org/stream/lifeofcou ... a_djvu.txt (haven't read it)
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby a_marguerite » Sat Mar 20, 2010 12:42 pm

Thank you very much for all this! It's fascinating. I just went to see an exhibit on Chopin at the Musee de la Vie Romantique and I hadn't quite realized that 1828-1832ish, Poland really was on everyone's minds. Looks like Feuilly got a bit swept up in the zeitgeist!

Anyway, thank you so very much! We're lucky to have you.

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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Col.Despard » Sun Mar 21, 2010 2:20 am

Looking forward to that research, Elwen! I'm fascinated not only by interesting women as characters in history, but also in the historigraphic and popular treatments of them, so a good bio would brilliant.
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Elwen Rhiannon » Sun Mar 28, 2010 12:05 pm

My response is belayed mostly because finding the text below took time (I don't know the translator) and it's crucial to understand what is the image of Emilia most people in Poland have, as it's largely based on this poem -

The Death of the Colonel (by Adam Mickiewicz)

Before yon hut, with measured pace,
The sentry marches to and fro;
Crowds throng the door, and every face
Is pale with terror and with woe.

What hero, honored and renowned,
Within, upon his death-bed, lies?
Hark! a clear voice with trumpet sound,
Comes mingling with the mourners' cries:

"Saddle my steed once more for me,
Who shared with me so many a fight!
That noble steed, oh, let me see,
Before I close my eyes in night!

My sword and belt, too, let them lie,
And all my trappings, at my side:
Gazing upon my arms will I
Die as the brave Czarnecki died!"

And when the steed was led away,
The priest bore in the holy bread;
On bended knee the people pray —
The soldiers' cheeks are pale with dread.

Old scythemen who, without a tear,
Poured blood, in Kosciusko's day,
From their own veins and foemen's — here
Weep, as the parting prayers they say.

The chapel bell, at early dawn,
Toll for the parted soul they hear;
And now the soldiers all are gone,
For that the Muscovite is near.

Peasants crowd round the warrior dead,
He clasps the cross as when he died;
Upon his saddle rests his head,
His sword and fire-arms by his side.

But whence this virgin cheek, they said,
And bosom femininely fair?
Now save us, Heaven! It is a maid!
Emilia Plater slumbers there!

[in original, the last words actually go more like "a maiden-hero, leader of the insurgents, Emilia Plater" and in my 1888 edition of Mickiewicz's poetry, edited under Tzarist censorship, they go like this: "........................................................" - as well as, by the way, the word "Muscovite"]
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Sun Mar 28, 2010 2:45 pm

Wow. Powerful poem there Elwen. No wonder Emilia Plater is so compelling!
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby 9430 » Sun Mar 28, 2010 2:58 pm

Wow, that is a pretty powerful poem in translation, I bet the original is wonderful! It also gives a lot of insight into the national perception of Plater. Thanks for your work Elwen.
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby MmeBahorel » Sun Mar 28, 2010 3:37 pm

Thank you so much for digging that up. And it explains so much - there's the need for insurgent heros, the idea that an oppressed people will have women as well as men (but probably also goes back to the primacy of Jadwiga as the "founder" of the Polish nation, the importance of that marriage union with Jagiello of Lithuania for historical Poland, while so many countries prefer to look at the male line only, would put the emphasis on Jadwiga's male relatives who brokered the marriage rather than Jadwiga herself - and I know I'm showing how very very little Polish history I know), and then also the backlash from perspectives of literal truth and of traditional misogyny (as in, "this wasn't what we meant by heroines - we prefer Pani Walewska sleeping with Napoleon if we must choose, but we really meant women are just supposed to give us money and maybe do some nursing, none of this real support").
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Elwen Rhiannon » Mon Mar 29, 2010 12:06 am

Thank you very much – I’m glad that you liked the poem! Though someone wrote that what children at schools learn from this piece of poetry is what Emilia Plater never was – never a colonel (according to diarists, her rank of captain was purely honoris causa), no scythemen around the around the place where she was dying, in no forest hut, of no battle wounds but probably a cold with complications. Her legend, though in Poland based mostly on Mickiewicz (they were both from Lithuania), initially takes a lot from a hagiographical book by Józef Straszewicz Émilie Plater, sa Vie et sa Mort (Paris 1835). It caused lots of problems: nobody listened to people swearing that they never ever fought under Emilia’s command, when the book said they did. As some critic points out, supposed relations of the officers and generals praising her are not confirmed anywhere, and the fact that somebody happened to see Emilia in front of a column of insurgents or on a horse, near exercising soldiers, does not mean that she was actually leading or training them – people saw what they wanted to see. As Józef Bachórz writes, “any person knowing something about the art of commanding must also know that leading a group of a few hundreds of soldiers and puting them immediately into military action is a real art requiring competence, which can never be replaced by even the biggest enthusiasm and the most wishful thinking. Only in literature it’s possible to immediately organise a troop of 400-500 people (especially from people unused to military order). Only in dreams about miracles or in poetical imagination a raw group of unprepared people, led by a young Amazon, can win a few battles, counting that these people are tired after hours of marching”.

@ Frédérique: I think I found the text Wikipedia may refer to (messing A LOT) – it’s probably Ständchen für Gräfin Cäcilia [!] Plater, published in 1832 by Karl Buchner.

@MmeBahorel: your knowledge of the history of Poland is very good – it is actually even stressed in books on history that Jadwiga was the only woman ever crowned as a king (sic) of Poland

@Colonel Despard – last but not least – your answer will be longer. You ask what the military figures thought of her. Emilia’s cousin Cezary sent her away from his troops probably not to make her join another one, but to keep her away from the fight at all – he could tolerate her when the situation was relatively calm, but when the real war was near, her presence was not welcomed. It was noted in a diary from the period that general Załuski valued the enthusiasm caused by Emilia’s presence among his soldiers, yet wanted her to go back, asking an acquaintaince who knew the heroine better to explain to her “what kind of discomfort and even unpleasant events does she risk staying”. Am I the only person seeing here an allusion to what the general must have known as a soldier, being too well-behaved (he sends another person to Emilia because he himself wasn’t introduced to her) to say it openly to a young girl and a countess, who, bright as she was, might never been told about this particular risk: sexual molestation? There’s a diary report (by Domeyko) of the officers discussing whether women can fight directly in battles or not. Emilia was present, so out of politeness most of the officers said that yes, of course. Only one mayor disagreed – which wouldn’t be worth remembering, if he wasn’t the person who later saved Emilia’s life, taking her on his own horse (and giving it almost twice of a rider’s weighth in critical situation), when during a rather desperate runaway from the Russians, the heroine fell down from her own horse.

No particular group was put directly under Emilia’s command and she was given the tasks which put her in a lesser risk of standing face to face with the enemy. She was also becoming more and more exhausted, and the worsening situation of the insurgents (perhaps also the awareness of her own controversial situation? but that’s me) did not lift up her mood: the diarists describe her as pale and sad. In autumn she was ill: in December 1831 she was dead. Winters in this part of the world can be very severe. An untreated cold in a state of general exhaustion almost asks for complications, and the awareness of defeat does not help to get better.

According to professor Bachórz, what is an undoubted fact it’s that Emilia Plater not only wanted, but did join the insurgents and even if unwelcomed, did stay with them, moving from one troop to another for a couple of months, with no official function, not staying for longer anywhere. Is it a proof of her “military uslessness”? The diarists write that she was brave, enthusiastic etc etc. yet nobody writes what exactly were these brave millitary actions and what did she do concretely as a commander. Yet her intentions were noble – and as Bachórz is generally fighting the romantic legend of Emilia, I think he can be trusted when he writes that the heroine treated her role of a warrior very seriously, remembering that she’s of noble birth and being able to keep a distance from her soldier colleagues, which closes the theory of Emilia running away from home in search of unpatriotic adventures. He also points out that Emilia’s personal situation wasn’t what a girl could dream of, even before when there was no way back (repressions, optionally even death penalty; hiding was risky) after joining the uprising. Educated, well-read, of noble birth, an only child early orphaned by the mother and pushed away by the father (since 1815, her parents were in separation and father re-married right after mother’s death), with a dowry closing to none and not particularly beautiful, couldn’t expect a marriage suitable for her family name, could search for a compensation only in personal actions of unusual kind, gaining her fame she aspired to (perhaps a compensation for the lack of father’s attention? possible, but hard to prove).

One thing more, which may be of use for fanfiction authors: in 1832 a certain woman appeared in France, claiming to be Emilia Plater. She is said to be welcomed with enthusiasm, but soon the general Marie Joseph Lafayette with the help of Emilia’s cousins, Cezary and Władysław Plater, who confirmed that Emilia is dead, unmasked the woman to the French police.
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby MmeBahorel » Mon Mar 29, 2010 2:33 am

Oh man, that last bit is awesome!

My Polish history is very sporadic, but considering I never studied it properly, it's probably far better than most Americans. I did a paper at university on the role of the Church in the early years of the Communist government in Poland, how it fulfilled various necessary functions that the Soviets were willing to co-opt for a time just to make everything easier. So between that and a course on theories of nationalism (and a paper on post-Soviet nationalisms that of course included Lithuania), I have bits. Which means I probably have just enough to get myself into trouble :)

I think your surmises on people's motivations sound right - and that consequences for her are not only from conditions and their own troops but also from capture and the Russian troops. I think Marianne, when she gets back from Montreuil-sur-Mer would probably be interested in Plater's family situation, too. It's really very sad. Of course, I feel like so much of the Polish aristocracy, because the szlachta was a fairly broad class in some ways, had a similar disconnect between expectations and possibilities.
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Re: Emilia Plater and everything Polish

Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Mon Mar 29, 2010 2:23 pm

Wow. Quite a colorful, even if ill-starred life, so to speak. As sad as some of the details of Emilia Plater's fight could be, the bravery is still highlighted there. Thanks for sharing this!
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