Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (Veliko Tarnovo)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Anti-Hegemonic Strategies in Women's Writing:
Women and Modernism in Bulgaria and Europe/USA

Madeleine Danova (University of Sofia, Bulgaria)


In their seminal study of European modernism, No Man's Land, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar take on the task of proving that the phenomenon we usually designate as "modernism" is no more and no less than a product of the war between the sexes, that in other words, it is entirely gender-colored. The three volumes of their monumental work do indeed prove that in many cases the linguistic experiments and the social and cultural dimensions of modernism in Europe and America were in one way or another a disguised version of this on-going battle, an attempt to claim what Gilbert and Gubar ironically call "no man's land". In their understanding this territory includes not only the literary field per se, but the whole institution of marriage, which is intrinsically connected to the most powerful institution of patriarchy as well as the educational and the professional institutions in society (Gilbert & Gubar xi-xiv).

The present paper will try to investigate how this battle has been carried out in Bulgaria and how the feminist project, which was originally part of modernity, is re-shaped by the challenges of the post-modern world today. Thus it will be possible to look more closely at the appropriations of this project in the post-totalitarian societies of Eastern Europe.

My particular interest lies in the re-reading of the history of modernism in Bulgaria from the standpoint of feminism since this history was brutally mutilated to fit the predominant communist ideology till the late 1980s. My central figure of investigation will be one of the poetesses, Mara Belcheva /1868-1937/, from the early decades of the twentieth century, who flaunted social conventions to become the epitome of the cultured and independent woman. She was educated in Vienna (from 1880 to 1886) and married one of the young progressive members of Prime Minister Stambolov's Cabinet, Hristo Belchev, who was also one of the promising Bulgarian poets. After he was assassinated by mistake in one of the attempts to kill the Prime Minister in 1891, Belcheva refused a position at Prince Ferdinad's court and went to Geneva to study literature. In 1903 she returned to Bulgaria with the idea to leave her native land for good and spend the rest of her days as an expatriate in Europe, but she met Pencho Slaveikov, one of the monumental figures in Bulgarian literary history, who has often been seen as the priest of high literature, and became his life-long companion. Although they never married, after his death in Italy, she devoted all her energy to promoting his literary and critical works. That has given rise to an interpretation of her life as a sacrifice in the name of high literature, and many critics have described her, very much like Emily Dickinson, as a nun (see for example Vladimir Vassilev, in the fourth issue of the literary journal Zlatorog from 1934: " Take down her nun's veil and you will discover the gracious worldly woman who has paid a high price for her life here on earth." (in Belcheva 293).

My hypothesis is that in comparing her life and works to the lives and works of other women writers from that time, it will be possible to re-read her/story as an example of the use of anti-hegemonic strategies in women writing. The examination of the socio-cultural climate in Vienna at that time as one of the cities of European modernism will shed additional light on the way the consciousness of the female artist was shaped across borders and cultures. I believe that all that could be a first step towards a re-mapping of the history of women writers in Bulgaria in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Vienna from the end of the nineteenth century was a very diverse place: "A shapeless medley of ideologies and programmes", as Barea writes (317). In post-1880 Vienna alongside with the traditional artists and craftsmen serving the New Bourgeosie there appeared the writers and artists from the first wave of the Viennese Modernist movement, the so-called Junge Wien writers (Hermann Bahr, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Stefan Zweig, Theodor Herzl, etc.) and the secessionist artists (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoshka). Together with the avant-garde activities of the young Viennese composers (Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler) and the works of Sigmund Freud they symbolize the paradoxical character of Viennese modernism - "Whilst the city produced one of the most lively and important movements in modern art, music, literature and thought, it did not come up with a single major work of art" (Kuna 124). This paradox was evident also in the fact that in all its works it encouraged an association between "modern" sensibility and a feeling for the past rather than a total break with that past as the very word "modern' suggests. Thus Viennese modernism was different from the revolutionary character this trend acquired in some other parts of the world. As Theodor Bilroth, one of the most prominent surgeons in Vienna spelled it in a letter to Brahms in 1893: "We find muted, gentler colours on the whole more agreeable in our immediate surroundings than more dazzling ones" ( in Kuna 121).

This was the milieu which exercised great influence on the young Belcheva, we can even claim that these characteristics of Viennese modernism would later become a distinctive feature of her poetic work. All critics who have analyzed her three collections of poems have noted the "muted, gentler colours" of her imagery. As Iren Ivancheva writes in the Introduction to the 1995 collection of her autobiographical and poetic works: "As an artist she strives after harmony without being intrusive in her message..." (in Belcheva 16), while Vladimir Polyanov in his memoirs characterizes her life and work as one of half-subdued shadows and overtones (in Belcheva 276)

Though it will be of great interest to go deeper into this apparent connection between Blecheva's poetic world and Viennese modernism, what seems a greater challenge is to re-position her life and writing within the patriarchal structure of early Bulgarian modernism and see how her whole life and work could be interpreted as an anti-hegemonic discourse reclaiming the "no-man's land" of cultural production at that time in Bulgaria. To do that I will recourse to a wider variety of materials including her auto/biographical writings, diaries, letters and the memoirs of her contemporaries.

The first thing that strikes every unbiased reader in what has been written about her is the constant comparison of her poetic works with that of Pencho Slaveikov. Reading the numerous critical appraisals of her collections of poems, both contemporary and the ones published immediately after her death in 1937 and at the time of the publication of her cycles of poems, it is inevitable to encounter the name of Pencho Slaveikov at least once. That leaves one with the impression that she was imitating rather than creating original works of art. In the already-cited 1995 edition of her works we even have an attempt to find an excuse for such an imitation: "Another part of her poems are painting natural scenes, which are very powerful in their use of Slaveikov's stylistic devices... I am inclined to interpret this as a form of poetic aristocratism - on the one hand she feels them as her own while on the other, she is convinced that something already created that fits her own poetic imagery should not be dismissed in the name of poetic originality." ( in Belcheva 9) In my understanding what we have here is not so much an example of an artistic aristocratism or an attempt to express the union between two souls as Petar Dinekov would like to call it ( in Belcheva 246), which is another of the usual ways to explain Belcheva's use of this peculiar poetic imagery, but a bold, subversive appropriation of the male canon.

If we look at the attitude of the male writers from that time towards women and their potential for sharing a common spiritual ground with the Artist we would discover an attitude that is far from favorable. Mara Belcheva describes this in her "Fleeting Memories" of Pencho Slaveikov and the circle around the literary journal "Misal" and in her interviews. In one of them she says, "He {Pencho Slaveikov} did not at all like to talk to women! They were together all the time - he, Yavorov, Dr. Krustev, P.Y. Todorov and others and they talked and talked and talked till morning. Such profound statements did I hear then! What minds! They would quote and interpret the whole of world literature - English, Russian, German", to add surreptiously "I think I did help them a little in that. I kept them informed about everything new in the European literary journals, which I was the first to receive" ( in Belcheva 248). Though the modesty of that statement diminishes the actual contribution of Belcheva, when read against the background of the predominant view of women at that time as wives and mothers it acquires an entirely new meaning. To become part of the world of the poets was indeed a feat hardly possible for a woman at that time. What a woman can become was a wife, somebody's wife as Pencho Slaveikov put it during one of their first encounters: Mara Belcheva trying to be polite and to acknowledge his wit and "agility of thought" exclaims, "Oh, you've become a poet!" to which he answers: "The poets are not shoemakers ... although they have to do a lot of apprenticeship they do not become. One becomes an officer, a diplomat ... becomes a wife, somebody's wife, but ..." ( in Belcheva 137).

In Belcheva's memoirs we have other examples of the exclusion of women from the world of the poets. She several times mentions the fact that all the members of this avant-garde elitist literary circle with the exception of Dr. Krustev, who was a literary critic and not a poet, never talked about their wives and children. She tells the amusing episode with Petko Todorov who realized that he had a baby only when he accidentally bumped into his child's pram on the street one day. She also tells the story of the unsuccessful attempts of Yavorov's wife Lora to attract her husband's attention by dressing according to the latest fashion ( in Belcheva 186).

This last story poses a lot of riddles since Yavorov's marriage to Lora and her subsequent suicide, which made the poet commit a suicide himself, has become one of the most hotly discussed scandals in Bulgarian literary life. Lora was a very gifted poet herself but she has always been seen as the femme fatale, who destroyed the poet's life. Not in Belcheva's understanding: in a letter to Boyan Penev and his wife Dora Gabe from 30.12.1913 she writes: "In her death the darling Lora, has shown more wisdom than in her life since not everyone could choose the right moment to die and thus to secure a better future... There was no man for her in Bulgaria" (in Belcheva 206). To make such a statement in a culture which promoted the image of the weak, submissive woman, who depended on her father or husband for the decisions in her life, is in fact to claim the right of women to be autonomous selves and not to be ashamed of their feelings and emotions.

Thus instead of joining in the chorus of accusing voices, it seems that Mara Belcheva could have asked the same question Helene Cixous would ask half a century later: "Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naivete, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phalocentricism, hasn't been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a ... divine composure), hasn't accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn't thought she was sick? Well, her shameful sickness is that she resists death, that she makes trouble" (197-98). It seems that not only from our post-feminist twenty-first-century perspective Lora was a woman denied any possibility for self-fulfillment by the culture she lived in but that was the case for Belcheva as well.

Lora's case is important for understanding Belcheva's subversive position in Bulgarian patriarchal literary culture in yet another aspect. Sometimes in Belcheva's memoirs Lora appears as some kind of nuisance for her husband, the poet. There is an episode Belcheva retells in which Yavorov claims that his only mission on earth is to see Macedonia free (a very masculine activity) and then he will have completed his life's mission and he could depart from this world with clear conscience. Hearing this Belcheva asks: "What about Lora?" but receives no answer. Reading between the lines may reveal the fissures in Belcheva's acceptance of the official patriarchal ideology but . - when Belcheva and Slaveikov hear about Yavorov's engagement to Lora, Slaveikov becomes furious and says: "I don't like this business at all! There are not meant for each other." To which Mara Belcheva answers: "Lora is beautiful and clever, she will inspire him." (p. 186) This single line reveals the only position the beautiful and clever woman can aspire to in the circle of poets, that of being their muse. It seems odd that Belcheva would use such a language since that could easily be read as an indirect judgement of her own position. I think, however, that if we take into account the fact that the text from which this passage comes is presented as an attempt to create the biography of the "great" poets of her time while at the same time it is "her/story" of a cult moment in Bulgarian literary "his/tory" we can claim the existence of two discourses which deconstruct each other and at the same time are a function of each other.

Choosing to tell her memories about these men then could be interpreted not as a mere act of worship towards the great but as performing what Helene Cixous would urge women to do half a century later: "Woman must put herself into the text - as into the world and into history - by her own movement." ("The Laugh of the Medusa", p.196). Writing an autobiography in the disguise of a biography of the great men around her, Belcheva in fact is changing the genre of auto/biography - she writes herself into the lives of her male others since the patriarchal culture of her times would not allow her to tell her/story. Thus they live through her writing and she becomes the "mother of them all", writing in white ink, which is the symbol of "that good mother's milk" as Helene Cixous says (p.200). And just as it seems that without Gertrude Stein, "the mother of us all", and her Paris salon the whole American modernism would have been impossible, it seems that the first modernist circle in Bulgaria, the circle "Misal' would have been impossible without the only woman who was allowed an inside position in it, Mara Belcheva. As the present paper has shown, it was not just the salon, the physical space provided by Mara Belcheva that brought Slaveikov back to literature and created an extraordinary literary space in provincial Sofia but it was through her auto/biographical writing that it became one of the consecrated spaces of the Bulgarian literary imagination. Thus we can say that Mara Belcheva has claimed not only a place for herself in Bulgarian literature but all that territory Gilbert and Gubar call "no man's land" by living with a man out of wedlock and taking on the task of educating the public to understand the work of the "moderns" and adopting a "profession" denied to women for centuries, that of a poetess.

© Madeleine Danova (University of Sofia, Bulgaria)


Barea, Ilsa. Vienna: Legend and Reality. London, 1966.

Belcheva, Mara. Collected Works. (in Bulgarian) Sofia: "St. Kliment Ohridski" UP, 1995.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa" in Modern Feminisms. Political, Liiterary, Cultural. Ed. by Maggie Humm. New York: Columbia UP 1992, pp.196-202.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land. Vol. 1 The War of the Words. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1988.

Kuna, Frantz. "Vienna and Prague" in Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature. London: Penguin Books, 1991, pp.120-134.

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
x. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 4.9.2004     INST