Reading Memoirs – A Window into 18th Century Poland

Have you ever visited a palace, stately home or museum, and wondered how its inhabitants might have lived in the past? Have you stepped into its ballroom and imagined the swish of skirts twirling across the dance floor? Or into the dining room and wondered what delicacies the guests sitting around the table might have tasted, or how much toil might have gone into preparing the feast downstairs?

I’ve pondered all these things and I’m completely fascinated by the everyday lives of extraordinary people of the past, particularly women, and especially those living in the eighteenth century. My research is dedicated to just that.

There were many fascinating women in eighteenth century Poland. Did you know that the founder of Poland’s first museum was a princess named Izabela Czartoryska? She travelled all over Europe, gathering objects for her‘templeofmemory’.Didyouknowthatduring this period, some women had a major influence on politics, art and literature? The noblewoman Elżbieta Sieniawska was so powerful that she was nicknamed the ‘uncrowned Queen’ of Poland. There are many more intriguing women to be found in this period, and yet we still know so little about them, and even less about their daily lives.

One of the best means through which we can recover the history of people living in the past is through reading their memoirs. Memoirs became increasingly popular amongst the European elite as the eighteenth century progressed – everyone from Jean Jacques Rousseau to the king of Poland seemed to be writing them, and many women all over Europe took up the pen too.

Memoirs offer a fascinating window into history, allowing us to discover the story of their authors, often revealing insights into wider social, political and economic matters, alongside details about their activities, thoughts and feelings in a way that would be impossible in more formal kinds of writing. Sometimes these memoirs were published – an eighteenth-century British courtesan called Harriette Wilson brought out hers as a means of blackmailing her former lovers, including the Duke of Wellington – ‘publish and be damned!’ he defiantly proclaimed when Wilson announced her plans. Often however, they remained in family archives, passed down from generation to generation, to be enjoyed by family and friends, and have been discovered by historians by chance.

Of course, memoirs aren’t always an accurate source – most people, given the chance, like to present themselves and their lives in a more flattering light. After all, don’t we do the same via social media today? But sometimes this is precisely what makes them so interesting. We can use other sources such as letters, legal documents, even other memoirs, to try to unearth the truth and understand why memoirists presented themselves in a particular way, and what they considered to be worth preserving for posterity.

The subject of my research is the remarkable noblewoman, Wirydianna Fiszerowa, and the extraordinary memoirs that she wrote at the end of her life are one of the most important sources for my work. Fiszerowa combined stories of major events from Poland’s recent history with satirical portraits of some of the most important historical figures of the period and intimate descriptions of her life. Her memoirs are strikingly frank, wickedly funny and sometimes considerably moving. They allow us a glimpse into the mind of an eighteenth-century Polish noblewoman, offer an unconventional perspective on Polish history, and expand our knowledge of the lives of women of the period and the various roles they played in society. And they make for some fantastic reading too!

About the Author

Katarzyna BrzezińskaKatarzyna Brzezińska is a PhD student in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. She works on eighteenth-century Polish history, focusing on the noblewoman Wirydianna Fiszerowa and her memoirs, and is especially interested in the role of women in public life in eighteenth-century Poland. Her broader research interests include European women’s history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women’s writing, and the European Enlightenment. Outside of academia, Katarzyna likes baking, art, and exploring the countryside.

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