The fourth article of the Distant Reading Recommends series is written by Katja Mihurko Poniž of the University of Nova Gorica in Slovenia. She describes Beatin dnevnik / Beata’s Diary, the first novel written in Slovene by a woman writer, and one containing numerous interesting echoes of nineteenth century literature from elsewhere in Europe.

In Distant Reading Recommends, an Action member introduces a novel, published between 1850 and 1920, from one of the participating countries in our Action. These novels may be important or notable within the individual nation’s literary tradition, but less well-known in the broader European context. By bringing these novels to light, we aim to further advance our objectives of creating a broader, more inclusive, and better-grounded account of European literary history and cultural identity.

Slovenian writer Luiza Pesjak (1828-1898) who also published in German received a good education, as her father was well-known lawyer in Ljubljana: the national poet France Prešeren was in his employ and taught Pesjak history and literature. Her brother attended grammar school and she studied the same school subjects at home. She also travelled widely with her parents. Her early writing in German dates back to the early 1840s, which included the German manuscript. It is titled Poetische Versuche (1843-44). After 1860 she joined the Slovenian national movement and started publishing Slovenian poems in which she praised the love for her home country and the Slovene language.  Luiza Pesjak’s female characters are idealised images of mothers of the nation, fulfilling the expectations of society by having babies and raising nationally conscious children.

Portrait of Luiza Pesjak (c. 1855) by Mihael Stroj

In the year 1877 Luiza Pesjak wrote her most important prose work – the sentimental family novel Beatin dnevnik (Beata’s Diary) but it was not until 1887 that she managed to publish it. Beatas’s diary is the first novel written in Slovene by a woman writer, was produced in the period of the early Slovene middle-class novel. Despite this, no reference to it may be found in the early studies on the beginnings of the Slovene novel, and the rare texts that mention its author only make critical rejections that can be explained with the author’s inadaptability to the dominant type of the Slovene novel in the 19th century.

The novel is written in the form of a diary and is presented throughout as a first-person narration by the eponymous character, young orphan and governess Beata. In this sense Beata’s Diary is very close to the characteristics of Jane Eyre.

As Luiza Pesjak, was familiar with English literature, she certainly knew Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It thus seems plausible that she wanted to improve upon the familiar style with her own innovation by including the traditional motive of incest, which is one of the frequent themes of European literature. Beata introduces the motive of incest with a reading scene in which herself, Rihard, and a lady of the castle read Byron’s Manfred. Rihard is a young and attractive man living near the castle who is still in love with Dora, unhappily married stepdaughter of the lady of the castle, and as he is reading Manfred’s words, Byron’s character appears to Beata in a completely different light.

In the novel we can find another intercultural citation which refers to French literature and in particular to George Sand. Alongside Beata in Luiza Pesjak’s novel appears the Frenchwoman Zoé, whom the writer describes as a patriot who left her country after the downfall of Napoleon. She describes Zoé’s grandfather as an officer who was awarded an aristocratic title at Waterloo and her mother as an educated and talented actress of the Comédie Française. It is interesting that a similar relationship – the father from aristocratic circles and the mother from the theatre world – also appears in the family tree of George Sand described in her own Histoire de ma vie, however Pesjak didn’t refer to the French writer with any concrete remarks. She presents Zoé as a companion of an elderly princess who is equally comfortable at court as she is among simple people. The other unusual feature for a Slovene novel is that Zoé and Beata become friends and communicate in French.

Title page of the first edition of Beatin dnevnik

The recent studies about Pesjak’s novel have shown that the writer also appreciated the Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer. The character of the governess and twin characters and the love triangle are the motifs found in Bremer’s novels of The President’s Daughters and Nina.

The Slovene literary history completely overlooked the theme of women’s friendship in Beata’s Diary. This theme is absent in the texts of other 19th century Slovene authors in which women are only presented as rivals in the fight for the desired man. In Beata’s Diary women’s friendship is not limited to only the relationship between the two abovementioned characters since Beata also considers Dora and the lady of the castle to be her friends. The community in which the story unfolds is a distinctively female community as there are only three male characters in the novel: the servant Mirko – who is a completely marginal figure, the kind-hearted doctor Kosec, and of course Rihard. This can be understood as a special narrative strategy of deviation from the traditional Slovene novel with a central male character underlining his national allegiance. All of the female characters, with the exception of the princess Pavlovna whose snobbism the narrator rebukes with witty irony, are represented in a very positive way. Their characteristics are not limited to nobility of heart and the ability to empathise with other people’s feelings, but also include intellectual inquisitiveness and cultivation.

The critical attitude towards the traditional role of women is also hidden in the novel, although the narrator does not refer to this directly. However, the reader can reach this conclusion from events in the novel such as Dora’s prearranged marriage and her death during childbirth, as well as Anica’s naivety, abandonment, abuse at the hands of a young aristocrat and subsequent death. All these events testify to the fact that in the 19th century women could not decide about their own lives. Despite Beata’s reversal of fortune at the novel’s finale, Pesjak is able to narrate the story of women’s captivity within four walls and their desire to overstep the threshold through the protagonist’s experience of spaces.

In Beata’s Diary the interiors often bear a negative connotation; they are described as dark and bringing anxiety, while the exteriors (especially the garden) are spaces of freedom and creativity. Another of the narrative strategies is revealed in the author’s decision to make Beata hear the love story between Anica and the Count in a space which is the complete opposite of the scenes in which the rest of the novel is set. Beata hears the story when she dares to step over the marked line upon leaving the immediate environment of the castle. Her approaching the place where Anica experienced happiness in love as well as her death is described as the discovery of a new world, which actually leads to the revelation of the secret. Beata sees nature as a space of happiness, as an echo of her feelings: “That mute melancholy, which saddens creation, ruled over nature. It started to rain, tiny drops were falling, and it rained constantly as if it would never stop. It corresponded to me so well!”

This quotation shows Beata’s intensive attention for the events in her environment and her reaction to them. In the two years, she spent writing the diary, she matures emotionally and her encounters with different life stories shape her outlook on the world. From the girl whom Rihard initially did not even notice, she develops into a woman who proves she is independent and dedicated to her work, which she carries out successfully. Even though she also conquers Rihard’s heart by looking after him in his illness, all of Beata’s activities derive from her own motives. The fact that at the end she finds happiness with a man she loves and who loves her can be seen as the typical ending of a romance novel, but on the other hand it could also represent the author’s desire for women’s independence and ambitiousness to be compatible not only with renouncement and even death but also with happiness in love.

Beatin dnevnik is included in the Slovenian corpus of ELTeC, and can be read here. For further reading, see:

BADALIČ, Tanja. Reception of European women writers in Slovenian multicultural territory of the 19th century until the end of the first World War: dissertation. Nova Gorica: [T. Badalič], 2014. tabele.

BOGATAJ GRADIŠNIK, Katarina. “Ženski roman v evropskem sentimentalizmu in v slovenski literaturi 19. stoletja.” Primerjalna književnost. 12.1(1989), 12, 23-41.

HLADNIK, Miran. Luiza Pesjak (1828-1898): pisateljica in pesnica, avtorica (skorajda) prvega slovenskega ženskega romana. V: ŠELIH, Alenka (ur.), et al. Pozabljena polovica : portreti žensk 19. in 20. stoletja na Slovenskem. 1. izd. Ljubljana: Tuma: SAZU, 2007. Str. 39-43

MIHURKO PONIŽ, Katja. Gender and narration in the writings of three 19th-century Slovene women: Pavlina Pajk, Luiza Pesjak and Zofka Kveder. V: STEINBRÜGGE, Lieselotte (ur.), VAN DIJK, Suzan (ur.). Narrations genrées : écrivaines dans l’histoire européenne jusqu’au début du XXe siècle. Louvain; Paris; Walpole (MA): Peeters, 2014. 301-319. La République des Lettres, 56. I

PESJAK, Luiza, PERENIČ, Urška. Beatin dnevnik: roman. 1. izd. Ljubljana: Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete, 2019. 235 str., ilustr., zvd., portret.