by Boleslaw Prus
translated by Stephanie Kraft
Emancipated Women (Emancypantki), by the acclaimed Polish author Boleslaw Prus, was first published as a serial in the Daily Courier (Kurier Codzienny) from 1890 to 1893, and as a book in 1894. Leading his readers, in a manner reminiscent of Dickens, from an elegant girls’ school in Warsaw to a provincial town—from a magnate’s palace to a boarding house for working women and a secret lying-in hospital for unmarried mothers—Prus explores the choices available to women in his time, and the forces that influenced those choices. Through the story of winsome Magdalena Brzeska and her friends, he attacks the conventional view that women lacked the capacity for gainful work and were simply consumers of resources provided by men. Instead, he offers portraits of women working to provide financial support to men—even, in some cases, male relatives who squander the women’s earnings. Prus shows as well that women running small businesses had to put up with unwanted sexual innuendo and overtures when they needed to borrow capital from men.
The nineteenth-century version of Big Pharma even finds its place in the story as Magda’s father, a physician, is marginalized because he refuses to overprescribe fashionable medicines. His refusal to play the profitability game adds to Magda’s motivation to support herself. An intriguing love story with an ambiguous ending adds spice.