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14 march 2023

Žemaitė (1845-1921) was a leading feminist writer in Lithuania during the last decades of Tsarist rule, active in movements for class and gender justice. I know about her work entirely from another of Paper + Ink's excellent series of chapbook-style translations, Violeta Kelertas' 2018 version of "Tofylis, or The Marriage of Zosė."

"Tofylis" reminded me of The Swamp Wader by Latvian writer Rüdolfs Blaumanis, at least on a couple of points: both stories are set in imperial times and involve love, or at least intense relationships, among the class uneasily poised between servitude and upward (or downward) mobility.

In "Tofylis," alternatively titled "The Marriage of Zosė," the huntsman Tofylis is on his way down and the maid Zosė potentially on her way up. They are infatuated with each other but uncertain about marriage: he because he could once have done better (or claims he could have); she because nobody seems to like or trust him. But Zosė has a dowry that may be the best that Tofylis will ever be able to do, and Tofylis is at least a way out of the precarious situation of vulnerability that Zosė experiences as the maid of a lecherous master.

Žemaitė's story also reminded me of the work of another contemporary, Sardinian writer Grazia Deledda, in her keen dissection of the problems that face working-class women in a rural society. Not much of Žemaitė's work is available in English, but Kelertas has since published a collection of translations by the Lithuanian writer, called Marriage for Love (2020), which looks very much worth checking out.

Žemaitė. Tofylis, or The Marriage of Zosė. 1897. Translated by Violeta Kelertas. n.p.: Paper + Ink, 2018.