Gender Tutelage and Bulgarian Women’s Literature (1878–1944)

in Aspasia


This article focuses on Bulgarian women writers’ activities, their reception, and their problematic existence in the context of the modernizing and emancipatory trends in Bulgarian society after the Liberation (1878–1944). The analysis is based on the concept of the (intellectual) hierarchy of genders and mechanisms of gender tutelage, traced in the specifics of women’s literary texts, their critical and public resonance, and the authors’ complicated relation with the Bulgarian literary canon. The question is topical, given the noticeable absence of women writers in the corpus of Bulgarian authors/ literary texts, thought and among those considered representative in terms of national identity and culture. The study is based on primary source materials such as works by Bulgarian women writers, the periodical press from the period, various archival materials, and scholarly publications relevant to the topic.

This article concentrates on the literary activity of Bulgarian women writers between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1940s. The main focus in considering women writers, their critical and public reception, their aspirations to be accepted as nationally representative, and their having a significant role within the native cultural context is on treating women’s literature through the relation of the gendered hierarchy of authorship. The article attempts to demonstrate how this relationship appears in various manifestations of gender tutelage in the field of literature, understood as a mechanism for treating women’s writing as secondary, amateur, and entangled in Pygmalion plots as a clear articulation of power in the processes of distribution of and access to symbolic capital. The article thus aims to unmask the ideological structure of the Bulgarian literary canon—a solid and conservative structure—and in the process revealing Bulgarian women writers’ problematic existence and their limited public visibility.

The reason these problems are topical is the continued absence of women writers in the canon of Bulgarian authors/literary texts considered representative in terms of national identity and culture. This absence is even more noticeable in the background of the present doubts about the hierarchical structure of the canon, combined with the lack of a new system of evaluation standards relevant to the current democratic, modern Bulgarian cultural and sociopolitical situation, placing men and women intellectuals on an equal footing.

Theoretical Scope

The article uses an interdisciplinary method, crossing several research fields (sociology of texts and literary creativity, feminist criticism, social history, cultural studies, etc.), but overall falls within the theoretical field known as book history, a sphere of study, established as a separate discipline in the Western tradition in the 1950s, emanating from the École des Annales in France and related to the attempt to reach a new paradigm in historical thought worldwide, because of the collapse of the “big narratives” in history. Key texts in the development of the approach are Lucien Fevre’s and Jean-Henri Martin’s works, placing the study of the book in the context of interdisciplinary humanities,1 as well as Robert Darnton’s model, according to which book history is a chain, a sequence of units labeled “author,” “editor,” “printer,” “carrier,” “bookseller,” and “reader.”2

Another field of study the methodological coordinates and contributions of which are crucial for the current article is the history of women and gender, which emerged as a scholarly field because of the major social upheavals in the West during the second half of the twentieth century, revived feminist activism, multiculturalism, and social research on women and gender relations. In the context of the overall development of the discipline, two distinct stages can be identified. The first is the more traditional the stage of history of women and the second the stage of history of gender relations. While the history of women operates with terms like “woman,” “experience,” and “identity,” the history of gender relations prefers terms such as “(socially constructed) gender,” “representation,” and “discourse.” The methodological approaches of the second phase of the field are more relevant to the current context, as they offer disenchanting, innovative readings of historical narratives and contain plural and nonessentialist understandings of the category “woman” as an object of historical analysis.3

What unifies the history of women and gender and is essential for it, as noted by Joan Scott, is not simply the aim to discover and articulate neglected historical facts, but to search for answers to the question of why those facts were ignored and how they should be understood in the present.4 The strategy of such a questioning historical study logically focuses, among other features, on a key spiritual aspect of women’s past that related to their reading and writing, creation, and use of literary texts, or, in other words, their access to what we define as symbolic capital. Because of a number of socially and culturally motivated reasons (related to their traditionally stated place and role in society), women had a much smaller opportunity to develop and express their intellectual potential, to leave historical traces and be recognized as significant and contributing to the world’s literary culture.

Unveiling the overall economic, social, and cultural marginalization of women in history, challenging the foundations of the existing literary canon, and looking at the specifics of the literary works created by women are among the main directions of feminist literary criticism, a field of research that developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Its foundation was created by some iconic (classic) studies of women’s writing by, for example, Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, 1929; Professions for Women, 1931) and Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949), and later Judith Fetterly (The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Literature, 1978), Elaine Showalter (Toward a Feminist Poetics, 1979; A Literature of Their Own, 1977), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979), Toril Moi (Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, 1985), Hélène Cixous (The Laugh of Medusa, 1975), and Luce Irigaray (This Sex Which Is Not One, 1985), within the context of the first and second waves of feminism. Its object of study was generally the representation of the politics of female authorship and the impact of women’s position in literature. Along with the development of a more complicated understanding of gender and subjectivity that characterized the third wave of feminism (after 1970), the field followed new directions of research, mainly in the spirit of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Gender was often interpreted in terms of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis as part of the deconstruction of the existing power mechanisms, with patriarchal mentality reflected in key aspects of the social sphere.

Transferred to the Bulgarian context, women’s literature and its traditions, expressions, features, and complex relationship with what we recognize as the Bulgarian literary canon have been studied by many modern Bulgarian researchers. Milena Kirova was the first in Bulgarian historiography to edit two impressive volumes of texts by leading Bulgarian scholars (men and women) on women’s writing and authors who, despite their productivity and innovative approach, remained in the shadow of institutionalized notions of classic Bulgarian literature.5 Her collection is considered the first large-scale systematic narrative that tells, from a literary and humanities perspective, about the battles of Bulgarian literature written by women, creating a hitherto unfamiliar picture of the active presence of women in the whole literary process.

Other key works on the subject are the articles by Krassimira Daskalova, Kornelia Slavova, Amelia Licheva, and Nadezhda Aleksandrova, and the books by Krassimira Daskalova, Miglena Nikolchina, Lyudmila Malinova, and Alexander Kiossev.6 In addition to shedding light on the general cultural and historical climate of the time the research focuses on, they analyze the prevailing social attitudes, tensions, and aspirations that predetermined the path for Bulgarian women tempted by the pen, looking at specific case studies.

The analysis of the complicated existence of Bulgarian female authorship and the refusal to treat literary works by women as nationally representative (alongside men’s) are logically intertwined with the analysis of the specifics of the Bulgarian literary canon. Ideologically prepared during the Revival period (starting in Bulgaria in the eighteenth century and marking a slow transition from the medieval society with its traditional realities and culture toward a modern society), and a part of the national projects for modernization after the Liberation (1878), the canon embodied the aspirations of the Bulgarian literary history to establish native authors (and culture) within world literature and cultural development. The selective canon tended to be a scene of intense power relations. One significant feature in its construction was the deliberate marginalization of Bulgarian women writers, demonstrating the power of the patriarchal mentality dominant within the Bulgarian sociocultural context, despite the country’s desire for modernization.

This article builds on the studies of Alexander Kiossev, who articulated new methodological approaches to the phenomena and processes in Bulgarian literary history, problematizing the political role of the canon and shedding light on the paradigm of Bulgarian literary development. According to Kiossev, the literary canon was a key instrument in national homogenization. It also functioned as a strong didactic instrument over the years, expressing the quest of Bulgarian literary history to define the place of native authors (and culture) in the development of world literature and culture.

This article, in turn, looks at the literary activity of Bulgarian women, their reception, and their problematic life unfolding in the context of the modernizing and emancipatory trends in Bulgarian society after the Liberation. Along with the active processes of creating a new state administration and the centralization of the educational system, the pursuit of spiritual progress, national homogenization, and filling the perceived cultural deficits through the creation of a national literature was central to the period. That objective was also acknowledged by women intellectuals and writers. This article attempts to analyze Bulgarian women’s literature of the period from a different angle, in light of the concept of the (intellectual) hierarchy of genders and the mechanisms of gender tutelage, unmasked through reading primary source material (literary texts by women, their critical and public reception, women writers’ memoirs and correspondence).

The Concept of Gender Tutelage

The concept of gender tutelage as a matrix in which female authorship has been persistently positioned was developed by Barbara Becker-Kantarino. A scholar of the culture and literature of early German modernity, the history of women and gender, and its articulation in the philosophical context of the Enlightenment, she was first popularized in Bulgaria by Krassimira Daskalova in her book Zheni, poi i modernizacia v Bulgria, 1878–1944 (Women, gender, and modernization in Bulgaria, 1878–1944). According to Becker-Kantarino, despite the fact that behind the scientific and humanistic pathos of the Enlightenment stood the belief that individuals were free to release their intellectual potential, articulate their personal positions and values, and reject traditional forms of political or religious censorship, the era did not demonstrate innovation regarding another socially established restriction—that of gender.7

The notion of gender hierarchy appears in the views of a number of key Enlightenment figures (like Goethe, Fichte, etc.) and actually shows that the anthropocentrism underlying the concepts of the individual genius and his freedoms was more like androcentrism, based on the notion of the inequality of genders. Thus, on the eve of linking the author function with the ownership of ideas and the writing person’s appearance on the European cultural scene in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the gender discourse of the time began to treat male and female authorship as essentially different.

Gender tutelage (Geschlechtsvormundschaft), based on the traditional (patriarchal) refusal to treat women as free, culturally and intellectually independent beings, logically explains women’s desire to write and publish as deeply problematic. In 1796, Fichte included a section called “Concerning the Legal Relationship of Both Sexes in General in Each Other in the State” in his work Fundamental Principles of the Rights of Family, in which he commented on the desire of women to realize themselves intellectually by writing. Women, according to Fichte, were incapable of scientific innovation or of philosophical problem solving; their texts should be oriented toward the female audience and proceed from the specifics of the female nature, without attempting to duplicate men’s worldview. The main subject of women’s writing should be women’s education, as well as ethical issues. The motives of female authorship were treated as markedly utilitarian, in no way tied to individual ambition and vanity. Fichte justified the limitations set to women’s writing by the so-called natural law: they existed in nature and were preconceived by the female gender itself. The scholar focused on female literary activity in the context of marriage and family, and through the prism of the male sanction—as an object of intense gender tutelage. The latter followed the classic matrix of censorship—the sanctioning influence of one dominant group (men writers) on another, unequally positioned group (women writers), justified by the concept of the gendered differentiation of social roles.8

Such a distinction, contrary to the modernizing and emancipatory pathos of the time between the last quarter of nineteenth century and the 1940s, was largely true for women’s literature in the Bulgarian context. Gender tutelage could be spotted as a functioning paradigm within the androcentric structure of the Bulgarian literary canon (seen in the refusal to treat works created by women, despite their genre and thematic innovation, as nationally representative), the gender-sensitive critical reception of texts created by women, and the “reading” of women’s authorship throuh Pygmalion plots.

Genre and Gender Hierarchies in the Bulgarian Literary Context before World War I

The establishment of the Bulgarian state with its ideological and institutional parameters, as mentioned, reactivated the need to affirm the Bulgarian cultural identity with a new urgency. As national literature was considered a key instrument for achieving that goal, an intense process of creation and establishment of native classics, prominent author figures, stylistic and thematic traits, and continuity was initiated. The emerging awareness of a lack of organic literary canon to represent and consolidate the nation explains the enormous energy the postliberation intellectuals invested in the processes of canon formation and “production” of texts called to meet the high criteria of classical literature.9

Within such a context, saturated by creative efforts, Bulgarian women’s literature can be viewed as “passionately wished and even created by the Pygmalion desire of the new Bulgarian literature, still fragile in its author’s and historical identifications.”10 That desire was, however, ambivalently paired with marginalization, hindering women’s access to the highly valued symbolic order.

Fitting in the general context of intensifying emancipatory trends after the Liberation and in parallel with Bulgarian women’s awareness of the struggles of the feminist movement in the rest of the world (for higher education equal to that available to men, civic and political rights, against discrimination), women’s presence grew progressively in the Bulgarian literary field: researchers have identified, between 1878 and 1944, literary work/production of 356 women, which amounted to 982 separate titles from a total of 55,851 books issued.11 Bulgarian women writers wrote in different genres. They made the most noticeable contribution to fiction and poetry, novels, collections of short stories, and children’s magazines (e.g., writers like Anna Karima, Fani Popova-Mutafova, Elisaveta Bagryana, Dora Gabe, Kalina Malina, Ekaterina Nencheva, Yana Yazova, Sanda Yovcheva, Evgenia Mars, Slava Shtipleva, Anna Kamenova, and Luba Kasarova). By numbers, the second place belonged to women’s publications on humanities and social issues, literary criticism, historical and biographical writings, and publications on the women’s movement and the ideology of feminism (authors like Evgenia V. Peteva-Filova, Vela Blagoeva, Dimitrina Ivanova, Sonya Vicheva, Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva, and others). The publication of memoirs and diaries by women was a sign of a rich inner life and women’s growing personal confidence (a total of twenty-four titles, with travel notes). What testified to Bulgarian women’s emancipation and their willingness to more decisively break away from the traditional modes of female existence—family and home—was their interest in other countries and cultures, demonstrated by travelogues about trips around the Balkans and Europe, the Middle East, and even Japan (L. Kutincheva). Women were also authors of textbooks and journals, of dramatic works, of religious-ethical and moral literature, but also of books related to the traditional activities of maintaining the house and family.12

Although women’s presence in Bulgarian literature was intensive and diverse, women’s creative searches in the field of poetry and fiction provoked the strongest public response and were most closely connected with gender tutelage. It was mainly those fields—originally reserved for men and full of essentialist prescriptions for women’s writing and feeling, considered adequate to their gender—that persistently circulated in the Bulgarian cultural context. Despite the existence of feminist texts created by authors like Ana Karima, Vela Blagoeva, Dimitrina Ivanova, Sanda Yovcheva, Yulia Malinova, Kina Konova, and so forth, who concentrated on calls for cultural, social, and political female autonomy, gender tutelage (or instructions on how and what women should write) remained a powerful tool in the field of literature, where women’s writing had to prove its value by thematic, genre, and conceptual innovation. Although in the overall context of poetry and fiction the authors who created texts in gender-sensitive terms starting from the positions of their femininity were rare, gender tutelage proved itself as a sustainable strategy of reading and interpreting the whole literary production created by women.

Early on, Bulgarian literature began to be treated as a male-dominated field, and women’s work was persistently interpreted using the categories of “special femininity, emotion, intuition, maternal selflessness, [and] sincerity, different from the canonical works of literary men.”13 Lyricism, thought to be the most adequate expression of “feminine” mentality, was used as a key marker of women’s writing. In sum, as noted by Milena Kirova, we could speak of “institutionalized notions of” good and proper “women’s literature”: the critical reception of female creativity was predominantly positive insofar as the authors followed the prescriptive schemes for femininity in literature. women’s authorship was mainly interpreted through narrow gender specifics and mostly associated with the expression of qualities such as compassion and mercy, “ability to express unquestioning love, faithfulness, devotion to home and all the accessories of its symbolic presence,” invariably centered on men.14

Under the pressure of that imperative and the principle of hidden specialization of literary genres, the origins of women’s presence in Bulgarian literature were generally associated with the first successful attempts of women poets—Mara Belcheva, Ekaterina Nencheva, and Dora Gabe. It was among them that Bulgarian women writers’ first steps toward breaking the stereotypes about female literature were registered.

Ekaterina Nencheva (1885–1920), who wrote poetry from the age of fourteen, was fascinated by the works of Mikhail Lermontov, Heinrich Heine, and especially Lord Byron. As a student, she published texts in the journals Letopisi (Chronicles), Demokraticheski pregled (Democratic review), and Obshto delo (Common deed), but mainly in the magazine Misal (Thought). In 1909, she released her first and only collection of poems, Snezhinki (Snowflakes), which was warmly received by critics. In her critical study on the Bulgarian female poetry published in 1937, Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva strongly emphasized the spiritual closeness between Nencheva’s works and the best poetic modes of Bulgarian literature: “Ek. Nencheva is the first Bulgarian poetess, but she already has artistic patterns to follow in Botev’s and Yavorov’s poetry. That is why her verse is so developed, lively, and flexible.”15 Peter Goryansky saw her poems as “the first solid step of a woman on the way to her establishment as a creator of spiritual values.”16 The poetess, however, did not fit into the traditional notions of a literary woman, remaining in the cultural memory mainly because of her unusual, incomprehensible femininity—“the Madonna in black,” “the cursed poetess,” or “the cursed angel of Bulgarian poetry.” These characterizations, shared by the literary critics and society, were derived from the themes dominant in her works—the suffering, the night from which life is only a fraction, the weary soul that failed to find peace and sought its way to eternity. Those were intuitions that linked Nencheva with the poetic experience of one of the most talented Bulgarian symbolists, Peyo Yavorov, driving her away from the registers of female artistic expression that circulated in Bulgarian cultural context at the time.

Another topic marking Ekaterina Nencheva’s atypical female presence in the literary field was the theme of love for the child, evident in her later poetry: the poems “Maichina lyubov” (Mother’s love), “Zavet (Na nevrustnata mi dushteria)” (Testament [On my infant daughter]), “Zavet (Na lyubimia mi sin)” (Testament [On my beloved son]). In contrast to the motive of maternal-filial relationship, widely exploited in the works of men authors, the love for the infant child was viewed as a part of the woman’s love for herself. Such thematizing, unusual for its time, had to wait several years to be adequately evaluated.17

Nencheva’s literary searches that were ahead of her time and the unfamilar female image that she projected to the patriarchal society predetermined the reception of her works by the audience. “The annoyed audience waved with a hand,’ wrote Goryansky. “It remained hostile, alien to the spiritual quests of the poetess, who first dared to unfold the innermost secret of her soul.”18

Several attempts by Bulgarian women prose authors that were original but not confined to the prescriptions for female authorship were adequately presented by the prewar criticism in Bulgaria, but disappeared from the literary memory afterward (like Ekaterina Nencheva’s poetry). Examples of such works were Ekaterina Karavelova’s feuilletons, the short story “Ali-Begovitsa” (1897) by Ana Karima, and the novels Tsaritsa Theodora (Queen Theodora) (1894) and Process (1898) by Vela Blagoeva, dealing with topics such as the nature of political reality and women’s place in history, which were innovative for Bulgarian fiction and opposed the patriarchal mentality.

Ekaterina Karavelova (1960–1947), for example, was remembered mainly for her active citizen position, not her innovative writing. She entered the field of literature in the late nineteenth century, when she started publishing feuilletons and pamphlets in the newspaper Turnovska konstitucia (Turnovo constitution). For a decade, until Aleko Konstantinov appeared in the field of journalism, her texts were the most brilliant satire of political life in Bulgaria. The way in which Pencho Slaveykov, who traditionally took the role of the aesthetic judge of Bulgarian literature, commented on the feuilleton Nov Memisha-a-a (New Memisha-a-a) was more than flattering: “Only two of the countless Bulgarian feuilletons written before Aleko will live long in our memory: Politicheska zima (Political winter) by Botev and Nov Memisha-a-a (New Memisha-a-a) by Ek. Karavelova.”19 Public memory, however—or rather, the canon, functioning on the basis of persistent androcentric strategies—refused to place a feuilleton written by a woman in the representative native literary canon, although the text was devoid of gendered sensibility, both in theme and genre.

The path of another text written by a woman author in the late nineteenth century was quite similar. In 1894, Vela Blagoeva published her historical novel Tsatitsa Teodora thirteen years before the novel Ivan Alexander by Ivan Vazov dedicated to the marriage of the Bulgarian monarch Ivan Alexander with the Jewish Sara (Queen Theodora) against the backdrop of the political turmoil the fourtheenth century brought to the Bulgarian kingdom. The reflection on the Bulgarian fourteenth century through the life of a female character and the interest in women’s place in history were more than unusual for that time. Although suffering from obvious weaknesses—both compositional and stylistic—Blagoeva’s novel was innovative both in terms of the interpretation of women’s attitude to realities such as war, politics, and power, and in relation to the foreign queen’s role in the historical narrative. According to the tradition of the Bulgarian historical novel affirmed later, the image of the foreign queen was considered antagonistic, set up to sharpen the conflict between the native and the foreign, the struggle among the heirs to the throne, putting the very throne at risk. Contrary to this tradition established later, the queen in Blagoeva’s novel was viewed more as a victim of the political circumstances rather than as an active and destructive participant in the historical events.20

The overall strategy, within which the aforementioned works by women writers fell, as well as women’s literary activity in general, was treating them more like an exception from the rule, an unusual phenomenon in the cultural life of the country. Therefore, Bulgarian women authors’ efforts of that early period were primarily aimed at escaping anonymity and acquiring the right to public visibility.

Genre and Gender Hierarchies in the Bulgarian Literary Context in the Interwar Period

The focus of women writers changed with World War I, which marked a turning point for many European countries, as reflected in various aspects of social life: economic instability coupled with a redefinition of social structures and roles, questioning of personal value orientations, changes in interpersonal relationships, and so on. Among the logical consequences of the changed social and cultural climate was the new visibility of women who more strongly (in the Western European countries and the United States) stood against traditional patriarchal restrictions and declared their position in the areas of social, political, and cultural life.

The ideas of feminism and the new position of women, their exit from the home, their right to higher education (equal to that of men), and their political and civil rights began to receive increasingly stronger responses in the Bulgarian context too. It was channeled through the ideas and activities of women’s associations and clubs (led by the Bulgarian women’s Union, founded in 1901), as well as by women’s newspapers and magazines (among which were Zhenskiy sviat [women’s world], 1893–1898, edited by Theodora Noeva, and Zhenski glas [women’s voice], 1899–1944, a publication of the Bulgarian women’s Union, edited by Dimitrana Ivanova as the clearest pro-feminist editions). Ideas similar to those proclaimed by the feminist newspapers—for full civil and political rights of women, financial autonomy, and professional realization—were conveyed by the books, journalistic texts, and political pamphlets by authors and public figures like Dimitrina Ivanova, Vela Blagoeva, Anna Karima, Yulia Malinova, and Kina Konova.

Apart from Bulgarian women’s increased sensitivity to social and political topics, the postwar period was also remarkable because of women’s active presence in literature, struggle for gaining public visibility, and the right to be accepted as nationally representative. Up to World War I, Bulgarian women’s literature had been primarily identified with the names of Ekaterina Karavelova, Evgenia Mars, Anna Karima, Ekaterina Nencheva, Mara Belcheva, and Dora Gabe, but a number of new authors quickly gained public attention in the postwar period. Moreover, Bulgarian society entered a phase of progressive and mass popularization of women’s cultural production that has motivated modern researchers to speak of the “feminization” of Bulgarian literature between the two world wars.21

The first Bulgarian women’s organization that played an important role in intellectual life—the Club of Bulgarian Women Writers, created in 1930—drove that trend and channeled women’s striving for creative autonomy and public visibility. The most significant and famous women poets and fiction writers who had published works but were not recognized by their men colleagues and the Writers’ Union were accepted in the club. Under its patronage, poetry, fiction, and critical studies by women authors began to appear on the pages of the key cultural and daily newspapers in the country and were incuded in the regular public literary readings. The club published two literary collections presenting the work of seventeen Bulgarian authors—Snop I (1934) and Snop II (1937)—which were the first representative anthology collections of Bulgarian women’s literature.

Alongside the intensive publishing activity, the members of the club organized monthly meetings, exchanged creative ideas, shared new works, initiated public lectures, and maintained close connections with other women’s organizations, seeking contact with women writers in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and, during World War II, Romania and Hungary.22 As noted by Milena Kirova, the activity of the organization was a “fully conscious and purposeful struggle … for the right of public audibility and significance.”23 Through their collective mobilization and intensive intellectual activity within the country, Bulgarian women writers gained confidence as an accomplished literary community and decisively stepped out of the marginal space they had been traditionally positioned in.

In the years after World War I, within the context of the overall cultural processes and increased interest in women’s creative activity in general, Bulgarian women writers’ literary production received wide public and critical attention (by critics like Anton Strashimirov, Sonia Vicheva, Peter Dinekov, Malcho Nikolov, Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva, Vera Boyadzhieva, Alexander Balabanov, etc.). In the 1930s, women authors, although not exceeding the representative “quota” of two to four names, were present in almost all major literary collections and anthologies of texts in various genres. Government and public institutions, in turn, showed a tendency to support and distinguish the appearance of works by women writers: Blenika received a poetry prize for her book Bialata ptitsa (The white bird); the prose prize was given to Sanda Iovcheva for her novel Nie, v dulbokia til (We, in the deep rear); Bagryana received two awards for poetry from the Ministry of Education and then from the Writers’ Union; Dora Gabe was also awarded with a prize from the ministry and from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences for her Polski poeti (Polish poets) and Himni (Hymns). Fani Popova-Mutafova received several national awards for her writing, including the Rada Kirkovich Prize at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in 1933. The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences also awarded her a prize in 1937 as “the first woman working successfully in the field of the historical novel and story.” Two years later, the Ministry of Education nominated her novel Boyanskiat maistor (The master from Boyana) for “the best Bulgarian novel of the year.”24

However, oddly, despite the new publicity and emancipatory trends that influenced the social status and overall perception of Bulgarian women, the leading concepts of the native cultural community about what should be understood as good women’s literature did not go beyond the regime of gender tutelage, affirming the conservative patriarchal notions of women’s identity and binary male-female dichotomy.

In 1927, the following comment could be read in the preface of the literary collection Nashite pisatelki (Our women writers), edited by Sanda Iovcheva and Vera Boyadzhieva: “In our spiritual life for several years, especially in recent times, the flow of female creativity is rapidly increasing … Something specifically feminine vibrates in their work, a purely feminine attitude to the world.”25 Stressing the special female nature and female perception, as well as treating women’s writing as a special phenomenon in the field of literature, was a key and often reaffirmed tool of patriarchal consciousness, internalized by women writers themselves.

An identical reference to femininity can be seen in the artistic profile that impressed Malco Nikolov in Soneti (Sonnets) by Mara Belcheva; the latter was said to possess “natural lyricism,” “that specific lyricism of the female soul, with its boundless devotion and dedication”; “these bright songs are born from a great noble suffering … of the loving female soul.”26 D. B. Mitov emphasized a strikingly similar point when commenting on the poetry collection Zemen put (Earthy road) by Dora Gabe in the pages of Literaturen glas (Literary voice) (1929): “Femininity is the main feature of her poems. Unanswered love and obedience of male strength, simplicity of expression, impressiveness of poetic imagery—that is the strength of her poetry.”27

The “specifically feminine” ability to feel and depict the world was the subject of the article by Peter Dinekov called “Zhenata i bulgarskata literatura” (The woman and Bulgarian literature), published in Vestnik za zhenata (Journal for the woman) in 1936. The author wrote about “a new phenomenon after the European war: the active involvement of women in Bulgarian literature,” who “in certain moments and in certain genres not only align with men, but take the wheel in their hands.” Referring vaguely to women’s success in fiction, Dinekov insisted on the primary importance of women’s poetry because of its innate sentimentality and the fact that men’s remained psychologically foreign to “the raw juices of poetry and its organic emotion.”28

True to this persistent register of perception, even when stepping into the field of prose, Bulgarian women authors were required to fit into predefined schemes of femininity and to be “femininely” lyrical, that is, to thematize mainly the intimate thrills of the soul. Those gender-defined strategies were also obvious in the positive reviews received by the first novel by the Bulgarian writer Anna Kamenova, Haritininiyat griah (Haritina’s sin), published in 1930. Thematizing the image of the woman in love, who suffers and awaits her beloved, it won the sympathy of criticism especially as a “female” novel (“a true lyrical novel,” “novel of the intimate life” of its heroine and author).

Literary criticism written by women (Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva, Sonia Vicheva, Vera Boyadzhieva) largely repeated the (male) ideas of the “female nature” and the character of “female” writing popular at that time. In her article “Tvotchestvoto na bulgarkata” (Bulgarian woman’s art), Vera Boyadjieva gave an overview of the contemporary women authors (especially poets) about whom something “complete and positive” could be said. Those, according to the critic, were Ekaterina Nencheva, whose poems impressed her with “the determination of a young girl to express her intimate wishes and enthusiasms, suffering and despairing above all,” to speak no longer “about the flower and grass in the field, nor for any public works, but for love”; Dora Gabe, whose first book of poetry, Temenugi (Violets), featured “lovely rhythm and grace” and whose the last collection, Zemen put (Earthy road), impressed her with “the maturity of perceptions and vital problems”; Luba Kasarova, focusing on the power of maternal feeling; Magda Mineva on “woman’s suffering”; and Maria Grubeshlieva, Sanda Iovcheva, and others.29 Common in the comments was the insistence on women’s typical (lyrical) worldview, which was highly appreciated.

The revalidation of the dominant patriarchal notions about women’s writing was evident in another article of Vera Boyadjieva, “Poeziata na zhenata” (Woman’s poetry), published in the journal Hyperion in 1931. Boyadzhieva’s review of the work of European women writers popular at that time and widely read by the Bulgarian audience (such as Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Ellen Picard, Ricarda Huch, Else Lasker-Schüler, Zinaida Gippius, and Anna Akhmatova) came to confirm the leading notion the critic set at the very beginning of her text: “Usually when talking about female muse, women’s poetry, some people rebel against this distinction, stating the poetic work of women which is no inferior to men’s work. But it is a bit strange to think that only such underestimation of one or the other is the motive of this distinction.” Such a distinction, according to the author, was naturally available and motivated by the specifics of the “female” mentality: “something specifically feminine” invariably imposed its mark on women writers’ works (creating “a community in the motives, in their quest of artistic expression, in the way of their creative development”). Boyadzhieva viewed the manifestation of such creative femininity entirely positively: the fact that “women enter into poetry with their whole nature, with their whole spiritual reserve” should not insult but, rather, flatter them.30

Most (positive) observations on Bulgarian women writers made by Sonia Vicheva repeated the same (already familiar) regime: Evgenia Mars’s poetry was praised for its “romantic flair and religious feeling,”31 her fiction for its “extremely feminine temperament”;32 Dora Gabe was defined “primarily as poetess of the sad reflection, whose most faithful companions are loneliness and grief”; Luba Kasarova’s verse was “invariably faithful to the eternal feminine.”33

A typical example of the patriarchal metaphysics and gender tutelage was the effort to limit women’s authorship to the boundaries of personal experience and the articulation of personal feelings.34 In contrast to such prescriptions, Bulgarian women’s literature before the 1940s sought dimensions of creative presence in different genres and topics. While publicly recognized for their poetic talent, women demonstrated their skills in various literary fields: prose (Fani Popova-Mutafova, Hristina Stoyanova, Evgenia Mars, Sanda Iovcheva, Anna Kamenova, Yana Yazova, Kalina Malina); poetry (Dora Gabe, Elisaveta Bagryana, Mara Belcheva, Luba Kasarova, Maria Grubeshlieva, Blenika, Magda Petkanova, Yana Yazova, Paulina Stancheva); and criticism and philosophical essays (Stella Yaneva, Jana Nikolova, later Galabova, Vera Boyadzhieva-Fol, Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva, Zlatka Cholakova).35

women’s literary production was enriched not just by genre but also thematically: at the end of the 1930s, women writers’ works also turned to social and existential topics, the issues of motherhood, the opposition of “native-foreign,” and other themes. As Lyudmila Malinova has noted, in the interwar period, a time of dense existential experience and polarity of perceptions, women authors, contrary to traditional prescriptions, demonstrated “richer artistic and psychological nuances of what was experienced and thought,” with a stronger accent on “the moral and philosophical questions of existence.”36 In other words, Bulgarian literature came considerably closer to the possibility of not being divided by gender (into “male” and “female”) and moved in the direction of common values and objectives, which were in the interwar time primarily perceived as national. Hence, Bulgarian authors’, both men’s and women’s, increased interest in national history, with the aim of cultural reaffirmation of the wrecked national identity, the stylization of the folk mythology as a source of “primordial” Bulgarian models (under the influence of the “native art” artistic movement popular during the interwar period and postulating spiritual rehabilitation through the construction of native mythopoetism, encoded in the Bulgarian traditions, the idyllic memory of the countryside, the patriarchal values system, etc.), the reflections on war, human imperfection, social structure, and so on. It was demonstrated by the novels by Fani Popova-Mutafova, Yana Yazova, and Sanda Iovcheva, the plays by Anna Karima, the short stories by Evgenia Mars, and the poems by Magda Petkanova, Elisaveta Bagryana, Blenika, Maria Grubeshlieva, Vessela Vassileva, and others.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a time of disappointment and crushing of the prewar cult of individuality, an essential breakthrough occurred in the sense of the spatial existence of the Bulgarian land because of the fragmented territory and a collapse of the national ideals, and women writers’ perspectives on the topic of war claimed universality. Women authors’ poetic and fictional contribution to the deployment of that thematic field could not be separated or distanced from the dominant humanistic tradition in Bulgarian literature (channeled by authors such as Ivan Vazov, Dimcho Debelyanov, Geo Milev, Nikola Rakitin, Nikola Furnadzhiev, Georgi Stamatov, Lyudmil Stoyanov, Yordan Yovkov, etc.). The vision of war as a catastrophic experience; physical and spiritual destruction was the foundation of the pacifist literary gesture during the period and could not be divided into male or female. The latter was proved by the existence of a kind of “female” continuity in thematizing military experience that was shown by the works of E. Bagryana (her collection of poems Most (Bridge), Magda Petkanova, Maria Grubeshlieva (the cycle “Voina” [War] of the poetry book Streli [Arrows]), Blenika’s antiwar poetry, and Evgenia Mars’s reflections in the field of fiction (her collection of stories Belite narcisi [White daffodils]).

Sanda Iovcheva’s antiwar novel Nie, v dalbokia til (We, in the deep rear), published in 1937, also fit in the thus delineated female tradition. A work with a deep humanistic pathos focusing not on the firing line but on the topos of the town, the village, and the hospital, where women, as mothers, sisters, and beloved, reached their no less dramatic existential limits, it was highly acclaimed in its time, awarded with a national prize for literature, and compared to the message of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque by the critics. According to Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva, the merits of the work could be found in its universal creative position: depicting the destructive power of war in a realistic manner, “without moralizing pathos, but during the tragedy of human experience.”37

Bulgarian critics greatly praised Iovcheva’s novel for its pacifism and interest in the inner world of a person placed in an extreme situation such as war. Those traits linked that forgotten (because of the androcentric Bulgarian literary canon) woman writer and public figure from the beginning of the twentieth century with one of the classic authors in Bulgarian literature, Yordan Yovkov. It would not be far-fetched to argue that Yovkov’s late military fiction revealed a worldview largely shared by Nie, v dalbokia til. The whole register of close reflections and the nature of the authors’ sensitivity (the essential misunderstanding of war and its destructive powers, the suffering of the damaged individual and collective [national] destiny, the painful self-awareness, etc.) functioned as irrefutable proof of the universal character of good literature and the irrelevance of the undue division of male and female. However, while, quite rightly, because of the strength of its moral message, Yovkov’s novel Posledna radost (Last joy) is considered one of the strongest antiwar works in Bulgarian literature today—a canonical work with pathos in the spirit of the most progressive traditions in the world’s antiwar prose—Sanda Iovcheva’s work has not achieved such a status.

The fate of many other texts by Bulgarian women writers, distinguished by their innovation and refusal to identify themselves with the popular (male) ideas about how women should write and feel, was similar. Magda Petkanova’s poems treating topics unconventional for the time or Anna Kamenova’s attempts in the genre of the travelogue can serve as examples. Thus, although significantly strengthened, Bulgarian women writers’ confidence and belief in their own creative potential (undoubtedly supported by the nature and volume of women’s literary production during the period) invariably faced the native critics’ reluctance to interpret their creativity as representative of Bulgarian literature as men’s.

Bulgarian Women’s Literature and the Myth of Pygmalion

Another specific manifestation of gender tutelage in Bulgarian literature was the practice of reading women’s literary activities through Pygmalion plots, that is, by stressing men’s support to women’s authorship in the form of mentorship, teaching, guidance, and so forth. An extreme form of negative attitudes toward women’s potential as writers was the explicit doubt of the authenticity of their works, a strategy of thinking and perception that circulated in the public domain and was supported both by men and women.

That practice could be explained to some extent by the fact that in the context of a lack of a broad market for intellectual and cultural products in Bulgaria at the time, women involved in creative activities were mainly from the higher strata of society. The biographies of a number of them were connected with prominent men intellectuals or public figures who greatly influenced their creative paths. Such were the cases of Mara Belcheva and Pencho Slaveykov, Evgenia Mars and Ivan Vazov, Jana Nikolova-Galabova and Konstantin Galabov, Yana Yazova and Alexander Balabanov, and Dora Gabe and Boyan Penev. In these relationships, to a greater or lesser extent, the strategy of gender tutelage led to public underestimation of women writers’ potential or directly to questioning the authenticity of their literary achievements.

According to Nancy Huston,38 “even when fervently wishing to become authors, women are less convinced of their right and ability to do it. For the simple reason that in all stories, … they find themselves not in the role of the auctor (author, authority), but in the role of the mater (mother/matter).”39 She continues: “The woman is the man’s artistic work; the artwork is the man’s wife. … That is why the incarnations of the Pygmalion’s myth are countless over the centuries.”40 In order to prove her theory, Huston analyzes the biographies of iconic couples in the fields of art and literature like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, George Sand and Alfred de Musset, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Georges Bataille and Colette Peignot, and Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer. Tracing the paradigm of “husband writer versus wife writer” within the binary opposition of body-spirit, Huston proved that this was the key to the interpretation of specific life stories, tensions, and conflicts. Regardless of social and historical context, being a part of a couple of writers/intellectuals, women became hostages of the traditionally reaffirmed model, under which the man embodied the spiritual beginning, the authority, and the woman the body, the nature, the matter that was modeled.

Such observations are also largely valid for the Bulgarian context from the early twentieth century to the 1940s, when the male example and sanction were still strong. The emblematic couples of native writers/intellectuals discussed are just a few examples in which the Pygmalion myth is activated both in the relationships of the couples and in the public reception of women’s writing, but they are indicative of the paths of Bulgarian women’s literature at that time.

The relationship between Evgenia Mars and “the poet of the Bulgarians,” Ivan Vazov, moved on the axis of support, incentive, spiritual closeness, and mutual influence. Their roads crossed when Vazov promoted the young author’s public debut in the journal Bulgarska sbirka (Bulgarian collection), which led to a strong, long-term, and fruitful friendship. Apart from praising her literary talent and works, Vazov encouraged and guided Mars in her writing, and supported the translation of her texts into various languages, as well as publication in literary collections and in the pages of periodicals. He also interceded for staging her two dramas, Bozhana (1914) and Magda (1918), in the National Theatre. Mars adopted patriotic and pro-Russian themes from Vazov, as well as his interest in Western, mainly French, literature, which greatly influenced the formation of her ideological and aesthetic profile. Vazov, in turn, found his muse in Mars, dedicating more than seventy poems to her and creating (in his maturity) his finest intimate works.41 Mars admired Vazov and sought his approval:

Mr. Vazov with his encouragement has a great merit in my humble literary activity. … Without his support, who knows if I could withstand the troubles which every person of art faces. … I wrote so that it could appeal to Vazov and when I heard his opinion, I was sure for the soundness of my work, because he was always strictly critical … The great poet’s support called some of our writers’ envy and malice. … It made me angry, but I am not discouraged. I forgave them.42

However, a clearly manifested trend in the Bulgarian context downplayed a woman when her biography intersected with a male creative presence. In Mars’s case, this came in the form of gossip about the authorship of her stories. It started with Anton Strashimirov’s and Anna Karima’s publications in the journal Nova struia (New stream), which multiplied over the years and led to her marginalization, depriving her of the chance to prove herself as an important writer. In 1983, probably motivated by competition for social prestige, Anna Karima published an essay entitled “Chudesata na Evgenia Mars” (The miracles of Evgenia Mars). Its “damning” pathos generally gravitated to the accusation that Evgenia Mars only played with the role of the writer; she, in fact, did not create—the author of her texts was her closest friend, Ivan Vazov.43

As Zhivka Simova noted, Evgenia Mars herself hardly had the confidence as one of the first authors to declare women’s presence in the field of fiction with her story collections Iz zhivota (From the life) and Lunna nosht: Razhodka iz Tsarirad (Moonlight night: Walk around Istanbul) and her military stories published in a number of Bulgarian periodicals. She was probably not aware that her work Belite narcisi (White daffodils) (1924) had become one of the iconic examples of women’s writing in Bulgaria until the end of the 1930s, highly praised by critics and going beyond gender stereotypes by daring to treat the war theme that was traditionally thought to be the domain of men.44 Reconciling differing roles—those of the mother, wife, writer, public figure (one of the leading figures in the Club of Bulgarian Women Writers, the center of a small community of writers, musicians, public figures, and artists), publisher, and editor—Evgenia Mars’s life was undeniable proof of her conscious dedication to the cause of the public expression of women’s writing.

While the Pygmalion plot in the relationship between Evgenia Mars and Ivan Vazov was noticeable but not obsessive, implying free reciprocity in self-expression, another intellectual couple—that of Pencho Slaveikov and Mara Belcheva—serves as an almost exemplary incarnation of the idea of the male author/authority and female matter. Although she was a poet as well as a researcher and translator, Mara Belcheva, a person of cultivation and solid erudition, voluntarily remained in the shadow of her companion and mentor, the great poet, philosopher, and politician Pencho Slaveykov.

Belcheva, the author of the poetry collections Na praga stupki (Steps on the threshold) (1918), Soneti (Sonnets) (1926), and Izbrani pesni (Selected songs) (1931) and of remarkable literary translations from German to Bulgarian and from Bulgarian to French, explained in her memoirs to the public and critics who traditionally questioned the authenticity of poetic talent: “Pencho did not teach me of rhymes. Poetry is the music of the soul. I have been listening to this music since childhood and rhymes played around me, but I had to meet Slaveykov who assured me that they could have enjoyed others, too, if I gave them real expression. And he asked me to write rhymes and poems. … to work and believe in my vocation.”45

Diligently following the guidance of her mentor, Mara Belcheva followed her calling, but she did not get enough approval from contemporary literary critics (like Boyan Penev and Vladimir Vassilev). Apart from being accused for borrowing from Slaveykov, her works—thanks to the adopted strategy “to absorb the time that had gone with the wars,” to sound “like an echo of the early Bulgarian modernism,” deliberately refusing any poetic innovation—remained largely misunderstood, interpreted as imitative, lacking originality and personal presence.46 Unlike her works, Belcheva’s significance as a muse and spiritual pillar in the poet’s life could not be challenged by the critics. Mara Belcheva was Slaveykov’s life companion and conceptual associate: she helped him in translation, supported him in the completion of Kurvava pesen (Blood song) and other works by patiently correcting and promoting his texts, voluntarily realizing herself as the mater, to use Huston’s apt expression.

The Pygmalion story line was explicitly advocated to the extent that it has acquired an almost legendary status in the relations of another popular couple—the young poetess Yana Yazova and Professor Alexander Balabanov. Being frustrated by the “tortured, wrinkled, aimless, colorless” contemporary poetry, Balabanov directed his hopes to the young generation of Bulgarian writers. This explains the passion he directed to his discovery (Yazova) and the effort to promote and protect her public image, working on its cultural and artistic improvement.

Having received recognition and support from one of the most influential intellectuals of that time (Balabanov was a prominent translator, literary critic, and editor), the poetess completely trusted him in the mentoring role. Like Evgenia Mars and Mara Belcheva, Yana Yazova voluntarily situated herself in the position of the mater, modeling and gaining density through her communion with the man-author. The coordinates of that relationship were set during Yazova and Balabanov’s initial meetings in the offices of the newspaper Razvigor, when he commented on her first poetic attempts and instructed her. This continued in the course of their overall intellectual partnership, as can be seen in their intense correspondence.47

In the early 1930s, when publicly known as a writer, already a member of the Club of Bulgarian Women Writers, Yazova published three books of poetry: Yazove (Weirs) (1931), Bunt (Riot) (1934), and Krustove (Crosses) (1934). Her debut novel, Anna Dyulgerova, was published in 1936 and interpreted as her emotional autobiography. In 1940, she issued her second novel, Kapitan (Captain), and demonstrated her interest in the field of drama with the play Posledniat ezichnik (The last pagan), dedicated to Bulgarian history.

Despite her literary productivity and merits as an author, Yazova’s relations with Balabanov have largely colored the reception of her works and her presence in the literary and public space. The latter resulted both in the public pursuit of the sensational in her biography and in the opinion of the criticism of that time. Commenting on her book of poems Yazove (Weirs), Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva wrote: “Such long poems fill the majority of Yazova’s collection … there are other songs among them completely different in character and form from the first. These songs, though in places devoid of content, are mild, clear in motive, mobile in metrics, with proper verse. One involuntarily asks himself if they can be the offspring of the same author: they are so substantially different from the first.”48 What the critic noticed in those works was “something of the general rhythm and versification … of Goethe’s ‘Faust,’” an easily perceptible questioning of Yazova’s authorship by reference to Alexander Balabanov, an outstanding translator and connoisseur of Faust.49

Dora Gabe, one of the most prominent and productive Bulgarian women poets and the creator of numerous works for children and adults, poetry, travelogues, short stories, essays, prose, impressions, reviews on issues of foreign and Bulgarian literature, and memories of poets and writers, was also often interpreted in relation to the male figures her life was in parallel with, Peyo Yavorov and Boyan Penev. Both of them were believed to model her writing and its improvement, stimulating the deployment of her authentic talent.

Indeed, Yavorov edited Gabe’s works in her first collection of poems, Temenugi (Violets). It was published in 1908 and later analyzed as a representative book of women’s poetry in the spirit of Sezession sentimentalism that was fashionable at the beginning of the twentieth century. Remaining fascinated by the simplicity of expression and the poetic melancholy of her texts that revealed her talent, Yavorov became her artistic mentor and soon an emotional companion. The poet was the first to promote Gabe’s works, recommending them for publication in the magazine Misul (Thought), edited by Dr. Krastev, and in Demokratieski pregled (Democratic review), edited by Todor Vlaykov.50 Yavorov’s Pygmalion aspirations for the young poetess were clearly demonstrated in their correspondence: “My ambition of you is to oppose you to the pattern cultivated in our literature by old and young lyricists” (Yavorov’s letter to Gabe from 21 June 1905); “You have to get used to the fact that I look to you as my work” (Yavorov’s letter to Gabe from 1905).51

Later on, one of the most influential Bulgarian literary historians and critics of the first decades of the twentieth century, Boyan Penev, collected and published Gabe’s early poems. He also helped her with guidance, advice, comments, and edits and thus played a key role in the development of the conceptual richness, maturity, and stylistic precision of many of Gabe’s original and translated works. On entering such an intellectual guardianship, Dora Gabe, however, like the other women writers guided by prominent Bulgarian artists and intellectuals, insisted on her creative autonomy and originality as an author: “In reflection and writing my works until now I have been independent,” Dora Gabe wrote in a letter to Boyan Penev from 1922.52

Even with undoubted merits, the literary works of authors like Yana Yazova, Mara Belcheva, and Evgenia Mars (the only exception being, perhaps, Dora Gabe) were persistently marginalized by Bulgarian criticism. The strategy of positioning Bulgarian women writers in very limited intellectual (and emotional) structures, in particular those of gender tutelage, was applied against the authors’ will and beyond the will of their texts. It has been explained by contemporary researchers like Miglena Nikolchina as “a disciplinary move that ensures the dominance of ‘the great narrative’ of male (literary) history over the risk of entering women’s names in it.”53


The practice of interpreting women’s writing not so much on the basis of its artistic parameters but through its gender definition emerges as a key articulation of the patriarchal mentality dominant in Bulgarian society despite modernization efforts after the Liberation. Particularly in the field of literature, a site of the display of gender tutelage, it can be traced both in the persistent reading of women’s texts through the lens of female nature and by incorporating women writers in intellectual/emotional structures like Pygmalion story lines.

Thinking of women’s authorship as secondary can be seen as crucial for the construction of the Bulgarian literary canon. Being itself an arena of tensions and intense power policies of representation, the canon emerged as a hard, androcentric, and conservative structure that explains Bulgarian women writers’ problematic existence, their limited prospects for access to the highly valued and publicly visible symbolic order. We can view this as the reflection of a historically and culturally imposed concept of Bulgarian literary history with its genre and gender hierarchies and (male) authorities, traditionally established and reproduced in the Bulgarian social and cultural context—hence the insufficient presence of women authors in the corpus of canonical Bulgarian authors, their location in the margins, the refusal to listen to them and to analyze them as representative (on par with men) in the context of Bulgarian literary history.

Without claiming comprehensiveness, this article is an attempt to paint a richer picture of Bulgarian women’s literature from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the 1940s by articulating relationships, trends, and tensions in the research field, thus contributing to a more detailed understanding of women’s authorship and its adequate entry into the social and cultural history of Bulgaria.


I would like to thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for their critical comments and contributions. I am especially thankful to Aspasia editor Raili Mailing for her support and attentive and detailed review, which not only helped me to improve this article significantly but also gave a creative impulse to the whole process of writing and editing. I am also highly grateful to Krassimira Daskalova, who has aroused my interest in the history of women and gender, being an example and a point of reference for me from the very beginning of my scholarly activities.


Lucien Febre and Henri-Jean Martin, L‘apparation du livre (Paris: A. Michell, 1958).


Robert Darnton, “Purvi stupki kum ‘Istora na cheteneto’” [First steps toward “history of reading”], in Istoria na knigata: Knigata v istoriata [Book history: The book in history] (Sofia: Sv. Kliment Ohridski, 2001), 258–284.


Krassimira Daskalova, Zheni, pol i modernizada v Bulgaria, 1878–1944 [Women, gender, and modernization in Bulgaria, 1878–1944] (Sofia: Sv. Kliment Ohridski, 2012), 28.


Joan W. Scott, “Introduction,” in Feminism & History, ed. Joan W. Scott (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3.


Milena Kirova, “Zhenite i kanonat: Miarkata, koiato ne e edna” [Women and the canon: The measure which is not one], in Neslucheniat kanon: Bulgarskite pisatelki ot Vuzrazhdaneto do Vtorata svetovna voina [The canon that did not happen: Bulgarian women writers from the Revival to World War II] (Sofia: IK Altera, 2009).


Krassimira Daskalova, “Zhenska identichnost: Normi, predstavi, obrazi v bulgarskata kultura ot XIX—nachaloto na XX vek” [Female identity: Norms, ideas, images in the Bulgarian culture from XlX—the beginning of XX century)], in Balkanski identichnosti [Balkan identities] (Sofia: UI Sv. Kliment Ohridski, 2001), 182; “Zhenite i bulgarskata knizhnina (1878–1944)” [Women and Bulgarian literature (1878–1944)], in Godishnik na Sofiyskia universitet Sv. Kliment Ohridski: Centar po kulturoznanie [Annual of Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski: Center for Cultural Studies], vol. 86 (Sofia: UI Sv. Kliment Ohridski, 1993), 71–94; “Bulgarskite zheni v socialni dvizhenia, zakoni i diskursi (1840–1940)” [Bulgarian women in social movements, laws and discourses (1840–1940)], in Ot siankata na istoriata: Zhenite v bulgarskoto obshtestvo i kultuara (1840–1940) [From the shadows of history: Women in Bulgarian society and culture (1840–1940)] (Sofia: IK Dom na naukite za choveka i obshtestvoto, 1998), 11–41; Miglena Nikolchina, Rodena ot glavata: Fabuli i sjuzheti v zhenskata literaturna istoria [Born from the head: Fables and stories in women’s literary history] (Sofia: IK Sema RSH, 2002); Lyudmila Malinova, Bulgarskite poetesi mezhdu dvete svetovni voini [Bulgarian poetesses during the interwar period] (Sofia: IK Vanyo Nedkov, 1999).


Barbara Becker-Cantarino, “‘Gender Censorship’: On Literary Production in German Romanticism,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture 11 (1995): 81–94.


Ibid., 84–85.


Vladimir Trendafilov, “Kanoni antologia” [Canon and anthology], in Bulgarskiat kanon? Krizata na literaturnoto nasledstvo [Bulgarian canon? The crisis of the literary heritage] (Sofia: IK Alexandar Panov, 199), 185.


Nikolchina, Rodena ot glavata, 11–13.


Almanah na Sofiyskia universitet [Almanac of Sofia University] (Sofia, 1991); Daskalova, “Zhenska identichnost,” 199.


Daskalova, Zheni, poi i modernizacia, 380–381; Ani Gergova, ed., Bulgarska kniga: Enciklopedia [Bulgarian book: Encyclopedia] (Sofia: IK Pensoft, 2004), 171.


Kirova, “Zhenite i kanonat,” 13.


Ibid., 24–28.


Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva, “Bulgarskata zhenska lirika” [Bulgarian women’s poetry], Filosofski pregled [Philosophical review], no. 4 (1937): 401.


Petar Goryanski, “Vduhnoveni zheni: Literaturni silueti” [Inspired women: Literary silhouettes], Literaturen glas [Literary voice] (Sofia, 1938), 7.


Kirova, “Zhenite i kanonat,” 28.


Goryanski, “Vduhnoveni zheni,” 3.


Iliyana Pavlova, “Ekaterina Karavelova: Zaniatiata na uma i trevogite na sarceto” [Ekaterina Karavelova: Activities for the mind and concerns of the heart], in Neslucheniat kanon, 91–92.


Sofia Angelova, “Zhenata chuzhdenka—‘Tsaritsa Teodora’ ot Vela Blagoeva” [The woman-foreigner—“Queen Theodora” by Vela Blagoeva], in Neslucheniat kanon, 217–224.


Irina Gigova, “The Feminization of Bulgarian Literature and the Club of Bulgarian Women Writers,” Aspasia 2 (2008): 92.


Ibid., 96–97.


Kirova, “Zhenite i kanonat,” 18.


Bilyana Kurtasheva, Antologii i kanon: Antologiini modeli v bulgarskata literatura [Anthologies and canon: Anthology models of the Bulgarian literature] (Sofia: Prosveta, 2012), 48.


Sanda Iovcheva, “Vera Boyadzhieva,” Nashite pisatelki [Our women writers] (Sofia, 1927), 1.


Malcho Nikolov, “Sonetite na Mara Belcheva” [Mara Belcheva’s sonnets], Zlatorog 7, nos. 2–3 (1926): 119–120.


Dobri Mitov, “Zemen put: Stihotvorenia ot Dora Gabe” [Earthy road: Poems by Dora Gabe], Literaturen glas [Literary voice], no. 18, 13 January 1929, 2.


Petar Dinekov, “Zhenata i bulgarskata literature” [The woman and Bulgarian literature], Vestnik za zhenata [Journal for the woman], no. 639, 5 February1936, 5.


Vera Boyadzhieva, “Tvotchestvoto na bulgarkata” [Bulgarian woman’s art], Iljustracia: Svetlina [Illustration: Light], nos. 4–5 (1931): 10–11.


Ibid., 150.


Sonya Vicheva, “Nashite pisatelki: Literaturni portreti” [Our women writers: Literary portraits], Literaturen glas (Literary voice) (1939), 7.


Ibid., 13.


Ibid., 23–25.


Toril Moi, “Feministko, zhensko, zhenstveno” [Feminist, female, feminine], in Vremeto na zhenite: Sbornik [Women’s time: Collection] (Sofia: UI St. Kliment Ohridski, 1997), 91.


Gigova, “The Feminization of Bulgarian Literature,” 96.


Lyudmila Malinova, Bulgarskite poetesi mezhdu dvete svetovni voini [Bulgarian poetesses in the interwar period] (Sofia: IK Vanyo Nedkov), 32.


Krystina Gicheva-Mihalcheva, “Bulgarskiat zhenski roman” [Bulgarian women’s novel], Filosofski pregled [Philosophical review], no. 5 (1938): 476.


Nancy Huston is a novelist, born in Calgary, Canada, who has lived and worked in Paris for years. She writes in French and in English. She is an author of fifteen novels and numerous essays and winner of numerous literary awards, including the prestigious French Femina award in 2006 for her novel Faults. She is married to French philosopher and cultural historian of Bulgarian origin Tzvetan Todorov.


Nancy Huston, Dnevnik na satvorenieto [Diary of creation] (Sofia: IK Colibri, 2008), 33.


Ibid., 11.


Lydmila Malinova, “Nepublikuvani pisma na Evgenia Mars do Ivan Vazov” [Unpublished letters by Evgenia Mars to Ivan Vazov], Literaturna misul [Literary thought], no. 9 (1999): 129.


Zhivka Simova, Obichana i otrichana: Kniga za Evgenia Mars [Loved and denied: A book about Evgenia Mars] (Sofia: Druzhestvo Grazhdanin, 2004), 46.


Inna Peleva, “Bulgarski pisatelki—formuli na neuspeha” [Bulgaria women writers—formulas of failure], in Neslucheniat kanon, 154.


Zhivka Simova, “Evgenia Mars—vuv i otvud marginalnostta” [Evgenia Mars—within and beyond marginality], in Neslucheniat kanon, 135.


Ibid., 136.


Kirova, “Zhenite i kanonat,” 25.


Pencho Slaveykov, Pisma ot Pencha Slaveykova do Mara Belcheva [Letters by Pencho Slaveykov to Mara Belcheva] (Sofia: IK Hemus, 1940), 43.


Central State Archive, Fund 100 (Yana Yazova).


Peleva, “Bulgarski pisatelki,” 165.


Ganka Naydenova-Stoilova, P.K. Yavorov: Letopis za zhivota i tvorchestvoto mu [P. K. Yavorov: Chronicle of his life and work] (Sofia: BAS, 1986), 248.


Central State Archive, Sofia, f. 1771 K, op.1, a.e. 807, 101–102.


Central State Archive, Sofia, f. 1771 K, op.1, a.e. 807, 101–102.


Miglena Nikolchina, Bulgarskata zhenska literature: Fabuli i sjuzheti [Bulgarian women’s literature: Fables and stories] (Sofia: IK SEMA RSH, 2002), 21.

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Contributor Notes

Valentina Mitkova received her PhD in book history from Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. She is an author of several book and critical reviews for Aspasia, as well as of articles for Bulgarian periodicals focused on Bulgarian women writers and inellectuals. Email: