Anna Stanisławska’s Orphan Girl of 1685: Autobiography of a Divorce

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In 1685, Anna Stanisławska (1651–1701) wrote an autobiographical epic poem in which she described her forced marriage to an unbearably violent and mentally ill man who terrorized and humiliated her: a situation that her culture expected her to stoically accept. Despite being in this terrible situation, she prevailed. She managed to escape her husband and to arrange a divorce, a feat that made her both a virgin and a divorcée, a status that cannot be described as anything other than ambiguous. Her case was so extraordinary that one of the most significant poets of the Polish Baroque, Jan Andrzej Morsztyn, briefly referred to her situation, describing Stanisławska as ‘A Maid, for she knows no husband, and yet a wife, For he lives, he to whom she was married’.

Stanisławska's autobiography of her divorce is a striking document. With it, she sets forth solid grounds for divorce in a time when divorce was uncommon, especially in Poland. The poem is unprecedented in its detailed description of a woman's strategy to escape a seventeenth-century marriage, and no other Polish woman published any similar confession until the twentieth century. Even beyond its historical significance, the author of Orphan Girl shows a level of agency that would be noteworthy even in a modern woman. Rather than be defeated by her situation, Stanisławska used the systems of law, of patronage, and her family connections to achieve her not-insignificant goal: to get out of an abusive marriage with her property and reputation intact.