My mother used to swallow romance novels. Printed on cheap paper and equally cheaply written, there were so many around the house. But one day, I discovered such romance – even better, because it was set in Zagreb of old! – on the shelf with all the thick, boring books. I discovered Zagorka.
The moniker stands for “She Who Belongs to/is from Zagorje”. Years later, I was surprised to find out it was not legally her name, even though every book we owned by her stated Marija Jurić Zagorka on the cover. She was and to this day is the most widely read Croatian author, despite the fact she never made it into the school obligatory reading lists.
Marija Jurić Zagorka was born on March 2, 1873, and was only 16 years old when her Mum married her off to a Hungarian nationalist who wanted her to use her writing talent for Hungarian propaganda at a time when Croatian and Hungary were in an uneasy union and governed over by the Austrians. Zagorka, of course, did the opposite and when she was discovered, her Hungarian spouse promptly returned her home. In other versions, she runs away from him. Anyhow, in the end she got a divorce and settled in Zagreb.
I did no research, writing this, and I do not really care to, I love the legends and the stories I hear about her. Recently, I heard two. Zagorka was mentioned at the Secret Zagreb Valentine’s Dark Romances Tour, but as the tour was private to me and my husband due to all the other participants mistaking the date, I have no idea if she was really meant to part of the tour or not. Zagorka did not end up on it for her divorce – although that must have been scandalous at the time – but for her younger lover.
The other stories I heard recently of her were all a lot less legend and lot more fact. At the Zagreb City Museum, there is a program held every year on the Saturday and Sunday before Fat Tuesday called Living Pictures, in which museum employees dress up and answer questions in the persona of the historical figure they are dressed up as. I think I maybe missed it once or twice since they started it long ago, and this year I asked a lot of questions from Zagorka. It was a lot of fun, and it was surprising for me to learn how much I already know.
Zagorka published her first article in 1896, in the Croatian magazine Obzor, making her the first Croatian and European female journalist. The local bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer was her personal friend and he made sure she was taken on as a full time journalist of the paper. The editor in chief of it though it was scandalous so he made her sign her work with pseudonyms and male names – women were not allowed to write about political issues at the time – and he consigned her to a small room, away from the news room and other journalists.
The only thing she was always allowed to sign her own name on were here historical romances, the ones that made her a household name in Croatia. They were immensely popular at the time and ever after. The circulation of the papers publishing them went up. Her novels, being romances, and her work, her being female, were not seriously researched until the end of the 20th century.
Marija Jurić Zagorka was an intrepid journalist, a great romance writer and a feminist. In 1925 she founded the first Croatian magazines for women “Women’s Paper” and “Croatian Lady”, where she was editor. All her life she fought for women to have equal rights in education, property, payment and voting. She held more than a hundred public talks on women and politics, solidarity and women’s voting rights.
Today, her memorial center is located at Dolac, overlooking the most famous of the Zagreb markets, in her apartment where she died in 1957. Her statue stand in the famous Tkalčićeva street, looking towards the Jelačić plac and Dolac, but also – I discovered accidentally on a that Dark Romance Tour – towards the planet of Mars that is part of the Landed Solar System art installation in Zagreb, one of my favourite ones. I found it really awesome: the author of Red Ocean, one of the first Croatian Science fiction novels, looking at the Red planet. Fitting.
(O yes, she wrote SF as well. Way to bury the lead, huh?)