The Insider sorts through its library to see what that crazy little thing called love has done to the denizens of Warsaw in legend, literature and reality.
The Original Love Story
There’s many a yarn out there about how the Syrenka, the sword-and-shield-wielding symbol of Warsaw, established her foothold in the capital city. Legends date her back to the times when Warsaw was a humble fishing hub out in the boondocks. While some stories expounded on the armory, others cast her as a heroine in a love match embellished with Harlequin romance clichés. Wars, our stalwart hero, was a fisherman steep in ethics and never the one to haul in under-aged fish. Big hearted, hardworking and strong, he was hot looking to boot. On the banks of the Wisła Sawa the mermaid observed Wars and swooned at his physique and deportment. Doing what beautiful, blonde and blue-eyed mythical mermaids do best, she crooned with a melodious voice songs about nature, life and all things wholesome. The mysterious tunes caught War’s ears and upon tracking down the source of the divine voice, Wars locked eyes with Sawa and knew he had found the one. Years and many kids later, the mortal Wars passed on while the mermaid hung on, guarding the children and their offspring. The grateful folks honored the memory of the fisherman and the mermaid by naming their village Warszawa in their honor.
A Royal Fling
Had tabloids existed in 18th century Poland, King Stanisław Poniatowski would surely have provided the gossipmongers with plenty of fodder. Though Poland was annexed off the map under his watch, Polish history remembers the country’s last king kindly as an enlightened authority who sponsored science and the arts. In the Royal Castle in the Old Town and Palace on the Waters in Łazienki Park, he hosted Thursday Dinners, and the less renowned Wednesday Dinners, for the thought leaders of the day in literature, arts, science and politics. Before he was elected king, he was sent to St. Petersburg in 1755 on Familia business (Familia were a political party led by his mother’s influential noble clan). Moving in the upper echelons of power dealers, it was only a matter of time before he rubbed shoulders with Catherine Alexeievna, the future Catherine the Great. A love affair ensued but it did not result in marriage when Catherine ascended to the Russian throne in 1762. Other than supporting Poniatowski in the election as the new Polish monarch in 1764, the empire-building Catherine wasn’t a political ally her former lover could lean on.
Uncertain and turbulent years descended on Warsaw following the news that “Poland is no more” in 1795. Polish patriots sought new avenues to regain control of their homeland and much hope was placed on roping in Napoleon to give the occupiers a good thumping. In 1806, they saw a chance to secure Napoleon’s firepower when the French emperor was enamored by the stunning beauty of Maria Walewska. Daughter of a wealthy noble family, Maria wasn’t easily impressed by top brass. However, movers and shakers went a-scheming. A ball was engineered for the two to meet again in Warsaw, after which Maria became Napoleon’s mistress. This charm offensive is no mawkish tale of “the French Emperor’s Woman”; in her memoirs, Maria set the record straight that she was cornered into the affair for the love of country.
Liaison of Talents
At the Chopin Museum, French writer George Sand looms large in the section given to the women in the pianist-cum-composer’s short life. While living, their liaison raised eyebrows in their social circle; after their death, biographers remained fascinated by the emotional entanglement between the two. Like many Polish bright minds of his generation, Chopin set up camp in France to indefinitely wait out the occupation of his homeland.
During a soiree he met Armantine Dupine AKA George Sand, a talented writer and a woman ahead of her times in feminism outlook. It wasn’t love at first sight with this feisty character (“Is this well a woman?” Chopin questioned, “I sometimes happen to doubt it.”), but she wooed and he melted. Their relationship lasted 10 years and before the romance collapsed, they were nurturing inspirations for each other. In Sand’s home at Nohant, Chopin composed some of his finest works. The pro-Chopin camp flatly laid the blame on Sand for sapping the life of out the musician and leaving him a broken, dispirited man. Chopin died two years after parting ways with Sand.
When Jay Gatsby was bending over backwards to woo the above-his-station ditsy Daisy in 1920’s America, Polish readers could have been hit by a déjà vu sense of “been there, read that”. In a Bolesław Prus novel named Lalka (The Doll), a similar plot of “poor boy made rich and tries to buy the affections of a self-absorbed, high-society babe” was unfolding. Stanisław Wokulski was the Polish Gatsby and Izabela Łęcka, Daisy’s counterpart on this side of the Atlantic. Has Lalka got the same blood-splattered tragic ending with the underdogs cleaning up the mess left by the heartless types? We will not disclose the conclusion in case you want to read the novel. Suffice to say Izabela was hardwired by stereotypically haughty aristocratic codes of conduct and wasn’t giving her lowborn suitor an easy passage. You will gain passage, though, into the savoir vivre of the hoity-toity, such as the social perils of eating fish with a knife and fork instead of two forks. There’s also more to Lalka than the “will he or won’t he win her?” forward momentum. While The Great Gatsby is built on one central theme, Lalka, in the tradition of epic works like War and Peace, has multiple storylines weaved in. Debuting in 1887 through installments in a newspaper, Lalka was later published in book form in 1890. The author captured vividly not only the social architecture but also the urban landscape of mid-19th century Warsaw.