M.J. (Marina) Neary author of The Gate of Dawn, a folkloric tale of conspiracy and revenge set in czarist Lithuania, is on the blog today explaining some of the history behind her novel. Welcome, M.J. and over to you!
A Cinderella story upside down …
Set in 1880s, my recent novel The Gate of Dawn (referring to the famous city gate in Vilnius), revolves around the social and sexual tribulations of a younger German heiress, Renate Lichtner. After her father’s gruesome death in a factory fire, she finds herself in a bizarre marriage to Thaddeus Dombrowski, an impoverished Polish landlord who is twice her age but socially, intellectually – and racially, in the eyes of her fellow Germans – inferior. The Cinderella scenario is reversed in this novel. It’s is the child bride who is educated, assertive and pragmatic. Her older groom is shy, indecisive and naive, having little to offer except for his good looks and robust libido – and a squad of semi-feral, semi-pagan Lithuanian/Belarusian peasants who run the bankrupt estate for him.
A conversation between two Germans …
“My Polish husband is married to his Catholic guilt, and my Jewish lover is betrothed to his Semitic doom,” Renate, my sixteen-year old German born protagonist of The Gate of Dawn confides in her lawyer.
And how does he respond to her confession? “Come home to your own kind. Forget the Poles and the Jews. Stop wasting your time on these inferior races and find yourself a deserving lover. Germans were made for each other – or Russians.”
Banished from their own land …
That pithy exchange pretty much summarizes the state of affairs in late 19th century Vilnius. This dialogue is very illustrative of the ethnic hierarchy. The year is 1885. The entity formerly known as the Duchy of Lithuania is a part of the Russian Empire. Czar Alexander III is on the throne (see photo). His agenda includes destroying any sense of nationalism among his Baltic subjects. He believes that when people speak the same language and adhere to the doctrines of the same church, they are easier to manipulate. Sounds ruthless and cynical, doesn’t it? And yet so accurate. Alexander III, a giant bear of a man, an epitome of a patriarchal Russian, aimed to undo the work of his predecessors, including his assassinated father, Alexander II. Starting with Peter the Great, Russian rulers had sought to westernize their country, introduce technologies and ideas from Germany, Holland and Sweden. Alexander III was trying to turn back the clock and de-westernize Russia, make it uniformly Orthodox and Slavic. Even though Alexander III was styled “The Peacemaker” – no major wars were waged during his reign – he was far from merciful.
You may find it perplexing that a novel set in Lithuania does not have any main characters who are Lithuanian. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, like vegan chicken soup. But that’s very illustrative of the allocation of power. The tragic truth is, by 1885, when the novel is set, ethnic Balts did not have any significant influence. The proverbial ethnic pyramid had a few more levels. Poles were not on the bottom tier yet, nor were the Jews. The very bottom was reserved for the native Baltic population. But then again, it would not be the first time in history that the indigenous population was oppressed by the transplant colonists. The majority of political, military and economic influence lay in the hands of the Russians. Germans and Swedes were a powerful minority that had a stake in businesses. Poles were tolerated, though they also experienced discrimination from Russians. Jews had a surprisingly comfortable and prosperous life – until the pogroms started. In fact, Vilnius was often referred to as the Northern Jerusalem. Lithuanians got the smallest piece of the proverbial pie. They were the ones who built the magnificent city, and they found themselves banished from it.
Lithuanian was not spoken in urban areas where the press ban was in effect. Scholars and revivalists had to travel to the countryside and spend periods of time living in rural communities to improve their pronunciation. Another option was traveling to Lithuania Minor, which was under the control of Kaiser Wilhelm, a tolerant and understanding man who did not seek to strip his Baltic subjects of their identity.
Slow path to cultural decline … and revival
The decline of Lithuanian language was not something that happened overnight. The loss of Baltic identity was a process that had started centuries earlier. Lithuania has a history of amicable collaboration with Poland. In fact, for several centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the safest, progressive and culturally prolific entities in Europe. However, in the union of the two nations, Lithuania assumed the subordinate position. Voluntary polonization started taking place. The Lithuanian nobles started speaking Polish in court, for the sake of uniformity. It was the first voluntary step towards the cultural decline. With the partitions of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Russians had merely finished what had already started. The only people who spoke Lithuanian were peasants who were tied to their land and had no political influence. They were not perceived as a threat and therefore fell under the radar of Russian censorship. Those people were the guardians of the old traditions: the songs, the folk tales, the dances. Thanks to those forgotten, neglected rural pockets, modern Lithuanians have ties to their ancestors. It was those remote, forgotten communities to which the revivalist scholars of the late 19th century turned. Thanks to the efforts of the fearless antiquarians and philanthropists like Jonas Kazimieras Vilčinskis(1806-1885), Lithuania experienced a cultural revival and bounced back from centuries of oppression.
In my novel I deal with the issue of interfaith/inter-ethnic relationships and mixed marriages. With so many ethnic groups and religions represented in one geographic area, you are bound to run into the issue of unplanned and unapproved romances and children experiencing identity crisis. One of such characters is Aurelia Messer. Born to a German attorney and a Lithuanian nurse, the girl is a regarded as a fruit of a misalliance. Her classmates at an all-German boarding school for girls treat her with contempt and suspicion. In their eyes, she’s “tainted”, being a “half-blood”. Fortunately, Aurelia is not too concerned with winning their approval. An adventurous waif that she is, Aurelia develops a fascination with her maternal roots and plunges into the secret world of book-smuggling.
Within the Jewish population, the levels of observance varied. Some communities were more orthodox and insular, while others were more cosmopolitan. There were some business owners who catered to a predominantly gentile clientele and therefore had to tailor their own dress code and demeanor to mingle with the paying clientele. In The Gate of Dawn the Asher family runs a high-end clothing atelier, catering to the fashion whims of the upper class. The matriarch Esther and her daughter Leah are flirtatious, emancipated businesswomen – not quite the Old Testament material. Benjamin, the middle child, is an impractical aspiring artist, who falls in love with a German girl (the main character) and fantasizes about running away to America and displaying his works in a New York gallery. The only one who seems interested in preserving the Jewish tradition is the youngest son Jacob. Photo – synagogue of Vilnius, source Wikimedia.
Weaving history into the novel
When my readers ask me about the amount of research I had to do for The Gate of Dawn, they are surprised that I did not have to do too much research. The truth is, my paternal ancestors come from that part of the world, so I have natural ties to Poland and Lithuania. I spent my summers with my Polish-Lithuanian grandmother and absorbed the lore of that culture. My fascination with the Polish-Lithuanian tradition is a pre-existing condition. As a child I’ve been to the The Gate of Dawn chapel (see photo) many times and vowed to write a novel revolving around this holy place.
Many thanks, Marina. You’ve exposed us to some very interesting history about Lithuanian. M.J.’s novel The Gate of Dawn was published by Penmore Press and is available from Amazon.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.