Josipina Urbančič Turnograjska

Oil painting of Josipina Urbančič by Josef Hofholzer (detail), 1851. National and University Library, Ljubljana

Born in 1833 at Turn Castle in Preddvor; died in 1854 in Graz. She was the first Slovenian woman writer, poet, storyteller, and composer.

The mid-19th century marks the beginning of the cultural battle for Slovenian language use on the Slovenian territory among the intellectuals who were mainly using German. Inspired by the pan-Slavic movement, they advocated the importance of using Slovenian to strengthen national identity. Josipina Urbančič built her identity with the help of her tutor Lovro Pintar who was a Slovenian priest, writer, and politician. Josipina and her two younger brothers received their education at the Turn Castle which was managed by their mother Jožefina after a premature death of her husband.

Josipina Urbančič or Josipinka, as nicknamed by her family and friends, was extremely well educated for a girl of her era. In fact, she learnt not only handicraft and arts, but was also taught the so-called boys’ subjects: mathematics, geography, and history. She was one of the few aristocrats who used Slovenian rather than German in her spoken and written communication. At 17, she wrote her first collection of short stories in Slovenian, wishing to set an example for other educated women.

She was well aware that she was paving the way for other women to enter the traditionally male areas. Her literary novelties profoundly marked the Slovenian cultural sphere of the mid-19th century and influenced writers later in history. She was highly appreciated in the Slovenian as well as Russian, Slovak, and Bulgarian cultural milieu. At the peak of her career, between the ages of 18 to 20, she wrote 38 short stories. In Nedolžnost in sila (1851) and some other works, women represent the main characters which was a unique phenomenon in Slovenian literature of that time. She published in renowned literary magazines under the pseudonym Turnograjska (that is, from the Turn Castle).

Josipina Turnograjska was the first woman on the Slovenian territory who successfully entered the male-dominated public sphere.

Her women characters are heroines. In crucial moments, they assume responsibility and are described as equal to or even stronger than men personas. Interesting enough, unlike her contemporaries, for example Jane Austen, Turnograjska did not dwell on the topic of marriage and its consequences for the artistic achievements of women. She addressed her poetry and prose to a wider, educated audience, thus proving that women writers can be as apt as their men counterparts. As a talented pianist, she also composed several piano pieces. She was the first woman, or rather a girl, given her age, on the Slovenian grounds who managed to secure herself a place in the male-dominated public sphere which required outstanding courage and wisdom.

Turnograjska was also the first Slovenian woman storyteller. Her fairy tale Rožman’s Lenčica (1853) recounting the story of a girl who, dressed as a knight, went to war instead of her father is the first Slovenian fairy tale on the topic of girl warriors. According to the international tale type index, the motif from this fairy tale falls into the category of gender transitioning or disguised, military, and heroic women characters. The tale was re-published in 2020 after almost 170 years, again inciting great interest with the girl’s bravery which »equals that of the most fearless heroes«.

Shortly before her 21st birthday, Josipina Turnograjska died of childbirth-related causes. Her husband, Lovro Toman, mourned her long after. Their love shines through 1100 love letters they exchanged and are now archived in the National and University Library in Ljubljana. The letters depict not only the life of that era, but also Turnograjska’s genius, her love for nature and the Slovenian language as well as her zeal for the artistic awakening of Slovenian women.

In the 20th century, her pioneering work sunk into oblivion. But thanks to DDDr Mira Delavec Touhami, who wrote several academic monographies and papers about Turnograjska, her legacy has now been finally given a rightful place in history. Delavec also wrote a novel Šepet rdeče zofe (2011) based on the love letters of the clever, avant-garde girl whose death came much too early.

Turn Castle

The castle that belonged to the Urbančič family is now a retirement home with a memorial room dedicated to Josipina Turnograjska. Until April 2022, the castle is under renovation and closed for public. Before the closure, guided tours were offered showcasing the facsimiles of Turnograjska’s letters and literary works as well as including a short film and a visit to the chapel, the castle façade featuring Turnograjska’s bust, and the garden with a replica of her tombstone. For up-to-date information, contact the Tourist Information Center Preddvor.