Marija Jurić Zagorka

Illustration: Nataša Rašović Bodiš / Fierce Women

2.3.1873 – 29.11.1957

Marija Jurić was born in 1873 in the village of Negovec near Vrbovec, in a well-to-do family that was responsible for managing several estates in the Zagorje region. Consequently, Marija spent much of her childhood there, and she received private lessons together with the children from noble families. In Zagreb, she attended the Sisters’ of Mercy Secondary School for Girls.  At that time, she wrote her first dramatic text and started her first publication, The Monastery Newspaper, which earned her a rebuke from the Mother Superior. 

Due to turbulent family relations, she left school at 15 and moved back home, where her parents decided to marry her to Andrija Matray, a Hungarian man 14 years her senior, and the newlyweds soon moved to Hungary. After five years of unhappiness, Zagorka escaped and returned to Zagreb.

It was then that her journalistic career took off. She started collaborating with the popular newspaper Obzor and reporting on political issues. Soon, with the support from Bishop Strossmayer, she became a member of the editorial board – to the chagrin of the then director of Obzor‘s publishing house. Because of her career aspirations – which clearly transgressed the boundaries of the feminine ideal of the time – Zagorka encountered discrimination and disparagement throughout her life, which is why she often published her works anonymously or used a male pen name. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, she started writing historical novels – some of which included elements of romance – which aroused widespread interest among readers. Novels such as The Witch of Grič, Daughter of the Lotrščak and Gordana were published in newspapers in serial form. Despite negative reviews from critics (her works were often derisively described as pulp), Zagorka managed to become a beloved writer, boosting the profits of the newspapers that published her stories.  

In addition to novels, she also wrote theatrical plays and screenplays. In 1925, she founded Ženski list (Women’s Paper), the first women’s magazine in Croatia, but she quit several years later due to disagreements within the editorial board. In 1938, she founded a new women’s magazine called Hrvatica (The Croatian Woman), but it was shut down in 1941 by the Ustasha government, which also confiscated some of her property. 

She spent the following years barely getting by, managing to stay afloat mostly thanks to the support from her devoted readers (she had around 2000 subscribers). When, some years later, the Parliament decided to award her a meagre pension, she described it as “the official pension in the category of unqualified staff”. 

She was also a cofounder and board member of the Croatian Journalists ‘Association, and in 1936, together with several colleagues, she established The Croatian Women Writers’ Association in order to promote female authors and protect their interests. Moreover, in 1939 she published The Unknown Heroine of the Croatian People, a study dedicated to unknown fighters and heroines from Croatian history. 

Zagorka claimed she tried to join the Partisan movement when the war broke out, but they rejected her saying “We don’t need Zagorka here with her trash novels!” It was only after the war that she managed to become a member of the Women’s Antifascist Front. 

In 1947, she published her autobiography entitled What Is My Fault? in which she provided an overview of her career and discussed the unequal position of women in Croatia.

Zagorka died in 1957 in her apartment at Dolac. Her tombstone at Mirogoj bears an incorrect date of birth; the issue of her exact date of birth had been a point of contention for a long time, and Zagorka herself added to the confusion by refusing to disclose this particular piece of information. It was only in 2006 that researcher Slavica Jakobović Fribec discovered the real date: March 2, 1873.

Marija Jurić Zagorka Memorial Apartment, Dolac 8, Zagreb

Zagorka's Memorial Apartment was opened in 2009 in the building where Zagorka lived from World War II until her death. Today, the apartment is managed by the Centre for Women's Studies, which uses it for archival, promotional, educational and cultural activities related to Zagorka's heritage. In 1990, a bronze statue of Zagorka by Stjepan Gračan was erected in Tkalčićeva Street; however, it has been criticized by feminists because it does not reflect Zagorka's actual appearance. Busts of Zagorka can also be found in the city park in Vrbovec and in the school yard in Negovec.