Remembering Marija Juric Zagorka, pioneering author and first Croatian female journalist

March 2, 2022 – Tribute to a great woman who persevered through all the challenges life threw at her

Known as one of the most popular Croatian writers, Marija Jurić ‘Zagorka’ was born on this day in 1873. She was an ardent patriot, a pioneering feminist, an accomplished political journalist and a prolific fiction writer, who sadly did not didn’t live to see his work critically acclaimed. The story of her life, marked by adversity and isolation, reads like a novel in itself: who was this great woman?

Marija Jurić was born into a family she would later describe as wealthy, but miserable. She was educated by private tutors from an early age, as her father managed the estate of Baron Geza Rauch who ensured that the girl studied alongside his own children. After finishing primary school in Varaždin as a bright and promising student, Baron Rauch offered to pay her to continue her studies in Switzerland. Her father was in favor of the idea, but her mother opposed it, and Jurić ended up going to an all-girls secondary school in Zagreb.

Instead of being allowed to pursue her interest in journalism and nurture her apparent talent as a writer, the girl was forced into an arranged marriage. At the age of 18, and again at her mother’s insistence, Jurić married a Slovak-Hungarian officer Andrija Matray who was 17 years her senior.

They moved to Hungary and, unsurprisingly, the marriage turned out to be unhappy. As a staunch nationalist, Matray would only allow her to write if she agreed to adopt a pro-Hungarian stance, a prospect unacceptable to Jurić who, on the other hand, was extremely devoted to her home country. He was also violent enough for the young woman to suffer a nervous breakdown during the three years they lived together. She later fled to Croatia and legally divorced Matray, but as her mother testified against her in court – mother of the year, that one – she ended up not recovering child support from Matraja or his personal effects.

This was a turning point for Jurić, who then decided to sever all ties with his family, moved to Zagreb and left to pursue a career in journalism. A rather bold decision for a woman in the late 19th century, and her choice to live a life outside of the wife and mother narrative was taken by some as a sign that she was mentally unstable.

At 23, she started working for the Obzor (Horizon) newspaper, where the board initially only gave her a proofreading job because she was a woman. Later, at the insistence of Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer, she received assignments as a journalist, but had to work in a separate room, isolated from the rest of the staff.

She started as a writer who was not allowed to sign her articles and eventually became a reputable journalist who reported on all major political events in Croatia and the region. She was also editor-in-chief of Obzor for five months during which the former editor and his deputy were imprisoned. While she later organized protests against the Ban Khuen-Héderváry which at the time was carrying out an oppressive Magyarization of Croatia, Marija was also imprisoned and served ten days of solitary confinement.


During her career as a journalist, she wrote for many newspapers and magazines, but also launched some of her own: Zabavnik in 1917, Ženski list (Women’s Paper) in 1925 and Hrvatica (Croatian Woman) in 1939. as a feminist and staunch defender of women’s rights, she covered the subject extensively as a journalist and gave public lectures throughout the region, drawing scorn and ridicule from her predominantly male colleagues.

During all this time, she also wrote fiction. Encouraged by Bishop Strossmayer, she wrote her first novel in her thirties, then published around twenty novels and several plays.

Written under the pen name Zagorka, his work is best described as historical fiction with elements of romance, adventure, and mystery. Master of storytelling, she was an extremely prolific author, largely inspired by Croatian history which is reflected in her most popular novels: Daughter of Lotrščak, The Flamboyant Inquisitors, the 7-volume saga The Witch of Grič, and especially Gordana , the longest novel in the history of Croatian literature, totaling almost 9000 pages in twelve volumes.

Readers didn’t care about the daunting number of pages; on the contrary, Zagorka’s work was immensely popular in his day and always well received by his readership. Perhaps that’s why the critics couldn’t stand her: she was constantly belittled by her contemporaries, singled out and ridiculed for being an author of “trivial pulp literature.”

Unfortunately, the tide did not turn until after his death in 1957. His work in journalism was the first to be acclaimed in the 1960s, followed by the recognition of his fiction in the 1980s.

1024px-Memorijalni_stan_Marije_Jurić_Zagorke_-_Zagreb.jpgMemorial apartment of Marija Jurić Zagorka

Today, Zagorka is known as one of the most popular Croatian writers of all time, and his legacy is held in high esteem. The apartment she lived in was bought by the city of Zagreb and turned into Marija Jurić Zagorka’s memorial apartment, run by the NGO Center for Women’s Studies Zagreb.

The Center organizes an annual event called Marija Jurić Zagorka Days, and the Croatian Journalists Association Award for Excellence in Journalism is also named after her.

768px-Kip_Marije_Jurić_Zagorke_u_Zagrebu.jpgMonument to Marija Juric Zagorka in Zagreb

In 1995, famous Croatian writer Pavao Pavličić published a book called Hand-kiss: Letters to Famous Women. In it he talks about the lack of hard-line storytelling in Croatian fiction at the time, a lack of authors who could capture and hold the reader’s attention as Zagorka was able to.

Perhaps the most poignant statement about the extent of Zagorka’s legacy comes from Pavličić, as he addresses her directly:

You were ahead of your time, and maybe this would finally be the right time for you, because only now do we know how much we need what you could have given us.

Lola R. McClure