Les Femmes de la Décadence: Iulia Haşdeu and her Morbid Monuments

Iulia Haşdeu, the 19th century Romanian polyglot prodigy who studied at the Sorbonne, compared herself to a deracinated flower, relocated and captured underneath a bell jar. Iulia’s poetry is haunted and liberated by the knowledge of her impending and untimely death. Her eighteen-year-old body suffers from tuberculosis. Her sickness fuels the lines she writes and as her health declines, the weight of her words flourishes. She expels death from her body before it engulfs her. And as she writes her fate out of her system and makes peace with her upcoming demise, someone close to her cannot bear the thought of losing her. Someone obsessed. Someone possessive. Someone who cannot stomach the grief that is awaiting him: her father, the philologist Bogdan Haşdeu.

Her tomb is burdened by symbolism, evoking all signs of her traces on earth, her life, not her death, with the most striking feature being a clock halted at the time of her death. The time when her father did not manage to part ways with her, the moment when his arms would stretch out to reach for her forever, trying to pull her back into his abandoned and collapsed life. It is the time of the beginning of her afterlife that he tries to penetrate and insert himself into.

On her funerary monument one can read the instruction to “sit a little longer”. What happens if one lingers at a graveside? Is there something stirring whilst one waits? What moves around someone who takes the time to sit down and observe? One, who is on the brink to leave, maybe out of fear, maybe out of disheartenment, maybe out of scepticism. Will the patient onlooker be drawn into a father’s occultism, spiritualism, desire and fantasy or into a deceased daughter’s incapability to escape the earthy shackles demanding her to remain close by?

At the bottom of the monument an open-mouthed skull is cast in stone, a text surrounds it, exclaiming: “let the swallow build its nest”, a juxtaposition that, as one stares into the blackness of the dead gulp, death and life are intertwined, love and the afterlife, father and daughter, rebirth and invisibility, loss and regeneration.

The father’s post-mortem adoration, idealisation and glorification of his daughter went as far as having her sarcophagus expose her embalmed face through a glass wall for everyone to look at until superstitious grave robbers stole her skull and it was never found again. Her burial place became not only a symbolical pilgrimage site, but also an attraction for thieves as many elements of the carefully composed structure went missing over the century.

The actions of Iulia’s father after her death made her a cult figure, either iconic or infamous, all the inexhaustible energy that Bogdan put into the idea that she was not entirely gone, that she was, in fact, still communicating with him, whispering to him from the netherworld, telling him to build her a folly mausoleum aboveground in the middle of a lively town, as large as a house for the living, decorated with all of her belongings, a piano that she brought to life,  portraits of her, books and objects, dolls, things that she touched and put her dreams into, all of which her father could collage together and absorb in the hope to recapture her, to keep her contained and animated behind the bars of the windows, the opposed mirrors in-between doors, the hole that he’d look through during his countless séances.

And as her father internalised, eternalised and absorbed all of her writings that he discovered and published after her death, he never acknowledged that she made peace with her own death more than in-between the lines and was ready to rest, a fact that he could never accept.


“Iulia Haşdeu” by Sava Henția (1848-1904)

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