The beginning of female writing in modern Turkish literature was paradoxical since those female pioneers of poetry and fiction owed their works and reputations to both the liberties of the elite stratum of the late Ottoman state and a certain type of domestic oppression. Most of them were coming from bureaucratic families, who constituted the most educated, the most notable and the wealthiest social stratum for ages during the Ottoman reign. To be the daughter of a pasha or vizier would help.
Şeref Hanım, though the daughter of modest poet Mehmed Nebil Bey, was the great-granddaughter of Grand Vizier Abdullah Naili Pasha and Sheikh al-Islam Aşir Efendi, two top figures of the Ottoman bureaucracy. Leyla Hanım, another pathetic poet of the 19th century, was the daughter of a kazasker, the highest rank of jurists in the Ottoman judicial system. Fatma Aliye, the first female Turkish novelist, was the daughter of Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, one of the most significant top Ottoman bureaucrats in the 19th century. Nigar Hanım, one of the best female poets to write in Turkish, was the daughter of Hungarian convert Osman Pasha.
On the other hand, Şeref Hanım would complain about her poverty and loneliness even to the sultan and his spouse. Leyla Hanım never could do with a husband and divorced after only a week. And Fatma Aliye had to read in utmost secrecy because her husband, who she was made to marry too young by her father, didn’t even like women’s reading. Nigar Hanım, in turn, would complain about her marriage as “her first disaster.”
Güzide Sabri, the first popular female novelist in Turkish literature, was no different in having difficulties with the “writing spouse paradox.” The daughter of Salih Reşat Bey, a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Justice from the rooted family of Reis ül-Küttab (chief clerk, who acted as a foreign secretary in the classical age of the Ottomans) Mustafa Efendizade, Güzide Sabri wrote her novels at night after her husband Ahmet Sabri Bey, who gave his name to his wife but was disturbed with the idea that she would become famous, fell asleep.
Güzide Sabri Aygün was born Ayşe Güzide in 1883 in Istanbul to a family of Ottoman bureaucrats. Her mother Nigar Hanım, a niece of statesman and poet Koniçeli Kazım Pasha, was a poet herself, though she shouldn’t be confused with the famous Nigar Hanım that was mentioned above. Güzide's mother raised her since her father was exiled to Sivas in the east by the Sultan Abdülhamid II regime.
Güzide was raised and homeschooled in her family kiosk at Istanbul’s Çamlıca. She learned literature from Hoca Tahir Efendi, who didn’t actually support her writing literary works. However, Güzide was fond of reading, fancying and writing from her early childhood years. She loved loneliness and thinking about fairy tales.
Of course, Güzide Sabri couldn’t stay an innocent child. She had to marry a wealthy man, Ahmet Sabri Bey, who was a public notary in Istanbul. Another hard fact that Güzide had to bear was the death of Münevver, her dearest female companion. Münevver, like her best friend, married too young and died as she gave birth to her first child. This shook up Güzide, and she would reflect her feelings in her first novel, which she named after her beloved friend and published in chapters in the newspaper “Hanımlara Mahsus Gazete” before it was collected into a volume in 1901. It would become the first-ever hit novel by a female author in Turkish.
Novel with 2 film adaptations
Güzide Sabri was an artisan of writing. Her education only included home-schooling, and she didn’t read with diversity. The only thing she was interested in was the tragic fates of young ladies of notable families. Their broken loves, unhappy marriages, friendly relationships, love toward their families, family tragedies and death by tuberculosis were the most frequent themes of her novels and short stories.
Perhaps the most interesting piece among Güzide Sabri’s novels was “Ölmüş Bir Kadının Evrak-ı Metrukesi” (“Letters of a Deceased Woman”), which was turned into two films. The novel features some autobiographical details, too. Fikret, the focal female character of the novel, resembles the author herself. She and Dr. Nejat, a married man, fall in love but she decides not to poison her beloved’s current relationship. Instead, she marries a wealthy old man, who turns out to be a relative of Dr. Nejat. The novel was read widely by the populace, particularly by women, which shows that Güzide Sabri succeeded in creating her own audience by directly addressing their pathetic feelings.
“Ölmüş Bir Kadının Evrak-ı Metrukesi” was first filmed in 1956 by Metin Erksan, the great auteur of Turkish cinema. One of the first examples of feminist cinema, the movie showed the dichotomy between modern female feelings and conservative social traditions. The second version, shot in 1969 with a more commercial understanding, was an ordinary love romance.
Güzide Sabri wrote several other books over a long timeframe. She wrote eight novels and a volume of short stories in nearly five decades. One of her most interesting novels is “Hicran Gecesi” (“The Night When We Broke Up”). “Hicran” means both separation and sorrow in Turkish and was frequently used to mean both at the same time. It is a fitting word choice as it is the story of a femme-fatale who seduces the man she loves but loses him to a younger woman.
In “Hicran Gecesi,” published in 1930, or 25 years after “Ölmüş Bir Kadının Evrak-ı Metrukesi,” Güzide Sabri changed her path by taking into account the pathetic, complex and tragic feelings of a “bad woman.” Serap, the main character of the novel, is an attractive, ambitious and intriguing woman, who pays the price of her clash with the social norms. Serap dies in a car accident as she walks alone sadly and in a pensive mood on the street, which could be a pathetic auto-reflection of the author.
Unfortunately, Güzide Sabri has long been forgotten by Turkish audiences. Though she was once a celebrated writer, she died alone in the northern province of Giresun in the Black Sea region in 1946.