Letters of A Javanese Princess by Raden Adjeng Kartini & Agnes Louise Symmers

Raden Adjeng Kartini, or more known now simply as Kartini, is one of Indonesia’s most acclaimed heroines prior to the country’s independence day. Every year on 21 April, local schools usually commemorate the image of Kartini by having female students to dress up in batik kebaya and sometimes having traditional competition in schools. Back then, I learned about Kartini simply as a heroine who was among the first to fight for women’s right, especially for education, because my history books and my teachers said so. I did remembered one of my history teachers said that it was thanks to Kartini that we girls are now able to pursue education up to that level. However, outside Indonesia, she was famously known by those familiar with Indonesian history or the Dutch East Indies back then, even during her time, through the letters she wrote to many of her friends, where she really dedicated her time to write down her thoughts on various things related to her motherland and, of course, on the native women.

She was born on 21 April 1879 as the fifth child and second eldest daughter in an aristocratic Javanese family. Her father was a regent of Jepara, a government official, and from the letters, we could deduced that even back then, Kartini’s family was a bit different than most families in Java back then, because dating from her grandparents’ time, each children in the family, especially the boys, were all sent to schools and encouraged to read a lot, and hence, to study and to learn. Yet, even then, when they reached a certain age, the girls would then be called back home to continue their education to be a good, dutiful housewives until they were taken to their future husbands’ home. (Read more of the biography in the Wikipedia.)

I never really thought about the significance of Kartini’s letter or her contribution to her country until I read Letters of a Javanese Princess.

The book is a compilation of her letters written to many of her European friends during her lifetime, and published about 15 years after her death in 1904. The Dutch title is Door Duisternis tot Licht and translated into Indonesian as Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang.

I just finished reading the whole book the day before yesterday, and it gave me a book hangover.

I read her first letter in the book and fell in love with the book right away. Throughout the book, I could see and feel her passion and energy toward learning. She wanted so much to continue studying in schools, and later, to pursued her passion further in the Netherlands—but alas, it was very uncommon back then for women to continue studying in schools after the age of 12 because by that time, they needed to start focusing on preparing themselves to be a good wife-to be and daughter-in-law-to be. But she tried to fight this tradition, and eventually, her father allowed her to go out occasionally during special events. It looked as though, despite Kartini’s protest on her seclusion, she was actually among the few lucky ones who were allowed to do so, and were even still allowed to continue studying by herself at home. It was quite obvious from the letters how much love the father and the daughter shared for each other, up to the point where Kartini was ready to give up her dreams if it meant sacrificing her father’s happiness. But she managed to learn many things through reading during her seclusion anyway. I took down as many titles I could find in the letters and googled the free e-book versions later. At a very young age, she already read a lot of books about her country and she was probably one of the most modern, open-minded women at that time. I got so excited upon reading her letters and her thoughts, and wondering what she would say if she could see the present-day Indonesia. I think that even in the present, if Kartini was still alive, she would still be considered very modern (especially looking at how, as time goes forward, this country seemed to go backward, becoming more medieval instead), and even put together with a lot of leading minds and women leader in the country, perhaps not even they could produce the same thought and ideas. I felt so in awe with Kartini after reading this book.

She hated the tradition and the culture that seemed to determine the fate of many Javanese women without considering their thought on marriage, as well as because the two also hindered her path to pursue education further. She said:

I would still go further, always further. I do not desire to go out to feasts, and little frivolous amusements. That has never been the cause of my longing for freedom. I long to be free, to be able to stand alone, to study, not to be subject to any one, and, above all, never, never to be obliged to marry.

I didn’t think, however, that she, in particular, was against marriage completely. I thought she was more against the tradition of having marriage as the only highest and noblest goal women back then could have, especially when the men they were marrying were the ones simply decided by the family, without having to have the women’s consent or even presence during the betrothal arrangement.

And about her seclusion, she shared her feelings through this:

Gone, gone was her merry childhood; gone everything that made her young life happy. She still felt herself such a child, and she was that in fact too, but the law placed her inexorably among the full grown. And she to whom no ditch was too broad to be leapt, no tree too high to be climbed, who loved nothing so much as to run like a wild cold in the meadows, must now be calm, composed and grace, as beseemed a Javanese young lady of a high and noble house.

As much as she longed to continue staying in school and learn, she did not keep this dream only for herself. She also longed to have other women to long for the same thing, instead of being like another obedient little daughter, like a “wooden doll”, only doing what is told and expected of them. She wanted others to have the same chance, just like the boys, and she was more than ready to help her fellow countrywomen to learn. She inspired her younger sisters, Kleintje and Roekmini to do the same, and together, they wished so much to open a school for girls, and were even ready to “work for it in some other way, ask our friends to subscribe, start a lottery or something,” should the government against their plan.

I know that the way I wish to go is difficult, full of thorns, thistles, pitfalls; it is stormy, rough, slippery and it is—free! And even though I shall not be happy after I have reached my goal, though I may give way before it is half reached, I shall die gladly, for the path will then have been broken, and I shall have helped to clear the way which leads to freedom and independence for the native women.

And just as much as she hated the way old traditions treated native women, she felt the same toward religion, although in the end she managed to regain her faith upon finally realising that it was not the belief or the religion itself that kept disappointing her, but its massive followers. Yet she kept calling out for peace and scorned the misdeeds done in the name of religion.

O God! Sometimes I wish that there had never been a religion because that which should unite mankind into one common brotherhood has been through all the ages a cause of strife, of discord, and of bloodshed. Members of the same family have persecuted one another because of the different manner in which they worshipped one and the same God. Those who ought to have been bound together by the tenderest love have turned with hatred from one another. Differences of Church, albeit in each the same word, God, is spoken, have built a dividing wall between two throbbing hearts. I often ask myself uneasily: is religion indeed a blessing to mankind? Religion, which is meant to save us from our sins, how many sins are committed in thy name?

We think that love is the highest religion, and must one be a Christian in order to love according to that Heavenly command? For the Buddhist, the Brahmin, the Jew, the Mohammedan and even the Heathen can lead lives of pure love.

However, the chains of old traditions which shackled her didn’t, surprisingly, lessened her love and passion for her land’s cultural art and customs. She loved the music—the sound of gamelan in particular, the paintings and literature made by the natives, from the most educated minds to the ones less educated, and she thought highly of her native Javanese language.

Have you any desire to learn the Javanese language? It is difficult—certainly, but it is beautiful. It is sentient language; often the words seem to be conscious, they express so much. We are astonished sometimes, own children we are of the country, at the cleverness of our fellow countrymen. Things of which one could never imagine anything could be made, they express charmingly. Name something in the dark, give out a subject at random, and a simple Javanese will immediately make a rhyme that astonishes by its aptness and clearness. This facility belongs peculiarly to our Eastern people.

I remembered back in elementary school where my English teacher was teaching us new vocabularies of animals and that not all little, younger animals who haven’t matured yet can be called differently, just like “dog” and “puppy,” and then compared it with the Indonesian language and Javanese. He eventually admitted proudly how rich the Javanese vocabularies are.

Did a dreamy song never reach you then? the song of a Javanese, who sings to his family and to his neighbours—of love—of heroic deeds, and glittering pageantry—of beauty and of wisdom; of mighty men and women, princess and princesses of the long ago. It is that loveliest hour when the Javanese, tired from the hard day’s work, seek rest in song, dreaming all his cares away, wholly lost in the singing far away past, whither his song leads him.

I wonder where have all these old customs gone. An article which is related to the 1965 tragedy brought my attention a couple days ago (click here to read it in Indonesian). In it, the author talked about how imaginative and culturally rich Indonesian people back then prior to the mass killings—especially those from lower-income class like farmers. It was a custom for farmers to actually dance and sing to celebrate the harvest, yet now… there’s the harvest, and that’s it. How I long to be able to see such thing. (Sigh.)

Another thing that caught and crossed my mind when I was reading this book was, other than the letters which made me in love with the book right away, is the language style used in the letters itself. I suppose I can’t help noticing, even though it’s the English translation, how strong the emotions shown with each words, especially when it comes to expressing love to the recipients of the letters whenever Kartini wrote about how much she loved him or her, and how she longed to be with them, to kiss their cheeks, and care for them. I know that it’s a translation, and I wish so bad that I could read her letters in the language in which the letters were written, except that I do not know any word of Dutch—even though some Indonesian words are adapted from Dutch, yes—so I could only imagine how it was written and expressed in its original language; I could probably look for the Indonesian translation, but it would still be a translation. However, what crossed my mind whenever I read such emotions strongly expressed in the sentences is the question whether back then every one actually expressed things similarly. And one thought lead to another, so I wondered again, since I do not know many people who do the same thing in the present days, whether the communication between one another now is becoming less intense and personal because we now have sophisticated technology to back us up such as Instant Messaging, SMS, emails, telephones and video callings. If I were born in that much older eras, would I write in a similar way?

But now I’m starting to ramble again. I would definitely recommend this books to my feminist friends, as well as my male friends—well everyone who might be interested in reading more about the past Dutch East Indies from the perspective of Kartini, if not about Kartini’s life itself. She was definitely an exceptional figure, and I wish I could have a time machine to transport me back to that time so I could have a chat with her. (Stop being delusional, Dian!) Back then, I simply considered this as something of the past—a part of the past that has shaped the present days, but still a part of a distant past, and not significant enough for today. But I suppose this book has helped me to appreciate Kartini’s effort more.

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Published by

Laksmi

An MA student at Waseda University, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyo, Japan. An avid reader. A language geek as well. And a book hoarder.

6 thoughts on “Letters of A Javanese Princess by Raden Adjeng Kartini & Agnes Louise Symmers”

  1. Obviously Kartini is still inspiring modern Indonesian women. At least one :). And by your account the princess was ahead of her times indeed. Actually you tickled my curiosity.

    I know the book (in Dutch) is not available in bookshops anymore. Though it still is in the KITLV library in Leiden. If I happen to be in that city…

    1. Oh, and an acquaintance actually sold the Dutch version of the book once through facebook, and it was a vintage edition! (again, sighing as I was back then, I badly wished at that time I understand Dutch so I could buy the vintage book! :p)

  2. I want to read her. I have an embarrassing problem where I stop reading a book towards the end. I think it is to avoid finishing it. That’s what I have done with Quiet. I need to read until the end!

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