Political refugees and their woes are a familiar literary subject, and Poland has had more than its share of exiles to contribute to fiction dealing with them. Eight years before writing THADDEUS OF WARSAW, Jane Porter saw Polish refugees walking through London’s Saint James Park. Struck by their tragic appearance, she met many of them and studied Polish history. After living among the models of her tale, she sought to portray what she felt every Christian should know. She wrote her novel in admiration of King John Sobieski of Poland (1624-1696) and created noble characters who were impervious to narrow, personal ambitions: “characters that prosperity could not inflate nor disappointment depress.” She later added that she had dipped her pen into their tears.
Poland’s fight against combined aggression from Europe’s three most powerful states is one theme of the novel. Another concerns Poland’s effort to maintain her own laws and what Porter claimed was a way of life so unique as to be previously unknown in world history, one representing a domestic vitality and sense of integral being comparable to biblical Israel. She describes such places as the University of Vilna and the other provincial colleges built in Old Poland and relates how King John Sobieski had torn down peasant hovels and built decent homes instead.
Porter felt that what had flattered Alexander the Great into a madman and Julius Caesar into a usurper had left her Christian heroes, the Sobieskis, intact in virtue. When ensconced at the pinnacle of Polish power, the Sobieskis had not been puffed with pride, and when their souls were later pierced by sorrow and defeat, they never murmured. Thaddeus Sobieski is an authentically drawn nobleman of his time, motivated by the same noblesse oblige as had been his grandfather. Such noblemen were once a cultural factor in Europe, but they have almost vanished from the pages of modern literature, wherein a more common figure is the degenerate nobleman and antihero.
In her 1843 revision of the work, referring to her fictional creation, Thaddeus, and his models in real life, Porter wrote that virtue’s sunbeam had never dimmed its full ray in their chivalric hearts. Honor is a primary moving force in Porter’s story of eighteenth century Poland.