Bozena Nemcova


In this edition of Czechs in History, Alena Skodova takes a look at the life of Bozena Nemcova, a 19th century Czech writer, whose name is known to all Czechs, without exception.

Bozena Nemcova's most famous book, called "The Grandmother", is one of the pillars of 19th century Czech literature, and although it's compulsory reading for seventh grade at primary schools, this book has unfortunately never been widely appreciated by later generations and if it has, that it mostly due to a film version of the book from the early 1970s.

Bozena Nemcova was born Barbora Panklova in Vienna in 1820, to a coachman, Johann Pankl who was an Austrian German and a Czech maid Terezie Novotna. In her early years, she lived in Ratiborice in East Bohemia and was brought up by her grandmother, Magdalena Novotna, a weaver, who lived for some time in her daughter's household. And as professor Jaroslava Janackova from the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University says, this left an indelible mark on the life of the famous writer:

"Bozena Nemcova is a symbol of the Czech cultural identity and pan European values. She died in 1862, but already during her lifetime, her fairy-tales were translated into German, as was as her novel The Grandmother. Although only its shortened version was translated, this brought Nemcova great joy. Apparently, her works obtained a kind of supra-national appreciation. Her writings were lucky in one thing: they addressed people of all generations - her fairy tales amused children, young people liked to read her short stories and The Grandmother was aimed at most experienced readers."

"The Grandmother" has been translated into all major languages, but also into more obscure ones, so it's available for almost all foreign readers. At present it's being very diligently studied and analyzed by German Slavists, professor Janackova told me. Nemcova had a great advantage - she was bilingual and although she decided to devote herself to writing in the Czech language, she was able to listen to debates of the most enlightened philosophers who spoke and wrote in German. She was able to read progressive German literature, which was banned in Bohemia back then. But certain intellectual circles had access to works by young German poets, and so Nemcova knew, for instance, all the works by Heinrich Heine.

At the age of 17, she married a financial commissioner - today we would say a customs officer - Jan Nemec, who was 15 years senior to her. With him she had four children. Due to his profession, Nemec was frequently sent from place to place and the whole family moved many times. In Prague, where they moved in 1842 Nemcova, was introduced to young members of the Czech intelligentsia and this sped up the process of her ideological and cultural orientation. As we hear from professor Janackova, Nemcova started publishing her first works in Czech magazines:

"In the mid-1840s, Czech magazines and the whole Czech society was on its way up. One of the leading figures of cultural life in Prague at that time was a young journalist, Karel Havlicek Borovsky, who was bright and brave, and since the very beginning of her career, Nemcova's literary activities were linked with Havlicek. But following the revolutionary year 1848, the situation in Bohemia, which was ruled by the Habsburgs, became more difficult. The Austrian authorities cracked down on Czechs who wanted independence. Havlicek was sent to exile to Brixen in the Tyrol and many newspapers and magazines ceased to exist altogether."

And so Nemcova's fairy tales and short stories started to appear in calendars which sold better than books. Also her most famous novel - "The Grandmother" - was published in parts in popular calendars, and people were buying it saying - look, a novel by that excellent fairy tale writer! So Nemcova's works had gained a kind of massive following, and in her otherwise not very lucky life, she could have been happy at least about her popularity.

The Nemec family continued moving from one town to another, but eventually, Josef 's transfer to the town of Miskolc in Hungary was the last straw for Bozena: she left her husband and moved with her children to Prague. From that time to the end of her life she was in contact with all the prominent figures of Czech cultural life. And it was also the time when Nemcova's major works were written. But it was a revolutionary time in Europe and people's lives were substantially influenced by the politics of the Great Powers, as Professor Janackova tells us:

"The peak of Nemcova's creative abilities came in the decade following the 1848 revolution in Europe, and it was a very difficult decade for Czech culture, because the Austrian authorities were trying to liquidate all the achievements the Czech Lands - part of the Austrian empire at that time - succeeded in gaining from the Viennese court in the revolution. Both Nemcova and her husband were under police surveillance because they had been accused of being 'too Slavic' and of conspiring against Austria."

It was not true, of course, but being under police surveillance, and a lonely mother at the same time, forced Nemcova to live in dire poverty. Her eldest son died and Nemcova tried to raise their three children in the belief that the most important thing was a suitable profession, that a decent person with a good job can work hard for a democratic society.

"All that she did by robbing Peter to pay Paul. She solved poverty by another kind of poverty and had to ask for charity and financial aid. But even now we are amazed by her great strength and Nemcova remains a source of inspiration for us, because we all sometimes find ourselves in situations when we look for means to be able to go on living in a decent way."

Nemcova's "National Fairy Tales and Legends" are inspired by popular fairy tales, but are not merely a straightforward transcription. Nemcova adapted them to convey the present-day ideals of democracy. In her short stories and especially in her greatest, the Grandmother, Nemcova writes about ordinary village people, especially women with highly positive characters, who represent the moral values of the Czech nation. As to the style of language she used, Professor Janackova says:

"She had a tremendously large language potential and her Czech remains very lively today. Her correspondence is now prepared for publishing, and it's her letters in particular that demonstrate how flexible, rich and modern her language was. And although among those with whom she exchanged letters were poets and philosophers, their language does not acquire the level of the language that Nemcova used. She had also the good fortune to be born at a time when women's views came to the forefront, when a female view of the world was at last taken seriously."

Nemcova was ill almost all of her life, and in her last few years her illness developed into cancer. Even the Czechs of today are not indifferent to what a trick of fate this was - at the very moment when Austrian political repression grip started to be relaxed, and at a time when she could have been more well-off and better appreciated as an artist, this insidious illness came and Nemcova succumbed at the age of 42.