Czech literary treasures in London

British Library, photo: David Vaughan

Not many of the thousands of passengers arriving every day at London’s busy St Pancras Station are aware that they are passing just a few dozen metres away from one of the largest and most diverse collections of Czech books outside the Czech Republic. Tucked in beside the station is the huge, but surprisingly inconspicuous complex of the British Library. In this week’s Czech Books, David Vaughan shows us some of the highlights of the library’s rich Czech collection.

Susan Reynolds,  photo: David Vaughan
The curator of the Czech, Slovak and Lusatian Sorb collections in the British library is Susan Reynolds, whose passion for books and for all things Czech is evident the moment you meet her. When we met in the high, open lobby of the library complex, completed some twenty years ago and housing over 14 million books, she greeted me in fluent Czech. And Czech is just one of Susan Reynold’s many languages – an ideal qualification for someone who works in one of the most multi-lingual libraries in the world…

“I wouldn’t say that I actually speak more than seven, but I have a reading knowledge of about another twenty on top of that, including dead languages – so-called, because I don’t believe there is such a thing as a dead language, though certainly you can kill a living language by an unimaginative approach to it, as happens so often at schools! But yes, I can still, for example, enjoy reading Latin, Ancient Greek, Old Norse, just as much as so-called modern languages.”

We made our way through a labyrinth of corridors to the administrative offices of the section for European languages, where Susan had already ordered up some of the most valuable and unusual books from the Czech collection. We began by looking at one of the earliest books, a “cantionale”, or collection of musical settings for the protestant church service, published by the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of Brethren, in 1575:

“It’s one of the oldest and most valuable books in our Czech collection. As you can see from this beautiful engraved frontispiece, it has the readings and Psalms for all the Sundays and feast days of the Christian year. And if you look more closely you can see that it’s published by the Unitas Fratrum, so this is, in Czech liturgical terms, a very significant work. And we have in the British Library collections the largest number of Czech Bibles outside the Czech Republic, including the famous Czech ‘Kralice Bible’ [the first full Czech translation of the Bible, going back to the second half of the 16th century], which I would have liked to show you today, but for conservation purposes I’m afraid wasn’t accessible. So instead we have this, which I think is an acceptable substitute, beautifully illustrated and in remarkably good condition considering its age, with all kinds of manuscript notes made by the original owner. And anyone who has followed the history of Protestantism in the Bohemian Lands will realise what a significant work this is. It was brought out just over thirty years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War and we can see in this one of the real treasures of the Czech Reformation. And this is freely available for anyone who wishes to consult. You just have to come along and get a reader’s pass as a member of the British Library. You can order this up and here it is for you to hold in your hands with due care in the Rare Books section and turn the pages, just as the original owner did over 400 years ago.”

Elizabeth Jane Weston
My personal favourite among the books that Susan Reynolds showed me was a collection of poems by a poet from the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, whom we have featured in past editions of Czech Books – Elizabeth Jane Weston. She was an Englishwoman, the stepdaughter of the celebrated alchemist, Edward Kelley, and she spent most of her life in Bohemia, writing some of the most beautiful poetry in Latin of the entire Renaissance period:

“This book is particularly special, because it is signed by Elizabeth Jane Weston herself in 1610. She describes herself as the wife of Johannes Leo ‘in Aula Imperiale agentis, ex familia Westoniorum, Angla.’ She’s still a proud Englishwoman after living all her life in Prague. Sadly, she had a short life. She was born in 1582 and died just thirty years later after having produced a large family of children and many poems. The book has a frontispiece which has an illustration which we think is the poetess herself, brandishing a quill in her right hand and a book in her left. It was a collection of these poems, ‘amicis desirandibus communicatus’ – communicated to her eager friends – eager, that is, to read the work of ‘virginis nobilissimae poetrae florentissimae…’ – a most noble maiden, flourishing as a poetess and skilled in many languages. That fact that it’s called ‘Parthenicon’ – the work of a maiden – dates it to the period before her marriage, and she is still, as we’ve noted, proud of her Englishness, which made her almost a kind of totemic figure at the court of Rudolph II.

“It’s in remarkably good condition for its age, and as I’ve said, there’s a long poem written in Latin ‘ad lectorum’ – to the reader, which is in her own handwriting, making this even more distinguished. You get a great feeling of intimacy, holding or touching the book in which the poetess wrote these lines herself. In these lines she says, ‘All things, reader, in this little book, I make present to the public…’ Here she is saying that she is publishing them not simply out of vanity at having got them into print, but also because – as was the practice in the Ancient world of a bride dedicating her paintings on her marriage, she’s dedicating her writings as a young maiden to the muses on her own marriage.

“The next item which I’d like to introduce to you is one of special interest in this year which marks the bicentenary of the birth of one of the Czech Republic’s best poets, Karel Hynek Mácha. And here we have a book which came out in 1836, the very year of his death, and I’m sure you can guess what this is. Before us we have a first edition of his great poem ‘Máj’. It’s a very frail, very battered book, with a flimsy paper cover. Not surprisingly, because of its delicate state, it has to be kept in a special box. But once again, any reader who wishes to come to the British Library and order it up, can hold in their hands the very first edition – as Mácha himself would have received this book from the press. On the title page ‘V Praze’ and the date, 1836, we have those famous lines: ‘Daleká cesta má, márné volání’, which appear on his tomb in the Vyšehrad Cemetery. Then we turn the first page and we find the dedication to Hynek Komm, and following that, and following the dedicatory poem, those lines, which are surely familiar to every Czech reader, ‘Byl pozdní večer – první máj - / večerní máj – byl lásky čas.’

Late evening, on the first of May -
The twilit May - the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses trail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose's fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
In shadowy woods the burnished lake
Darkly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again;
And heaven's clear sun leaned down to take
A road astray in azure deeps,
Like burning tears the lover weeps.

(trans.: Edith Pargeter)

Karel Hynek Mácha
“These pages are fragile and spotted with age, and still, despite the strange-looking typography, which looks closer to Polish than it does to modern Czech in its old orthography, these lines are instantly recognisable. And I felt that especially in this bicentenary year, it would be fitting to include this among the items which I want to introduce to you. We do, of course, have other editions of Mácha’s works, but this is the oldest and perhaps the most special. And one likes to think that this is how he saw it when it was published just a few brief months before his death at a tragically early age.”

To complement its huge collections of books and documents, the British Library also stages regular exhibitions, and next year one of these will be of particular relevance to the history of Czech literature:

“We are preparing for next year a very exciting exhibition, due to open in May 2011, about science fiction. Now, where would science fiction be without the Czechs, who, after all, invented the word ‘robot’!”

The word first appears in the classic RUR, a science fiction play about artificial people who stage a rebellion against the humans they are created to serve. It was written by the best loved and perhaps most influential Czech writer of the inter-war period, Karel Čapek. The British Library has a first edition…

“… and we also have the first English translation by Paul Selver, which has plates illustrating exactly what the first robots on the British stage looked like. However, when I tried to order this, I found I’d been pre-empted by our exhibitions department, who have taken it away to consult. What I do have, though, is one of the famous translations done by the Weatheralls of Čapek’s writings into English. Here we have one which dates from 1940, once again, quite a fragile book. It belonged to Myfanwy Hammond, dated April 1940. And this is a translation, ‘Travels in the North’, exemplified by the author’s own drawings. Now, obviously, this book came out at a time of severe austerity. There were paper shortages. It’s published by the Readers’ Union, arranged by George Allen and Unwin, and what does this tell us? I think it shows us that, already by this time, Karel Čapek had won a considerable place in the hearts of the British reading public. Why else would they have bothered to bring out a book by an apparently obscure Czech author in English translation, at a time when paper was at a premium? And so it testifies to his wide travels, the interest that he took in other languages and cultures besides his own, and also to the way that the British public took him to their hearts and wanted more and more translations of his works. This, of course, is beautifully illustrated by his own pen, and we know that by that time the British Library had acquired a considerable number of his works. He made contacts with many British authors, including H. G. Wells. And so, I think we can see this book, brought out at such a time of trial, when there was considerable hostility and suspicion towards so many foreign languages and literatures, as a sign that Karel Čapek occupied – and continues to occupy – a very special place in our collections and those of English readers too.”

Susan Reynolds,  photo: David Vaughan
The British Library’s Czech collection is not just of historical interest. Under Susan Reynolds’ supervision it continues to grow. Some books come through exchange agreements with other libraries and academic publishers, but Susan makes a point of being eclectic in the books she chooses for the library.

“Sometimes we do find eyebrows being raised when books arrive in the department. Increasingly, the covers, to attract a wider public, are rather lurid, and it’s hard to explain exactly why we choose these in the first place. But then, when we know about it, it becomes obvious why we should have them. Then popular fiction often tells us about the way that the status of women is changing in the Czech Republic, which it has done dramatically since the end of communism. Women are being forced to rethink how they shape their lives with the vanishing of universal free childcare for example, and how they relate to their professional and personal worlds.”

British Library,  photo: David Vaughan
So the Czech collection at the British Library is expanding, although the work is not easy, as, like so many public institutions the world over, the library is facing budget cuts. To find out more, you can go to the British Library’s website, and if you happen to be in London, you can even order up these books yourself.