Edith Pargeter: an English novelist in Prague

Edith Pargeter

This week would have been the 98th birthday of Edith Pargeter, an English writer who translated many of the Czech classics. You may well have come across her under the penname Ellis Peters that she adopted for much of her fiction. Under this alias she created two of the most famous fictional detectives in twentieth century crime writing, Sergeant George Felse, and the medieval monastic sleuth Brother Cadfael. In Czech Books this week, David Vaughan explores Edith Pargeter’s special relationship to Czechoslovakia.

Edith Pargeter
Edith Pargeter spent nearly all her life in the county of Shropshire, on the borders between England and Wales, and much of her writing draws from the area she lived in. But her other great love was Czechoslovakia, and this led to a fruitful literary relationship that lasted nearly fifty years. Here are a few lines from her translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s classic short novel of reluctant wartime heroism, “Closely Observed Trains”. The scene is a small Czech town, just before the end of the Second World War.

Just the day before yesterday an enemy fighter shot up a German pursuit plane over our town, and blew one wing clean off it: and then the fuselage burned out, and crashed somewhere out in the fields. But this wing, as it tore loose from the fuselage, ripped out a few handfuls of screws and nuts to spatter down over the square and peck at the heads of several women there, and the wing itself went on hovering over the town, and everybody who could stood and watched it, right to the moment when it swooped lower with a creaky motion just above the square. All the customers came tumbling out from both the restaurants, as the shadow of this wing hung rocking above the square, and everybody who was watching it went rushing across from one side to the other, and then back again to where they’d been standing a minute before, because the wing kept on swinging like a gigantic pendulum, sending them all scuttling in the opposite direction from where it looked as if it was going to fall, and all the time it was grinding out a crescendo clatter and a whining song. And then suddenly it hurtled down and crashed into the deanery garden.

Jiří Edelmann,  photo: David Vaughan
It took considerable craft and ingenuity to recreate Hrabal’s brilliant and inventive prose in English, and Edith Pargeter showed similar mastery with many other Czech writers, both past and present. She first visited Czechoslovakia just after the Second World War, and this what when she met Jiří Edelmann, a young Czech who was to remain a close friend for the rest of her life. He remembers her first visit.

“It was in 1947 when a group of English people came to Czechoslovakia. It was a summer school, I think organised by the Workers’ Education Association, and some Czech people joined the group to be companions to these English people. At that time I was attending English courses and I heard about this possibility. Before Edith left she visited my family for about half a day and when she left we started corresponding. She was interested in everything and was asking me more and more questions. She wanted to know how it was during the war, what we were doing, how things were here and so on.”

When she came in 1947, it was during the brief period between the end of the war and the communist takeover. So there was a degree of openness in Czechoslovak society.

“Very much so. That was the last time of open society here.”

The outcome of that visit and her subsequent correspondence with Jiří was the novel, “The Fair Young Phoenix”, in which the phoenix was Czechoslovakia itself, emerging from the ashes after being abandoned by its allies at Munich in 1938 and then occupied by Nazi Germany. It opens with a poem dedicated to the Czechoslovak Republic, which in its final couplet, describes Czechoslovakia as “….a fair young phoenix rising out of the pyre,/ Having the mocking eyes of his murdered sire.”

Edith Pargeter’s love of Czechoslovakia went back to the time of the war itself, when she served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the “Wrens”. Jiří Edelmann:

“She was at the Navy headquarters in Liverpool, and I think she fell in love with a Czech. I think it was either an Air Force man or a soldier, who didn’t come back from the war. She didn’t speak very openly about this, but I know that she wanted very much to come over here and to find what Czechoslovakia and its people are like.”

So it is no surprise that Edith Pargeter followed up her first visit to Prague in 1947 by coming again a year later, this time for a full three months. The trip was organised by Jiří Edelmann and his father and included a stay in Slovakia. The outcome was a second book, called “The Coast of Bohemia”, describing her impressions of travelling through Czechoslovakia. This was 1948, and by this time the communists had come to power.

“After her stay, she always thought I would be able to come over to see England, but that wasn’t possible. Things changed rapidly and she was also not able to come over because at that time it was very difficult to get visas. At that time she started to learn Czech and to find out more about the books she had seen in our households. And so it came that she started to translate some of the classical Czech literature.”

The fact that Edith Pargeter was able to go on to publish so many Czech writers in English owes much to a lucky coincidence.

Little Quarter,  Prague
“At that time she was publishing at Heinemann’s and there she found that the managing director was somebody called John Beer. He was a Czech who had come to England as one of the Jewish children before the war. And John Beer helped her to publish the Neruda book. So this is again how the Czechs come into the story.”

The Neruda book that Jiří Edelmann is referring to is the 19th century classic, “Tales of the Little Quarter”, by Jan Neruda, who has often been compared to Dickens. The stories evoke the atmosphere of life in Prague’s ancient streets in the first half of the 19th century. Here are a few lines from Edith Pargeter’s translation of the story, “A Week in the Quiet House”.

The morning sunshine of June had been lighting up the courtyard of the house for some time before the inhabitants awakened. In spite of the din of the traffic, which penetrated to the court through the passage and over the roofs from the street, the first footsteps still resounded as loudly as in a vault. Singly, as though one waited for another to depart, womenfolk went out from the various flats, with hair dishevelled and still uncombed, or with shawls low on their foreheads to shield their sleepy eyes from the sun. There were not many of them, they all appeared to be rather sluttish maidservants; their clothes were not even properly put on, down-at-heel shoes dragged at their feet, in their hands they carried jugs, either empty or filled with milk.

From Jan Neruda, Edith Pargeter went on to translate other 19th century classics, and her translations of “The Grandmother” by Božena Němcová and the great romantic poem, “May”, by Karel Hynek Mácha went on to become classics in themselves. Her translation of May manages to preserve both the rhythms and rhyme-scheme of the original, and has an unusually natural flow for a poetry translation, as we see in these few lines from the opening section of the poem.

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.

As we heard with the extract from Bohumil Hrabal at the beginning of the programme, Edith Pargeter also translated 20th century writers. They included Ivan Klíma, Ladislav Vančura, and the poet Jaroslav Seifert. During the Prague Spring of 1968, she was awarded with the gold medal of the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations for her services to Czech literature, but after the Soviet invasion, things became much more difficult. As she put it, “I was continually walking a tightrope in order to avoid harming people I wanted only to serve.”

In the meantime Edith Pargeter’s parallel career as a world-renowned detective writer under her penname Ellis Peters, was booming. Before long her most famous characters, the monastic sleuth Brother Cadfael and Sergeant George Felse also became well known to Czech readers. Jiří Edelmann again:

“These stories got translated and they were quite loved by many people. At the time when Edith started the Cadfael stories, she was very much living in history, because she had to do a lot of research. She did enjoy her great success, but she was always living very modestly. The only thing that she changed was her new house. She couldn’t live in the old house any more because she had a fall and damaged her spine. So she moved to a more comfortable house, and there she lived. I mention it because that was a time when I was able to visit her more often. We talked about what to call the house, and I told her to name it Cadfael House, but she refused that, because she thought that too many people would be coming and she wouldn’t have peace for her further work. So she named her house Troja. That’s because I am living in a part of Prague called Troja…”

… which is actually where we are sitting now…

“… and she thought that I would feel at home there. There is another quite interesting thing for me. When she changed her name from Edith Pargeter to Ellis Peters, to show that this was another period of her writing, she chose this name because her brother was Ellis and she chose Peters because my daughter is Petra.”

Edith Pargeter
And so your families have been very close.

“Very much so, because later, when it was possible, she used to come about twice per year with her brother, who was driving their car through Europe. They came over and stayed with us. Actually, it influenced all my life and the life of all my family. My granddaughter is called Edith just to remember that Edith was something like an auntie to our children.”

Edith Pargeter died in 1995. She would have been 98 on Wednesday, 28th September – aptly enough the feast of the Czech Patron Saint Wenceslas.