New projects aim to keep legacy of Karolína Světlá alive

Karolína Světlá, photo: Public Domain

Karolína Světlá is one of the greatest female writers of the 19th century, yet in recent years, her works have somewhat fallen out of fashion. A group of people from the Footprints in nature non-profit organisation are trying to change that. Last year, they established an educational trail dedicated to the great writer and this weekend, they are holding the first-ever Karolína Světlá festival.

An audio excerpt from Karolína Světlá’s diary, describing the reaction of her teacher to her first literary attempts, is one of the highlights of the educational trail dedicated to the famous 19th century Czech author Karolína Světlá. Leading through the picturesque landscape around the Ještěd Mountain, which was the main source of inspiration for her works, it offers visitors a vivid picture of Světlá’s life and work.

I spoke to one of its founders, Tereza Bruchová Rafoth, about the trail as well as the upcoming festival. But I first asked her how Karolína Světlá, who has born in Prague, formed a strong bond to the region of Podještědí:

“Karolína Světlá, at that time known under her maiden name Johanna Rottová, probably didn’t know much about the Ještěd region until the age of thirteen, when her parents hired a piano teacher Petr Mužák, who came from Podještědí.

“It was through him she got to know this area. He later became her husband and took her to the village where he was born, to Světlá, and that’s where she consequently spent about thirty-five summers.”

Also, she was brought up in a German speaking environment. Did she encounter Czech culture mainly through her husband?

“I have to say that her father spoke Czech with her and he was also very patriotic. He took her on trips around Prague, to Stromovka, Jelení Příkop and to Vyšehrad, talked to her about the Czech past, and she was very excited about that.

“Unfortunately she didn’t have a Czech teacher and she had to go to a German school, so her first literary beginnings were actually in German, since she wasn’t able to express herself in Czech.

“We really felt the urge, from early on, from our high school years, that we would like to make Karolína Světlá more present for people.”

“That changed later, also thanks to her husband, who introduced her to Czech poetry and Czech patriotic circles.”

You also said her husband took her to the village of Světlá. Is this where she found inspiration for her pen-name?

“Exactly, in 1858 her first literary piece was published in Almanach Máj and she was asked to come up with a pen-name. So she had to switch from Johanna, at that time Mužáková.

“She took the last name, Světlá, from the village of her husband’s origin, where they were going for the summers, and which was really her main source of inspiration.”

“The first name, Karolína, comes from her niece, who was born the same year as Karolína’s daughter Boženka, who unfortunately passed away.”

How was she regarded by the local people? Did she blend in with them?

“That is a very good question. At the very beginning she was of course observed very closely. However, because she was married to a local, and because she knew how to blend in, she was then perceived very well. People would share local stories with her and trust her and really embrace her presence.

“She writes in her journals that she would always change her dress code to the local shorter dresses and more comfortable tops, so she could move around more swiftly rather than being stuck in those long skirts women would be wearing in Prague.

Photo: archive of Footprints in the Landscape
“So she always took a step forward, even physically, to reach out to the people in the way she looked and the way she dressed.”

Your civic association Footprints in the Landscape set up an educational trail to support public perception of the landscape as a space where literary and historic footprints have been left. Why did you choose Světlá of all people to represent the region?

“Our civic association resides in Světlá and we are all pretty much from the area. Karolína Světlá is an amazing figure known mainly by the locals. However her presence in the landscape wasn’t very vivid.

“And we really felt the urge, from early on, from our high school years, that we would like to make her more present for people.

“And finally we discovered a grant that we could connect with our wishes and it worked out.”

What can the visitors see on the 7.5 kilometre trail?

“The educational trail starts and ends by the church in Světlá, under the Ještěd Hill. Most of the circle is on paved roads, so you can also bring a stroller or you can use a bicycle or a car.

“Only up to a Rock Dwellers Place, which is a rocky place in a hill, you do have to walk on foot.

“What can you see on the trail? If you don’t have much time, I recommend at least stopping by the first and second stop, because those have not only educational boards with writing, but also amazing benches that you can sit on.

“Those benches are basically half bench, half sculpture. One is right next to the church, it’s the Forest Maiden or Lesní panna and the other one is rather more educational.

One of the stops reveals what the reaction of Karolína Světlá’s teacher was when he found her first literary attempts.

“It’s a bench with faces of six women, one of them Karolína Světlá, and all the others are female writers of the 19th century who were all connected by the idea of using Czech language as a literary language and they were all fighting for women’s rights.”

There are also audio recordings, in Czech German and English – samples of her novels. Can you tell me more about that?

“I definitely recommend to whoever is coming to bring a smartphone, because at three different stops you can listen to very interesting audio recordings in English.

“There are altogether eighteen Czech ones and then we have three English and three German ones narrated by professional speakers.

“One of the stops reveals what the reaction of Karolína Světlá’s teacher was when he found her first literary attempts. And it was very discouraging to her.

“He talked to her parents, telling them that if she was a boy, he would congratulate them. However, because she was a girl, they had to take measures and take away literature from her because she would never manage to find true happiness in life if she continued down that path.”

The trail was established last year, and it started with a grand happening in Prague, which also involved reading out a letter which Světlá addressed to Jan Neruda, and which he never received.

“Before the official opening in Světlá we had a happening in Prague. We started at the statue of Karolína Světlá at Karlovo Náměstí and had a festival march to the statue of Jan Neruda in Petřín.

Photo: archive of Footprints in the Landscape
“This was basically a physical connection between them that we made by the chain of people who walked the path, which symbolised the relationship that once existed between Světlá and Neruda, and which was abruptly finished when Petr Mužák discovered the letters Neruda wrote to Světlá.

“Světlá eventually had to burn those letters and completely finish that relationship. She did write a farewell letter to him, however that was never delivered.

“She never knew that it was not delivered and Neruda never knew that there was such a letter. So we felt the urge to tell him. And if you were there you would see that the statue actually lifted the corners of his mouth and he did actually smile a little bit.”

In less than a week you will hold the first Karolína Světlá festival. What will be on the programme?

“The first open-air festival that we are holding in less than a week will actually be the official opening of our outdoor public library that will be placed next to the church of St Nicholas in Světlá.

“The next very interesting piece on the programme will be a show by local folk group of women and men called Horačky, which you could translate as Mountaineers, and they will be dressed all in the local costumes, and there will be a lot of singing and lot of dancing.

“And it will be a particular programme that will lead people through the traditions of the area. We will also include a reading by a famous Liberec actress Markéta Tallerová who will transfer herself into Karolína Světlá and read from her journals and letters. That will be held indoor next to the church.

“We will finish with a concert by a local singing group from Osečná, Canzonetta, and the whole time in the afternoon there will be food and drinks available as well as interesting programme.”

Tereza Bruchová Rafoth,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
You also organised a public collection of her books, how successful were you?

“We did a public call for books that people would donate to this open public library. We were hoping for couple dozen books and we were very nicely surprised by the echo we received from the people.

“So far we have close to a hundred books but we are not yet sure what to do with the rather valuable piece, because the concept of the free public library is very trusting and very open to people. So we might store the valuable pieces at the local school where people can borrow them.

“Otherwise the library will be loaded with books including Světlá’s work as well as literature about her. So it really will be a wide spectrum of books about Světlá.”

And that will be available throughout the year or only during the festival?

“This public library will be open 365 days a year and of course it is intended mainly for the visitors of the educational trail.

“However, the locals or whoever comes is welcome to take a peek in the books, take them along and read them on the benches that are out there around the educational trails, even take them home, read them and take them back.

“We are just kindly asking the people to be returning the books into the library.”

Finally, how would you say Karolína Světlá is perceived today and is she known to people outside the region?

“It really varies according to who you approach. She is really known to people in the Ještěd area. However, the further you get from here, the smaller the awareness of her writings.

“And it is also I would say the curse of the language. Because the literary works of Světlá are over 150 years old, the language might be getting a little bit distant for today’s students.

“That’s why we have included the audio recordings and that’s why we have approached for instance Jára Švejdík, the author of the famous movie Alois Nebel to help us create a comic of part of her famous Village Novel.

“And those are all the means we are trying to use to find the right way to connect with today’s student. Because her books are amazing, they are antique dramas of the Ještěd region, and it would be a pity if they stayed hidden behind the language barrier.”