Sidonie Nadherna - a writer's and poet's Bohemian muse

Sidonie Nadherna

Gazing out of the window of a spacious room in a romantic neo-gothic chateau, I see the image of a woman in a beautiful early twentieth century dress sitting on a bench in the scenic park that spreads out before me. Two men, a writer and a poet, are keeping her company, taking in the calm of the landscape around them but keeping their eyes fixed on their muse - Sidonie Nadherna.

Vrchotovy Janovice Chateau
Three centuries ago, Vrchotovy Janovice Chateau - which lies in a sleepy central Bohemian village of the same name - was the seat of the Counts of Wrtbo but it is the story of the life of the chateau's last private owner Sidonie Nadherna of Borutin, born 120 years ago this month that attracts 13,000 visitors every year.

I'm here with Andrej Bazant, who currently looks after the chateau, seems to be an expert on Sidonie Nadherna. So, who was she?

"She was a woman who had a very attractive personality, which is admired until today even by young people because she loved nature, animals and had a big talent for building parks and understanding the arts and culture. She was also quite beautiful, very intelligent, and even her name 'Nadherna' means wonderful. So her name too is beautiful."

Sidonie Nadherna by Max Svabinsky
And she was also quite modern in her ways and thinking compared to other women at the time, wasn't she? She spoke Czech, German, and English, and understood French and Italian...

"Yes, she was quite exceptional. Before WWI she drove across the whole of Europe sometimes. She drove to France, Switzerland, and Italy and just like her friends she wasn't prejudiced. But she still loved the old culture very much and she was conservative by wanting to preserve the castle, park and all pieces of art."

Now, one of the best known and actually one of the few preserved portraits of Sidonie Nadherna was painted by the renowned artist Max Svabinsky, who despite her independence and strong character gave her a rather dreamy look and painted her with very soft and fragile features... to many artists, Sidonie was more than just good company... she actually inspired them. Of course, I'm thinking of two main personalities - her good friend the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Karel Kraus, who as personal letters suggest was also her lover...

"First of all it was Karel Kraus. He was a very well known journalist and critic and also an author. He lived in Vienna for most of his time, where he had a big influence on cultural life. He published a magazine called 'Die Fackel' which means 'the torch', where he wrote all the articles himself, in which he sharply criticised things he called kitsch and social injustices. But here in Janovice, he started to write poems about nature and love, which was quite different from what he did normally. He used to say that it was the surroundings of Janovice and of course the personality of Sidonie Nadherna, which inspired him and enabled him to get rid of all the things that were annoying him."

What about German poet Rainer Maria Rilke?

"Rilke came to Janovice first in 1910. After that he came here three times. Once he spent a few weeks here and he liked the surroundings and the countryside and the park and was remembering it long afterwards. He mentioned it in his letters to Sidonie and he started to write some of his poems here. He didn't come to Bohemia anymore after his fourth visit but they remained friends and they corresponded and met with each other at various places in Europe until his death."

And then, when the War started, Sidonie Nadherna's life took a grim turn...

"During WWII, SS troops had their headquarters in the park and in the castle. Some people were even shot in the park and it was quite sad and very ironic because Sidonie and all of her friends were very big pacifists."

I imagine she was thrown out of her own home. Where did she live during the German occupation?

"She was living in a farm, which was the only one that remained in her property during the war. All the rest were used as shooting ranges and training grounds for soldiers. She lived there in quite modest conditions."

And when she returned in 1945?

Vrchotovy Janovice Chateau
"She returned by the end of 1945 when the Russian Army, which was here after the Germans and also destroyed some of the estate, left. She returned in the autumn and started to renovate the castle. She got some money from the state for it and tried to renovate the park as well but wasn't very successful because she didn't have much money. After the Communists came to power, she had many problems with the state and then finally immigrated to England in 1949.

What became of the chateau? What was it used for during the Communist period?

"Many things got lost and destroyed and an order was made in 1950 for the chateau to be emptied in order for it to serve as a storage place for textiles. So, all the things were thrown out of the windows and the furniture was burnt, porcelain was destroyed and there were also many manuscripts from Sidonie's friends and old books that were burnt. Sidonie had left for Ireland and planned to go to Argentina to get as far away from the disaster as possible but got ill and died at the end of 1950."

She died of cancer?

"She died of lung cancer because she was a heavy smoker. After all the stress during the war, she smoked about 100 cigarettes a day. But she was still quite a strong personality and she wasn't broken up until the very last days. Her friend, a German Countess, was with her until the last moment and wrote a short story about her death and it describes how Sidonie didn't give up."

Today's visitors will only find traces of the glorious days that the chateau once enjoyed. The chateau is now property of the National Museum and is gradually being rebuilt. It houses two permanent exhibitions: "Czech society in the 19th century and Rilke, Kraus and Vrchotovy Janovice," and "Czech Bell Masters". Plans are to open up a Centre for Central European gatherings in the autumn of 2006, transforming the chateau into a place with a library, study room, lecture and concert hall, where scientists, artists, and the general public can meet to attend seminars, lectures, and scientific workshops.