Social chronicler and society girl Karolina Svetla

Karolina Svetla

Karolina Svetla is most famous for her novels and short stories about life around Jested, in the North Bohemian hills. Her work has been translated into English in the past, but is hard to come by, so for a taster, from her story Prisla do rozumu, here you are:

"When Urban and Andulinka were still children they went to school together and out picking strawberries. As they grew older, they walked one another to dances and to church. Where one of them was, the other was too - they found it almost impossible to breathe without one another. All of their neighbours treated them as if they were man and wife. It never occurred to anyone simply that things could turn out rather differently - and when things did, quite simply, turn out rather differently, not a single person in the whole of the village could get used to the fact that these two people were not supposed to be one."

Karolina Svetla was born in 1830, in Prague, on a street which now bears her name. She was born into a well-to-do, German-speaking, family, and her real name was actually Johanna Rottova - Svetla was a Czechified pen-name she adopted later on.

Her upbringing was strict, and very religious. She writes about it in her memoirs as an unhappy time. She was raised in French and German, and the first proper Czech that she met was her music teacher Petr Muzak. He knew Bozena Nemcova, the famous author, and read daring new literature like Macha's Maj. As Tomas Edel from the Podjestedske Muzeum explains, Svetla was smitten:

"Petr Muzak introduced her to the Czech society of the time. And this was when she started to respect this man six years her elder. Someone once asked her, somewhat impertinently, why she fell in love with the man who became her husband, and her response was 'because he was the most patriotic man I have ever met. If I had met a bigger patriot, then I would have fallen in love with him'. He was the man that showed her what was to become her life's aim."

Bozena Nemcova and Karolina Svetla became friends and started writing to each other on a regular basis. All of the letters Nemcova sent to Svetla can now be found in the Podjestedske Muzeum, which was originally set up in Svetla's honour. Svetla and Nemcova might well be considered today as two Czech literary greats, but in their correspondence, they write about which of their friends is getting married to whom, and where they want to spend their summer holidays. Nemcova, who was older than Svetla, helped her protégée out at the start of her career, but the two women soon fell out. Tomas Edel explains why:

"We know for sure, because Svetla writes it in her memoirs, that she got really annoyed with Nemcova when she lent her some money, and right in front of Svetla's eyes, Nemcova handed a sum of this money straight over to one of her lovers. This really got modest and economical Svetla's back up. But the main thing was Nemcova's getting rather too close to the husband of Svetla's sister. This is what really caused the rift between the two women. But the fact is that these two women had such different temperaments, that both of them would have certainly gone their own ways, and would have fallen out over something or another, some day."

Often, people lump Svetla and Nemcova's writings together. But not Robert Pynsent, who teaches Czech at London's School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, he outlines the differences between the two women's work:

"Nemcova is more liberal, less nationalistic, than Svetla is, for example, in her writing. Also in her writing, she has much more of the residue, at least, of Romanticism than Svetla does. Svetla is influenced by popular literature, especially in her early stuff - I've not seen any influence of that in Nemcova."

Svetla definitely moved in the right circles. Another one of her famous co-operations was with the composer Smetana, who turned one of her short stories, Hubicka, into an opera. You just heard a section of it there. Another big name that is often associated with Karolina Svetla is that of Jan Neruda, with whom she had an affair. Again, here's Tomas Edel:

"Neruda was the younger of the two, and tempestuous. Svetla was a thirty-year-old married woman. Jan Neruda evidently stood in awe of her and came out professing his love for her. And she obviously stylized herself into the role of his guardian-angel. It seems that she refused Neruda's advances, and tried as much as possible to keep their relationship very much one of literary kinship. This was obviously an attempt in part by Karolina Svetla to stylize herself."

But the relationship ended rather tragically:

"Neruda got into a lot of debt and Karolina Svetla, who was at her country house at the time, sold a family heirloom, with a great deal of difficulty, through her friend Marie Nemeckova who, it turned out, was not to be trusted. She sent the money anonymously to Neruda so that he could avoid debtors' prison. But Nemeckova found out that Svetla was sending the money to Neruda, and blabbed, and a whole scandal erupted. Svetla and her husband returned from holiday and all of Prague was talking about her infidelity."

... And Marie Nemeckova's treachery didn't end there!

"Svetla sent Neruda a last letter, to say goodbye to him, and in it she professed her love. In this last letter, she finally wrote the thing she had been stopping herself from saying up until then. At the same time she wrote that they should never meet again. She gave this letter to Nemeckova... who never delivered it. Svetla never discovered that Neruda didn't receive the letter, and Neruda never knew that Svetla ever wrote this letter. For the next ten years, they would bump into each other on the street in Prague, Neruda would always greet her by taking off his hat, for years, Svetla would pretend not to see him and look the other way, but later on she'd give a slight nod of the head. And we only learned about this misunderstanding a generation on, after the protagonists had died."

Svetla was the archetypal poor-little-rich-girl, who had a rather tragic life throughout. She lost a child, most likely through cot-death, and battled with mental illness from her childhood:

"Her whole life, Karolina Svetla was very ill. She had problems right from when she was very young. She was schizophrenic. She described how once she was walking across the street in Prague when a young girl walked past her, looking at her funnily. Once this girl disappeared, she realized that she had been looking at herself in her own youth. She had a child which died in infancy, and after its death she locked herself in her house and sewed clothes for the dead child by candlelight. That was the reason her husband took her away to the countryside for a while. In the 1870s, the illness continued, her nerves made her go almost blind, and she had to dictate her work to a secretary. She was a complicated, highly-emotional woman."

In recent years, the work of Karolina Svetla has fallen somewhat out of fashion. Robert Pynsent explains why this might have happened:

"For various reasons, she was actually plugged by the Communists quite a lot. For social reasons, you know - her portrayals of the rich Germans in the town, and the beautiful, pure Czechs in the countryside - in very good stories like lesni panna, she seemed to have all the right things. So, she was plugged a bit by the Communists. By the normalization period, however, by the eighties, she seems to have gone almost completely out of fashion."

But whether Svetla is a la mode or not right now, scholars and readers seem to agree that her work has withstood the test of time.