THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

5 posts from February 2020

29 February 2020

Children's Tales from Across the Channel (1)

The British Library has just launched its new ‘Discovering Children’s Books’ web pages, a treasure-chest of stories, poems and illustrations from old favourites to modern classics, with plenty to discover along the way. This venture has inspired us here in European Collections to reflect on some favourite and classic children’s books from the collections we curate and the countries we cover. Here’s a first selection.

Cover of 'The Mitten', showing a child losing a mitten in a snowy wood

Cover of Alvin Tresselt, The Mitten (Kingswood, Surrey, 1964) X.992/87.

‘Rukavychka’, traditional Ukrainian folktale
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

‘Rukavychka’ (‘The Mitten’) is a much-loved Ukrainian folktale about a lost mitten that stretches and stretches (and stretches!) to provide shelter for an increasing number of woodland animals, ranging from a mouse to a bear. Eventually the mitten bursts and they all tumble out. There are a number of different versions of the story, including a 1964 retelling in English by Alvin Tresselt  with beautiful illustrations by Yaroslava (pictured above), but the overarching message is one of sharing and helping others in need.

Illustration of Vitalis the Fox, walking on his hind legs with a nest of birds perched on his tail
Vitalis the Fox, from Jan Brzechwa, Od baśni do baśni (Warsaw, 1969) X.990/1813

Szelmostwa lisa Witalisa’ (‘The Tricks of Vitalis the Fox’)  
Chosen by Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

This verse tale by Jan Brzechwa tells the story of a mischievous fox, Vitalis, who is renowned for his beautiful tail and exceptional intellect. Unfortunately, he uses his intelligence again and again to trick other animals for his own benefit. Following an election campaign full of empty promises, Vitalis becomes president of the forest animals. His tyrannical, exploitative rule triggers a revolution, in which the fox’s tail is shaven and Vitalis himself chased away from the forest. And thus a brilliant, but overly arrogant dictator is punished by his subjects – a scenario by no means limited to fairy tales.

Cover of 'Glasblåsarns barn' with an illustration of two children and a coachman
Cover of Maria Gripe, Glasblåsarns Barn (Stockholm, 1987) YA.1997.a.9920.

Maria Gripe, Glasblåsarns Barn (The Glassblower’s Children)
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

First published in 1964, Glasblåsarns Barn tells how Klas and Klara, children of the brilliant but impoverished glassblower Alfred and his long-suffering wife Sofia, are kidnapped by a nobleman as a gift for his own childless and unhappy wife. But their presence doesn’t make her any happier, and in the great house beyond the River of Forgotten Memories the children are neglected and traumatised. A governess is hired to look after them but turns out to be a monster who makes life unbearable for the whole household. It it takes a benevolent witch from the children’s home village and her wise raven to defeat the awful Nana, restore happiness to the nobleman and his wife, and return Klas and Klara to their parents. Maria Gripe’s story, attractively illustrated by her husband Harald, is funny and moving by turns, a fantasy that asks real-life questions about family life, love and loss, and the nature of human desires. It was translated into English by Sheila La Farge (London, 1974; X.0990/4514) and that was how I came to discover the book as a child in my local public library.

Cover of a 1924 edition of 'Pinocchio' with an illustration showing some of the characters of the story
Cover of Carlo Collodi, Le Avventure Di Pinocchio: Storia Di Un Burattino (Florence, 1924) F10/1460

Carlo Collodi, Le Avventure di Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio)
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator of Romance Collections

The story of the rebellious wooden marionette who wants to become a real boy is universally known, yet every edition of Pinocchio carries a unique freshness, a special appeal that continues to charm readers across generations. The iconic pointy nose, that grows every time he lies, the cone-shaped hat made of bread crumbs, these are Pinocchio’s most recognizable features across almost 150 years of this popular character.

Over 200 editions of Carlo Collodi’s story, first published in Italian in 1883, are held by the British Library, in virtually every language and dialect, illustrated by famous and lesser-known artists, so it’s been really hard to pick one. I chose the popular 1924 paperback edition, richly illustrated by Maria Augusta and Luigi Cavalieri, because this could be the copy that every average Italian household keeps in its bookshelves. These are the images that children look at before learning how to read.

The book is a bildungsroman telling the adventures and the many metamorphoses of an innocent and ignorant young character, who is granted human nature at the end of the story, as a reward for his efforts and hard work. Quintessentially Italian, Collodi’s book wasn’t my favourite as a child, but I can now see it in all its literary richness, not only as a reminder of the importance of frugality, honesty and education in become young adults. In fact, Pinocchio’s pedagogical value follows the introduction of mandatory education for children in the newly unified Italian Kingdom, but Collodi adds an unruly, almost anarchic edge to his story, making it a global evergreen.

Cover of 'Afke's Ten' with a picture of a small sailing-boat on a river
Cover of Nynke van Hichtum, Afke’s Ten, translated by Marie Kiersted Pidgeon (Philadelphia, 1936) 12801.f.21.

Nynke van Hichtum, Afke’s tiental (Afke’s Ten)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

Afke’s tiental is a timeless story about ten children growing up in a poor household in Friesland, the Northern province in the Netherlands where Frisian is spoken. Since its first edition in 1903 it has seen over 60 editions. The author Nynke van Hichtum (pseudonym of Sjoukje Maria Diderika Troelstra-Bokma de Boer) was married to Pieter Jelle Troelstra, the leader of the socialist party in the Netherlands
The foreword of the first English edition describes it as:

A story of modern child-life in a large, happy Dutch family in a Frisian village, written by a pioneer for better children’s books in the Netherlands, “Afke’s Ten” (Afke’s tiental) is not only considered a juvenile classic in Holland, but has been recognized by the International Bureau of Education in Switzerland as one of the best “international goodwill” stories in the world for boys and girls.

It adds that ‘Mrs Troelstra had already made a name for herself with translations of Robinson Crusoe, Kipling’s ‘White Seal’ and other English stories.’

20 February 2020

Travelling through the British Library’s Dutch-Surinamese Collections via Johan Fretz’s ‘Onder de Paramariboom’

“Mummy comes from the Paramaribo-tree – that’s a tree on the other side of the ocean, and black people like mummy and Ruud Gullit grow on it.” – Johan Fretz, Onder de Paramariboom

Paramari-what? Sometimes it takes a child’s perspective to make you realise how little you really know about something; when you find you’re unable to correct what they’re saying with any degree of accuracy. Of course, when my coursemates and I were given the opportunity to work with the Dutch-Surinamese author Johan Fretz and translate part of his semi-autobiographical novel Onder de Paramariboom, I could have told you that Surinamese people don’t grow on a big tree named after the country’s capital, Pamaribo, but I couldn’t have told you much else about Suriname or its people.


Cover of 'Onder de paramariboom' with an image of two women in sihouette and an aerial view of a landscape
Cover of Johan Fretz, Onder de Paramariboom (Amsterdam, 2018) YF.2019.a.5725.

The British Library’s vast collection of maps, texts and images from and related to the former Dutch colony provides a pretty good impression of Suriname, but nowhere could I find mention of the ‘Paramaribo-tree’. The reason, of course, is that it has been invented by Johannes, the narrator of Fretz’s novel (the wordplay in the original title with the Dutch word ‘boom’ (‘tree’) is lost in English) who, despite having a Surinamese mother, has never really felt in touch with his Surinamese roots. It’s not until he visits Suriname that he realises how much he has been shaped by this part of his identity. As a fellow lover of a good pun, I adopted Johannes as my guide through the British Library’s collection.

Suriname, once known as Dutch Guiana, is located on the north-east coast of South America and is just over twice the size of Scotland. Although British planters were the first Europeans to permanently settle there, Suriname was largely under Dutch rule from 1667 until its independence in 1975.

Johannes’ mother, Virginia, was born and raised in Paramaribo, where Fretz’s novel is mainly set. The historical inner city, on the left bank of the Suriname River, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. 

The oldest and most important street in Paramaribo is Waterkant (‘waterside’). Many of its buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1821, including the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Housing, which was rebuilt and now looks, according to Johannes, “like it has been blown up and then put back together again, all higgeldy-piggeldy.” (Fretz, p.29)

The photograph below is taken from a collection of wonderful pictures taken by Dutch photographer Willem van de Poll during the 1955 state visit of the Dutch Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard.

The Waterkrant in Paramaribo with wooden colonial-era buildings
‘The Waterkant, Paramaribo’. From Willem van de Poll, Suriname (Paramaribo, [1959]) X.709/26675.

A map in King George III’s Topographical Collection lying on the desk before me tells me that Virginia’s favourite district in Fretz’s novel is Commewijne, named after the river that flows through it. Commewijne lies on the opposite side of the Suriname river to Paramaribo and is a former plantation district: the map shows plantations tightly packed along the rivers Commewijne and Suriname.

Map of Suriname in the late 18th century
Algemeene Kaart van de Colonie of Provintie van Suriname, met de rivieren, districten, ontdekkingen... (Amsterdam, [after 1758]) K.Top.124.47.1.

Many Dutch families owned plantations in Suriname, and family members would sometimes visit them. A journal by Gaspar van Breugel records one such visit in 1823 to inspect two plantations partially owned by his family. In his journal he calls these plantations ‘Carolinenburg’ and ‘Schoonwoud’, but a little bit of research provided me with their real names and details: the 500-acre Cliffort Kokshoven a coffee and cotton plantation in Commewijne, and Kocqswoud was a 163-acre coffee plantation in the Marrowijne district.

Title-page of 'Dagverhaal van eene reis naar Paramaribo' with a vignette of a white plantation owner and an African slave
“It was one of those subjects – just like slavery – that was not to be talked about, which of course meant that it was talked about as often as possible”. (Fretz, p.53).  The picture shows the title-page of G. P. C. van Breugel, Dagverhaal van eene reis naar Paramaribo en verdere omstreken in de Kolonie Suriname (Amsterdam, 1842) 10055.cc.6

Slaves were shipped to Suriname from the west coast of Africa. While the majority worked the plantations, some were domestic slaves. A major and unique publication in Dutch colonial history was Wij Slaven van Suriname (‘We Slaves of Suriname)’, by Anton de Kom. Born in Suriname to a former slave and having received an education which neglected to tell the narrative of the slaves who had been forced to work there, De Kom wrote his book to draw attention to the history of slavery in Suriname. The British Library houses a copy of the first edition of this important text.


Title-page of 'Wij Slaven van Suriname'
Title page of Anton de Kom, Wij Slaven van Suriname (Amsterdam, [1934]) X.529/73312

“Uncle Jimmy. He’s black, much darker than the rest of my family.
‘That’s because uncle Jimmy is a maroon,’ says my mother. ‘But of course, you should never say that.’
He came from the inland to Paramaribo when he was fifteen years old. (Fretz, p.54)

Slaves that managed to flee their masters tended to make their way into the rainforests of the Surinamese interior. Here, they formed groups with other runaway slaves, known as maroons, and established communities which still exist today. Johannes’ uncle Jimmy is a descendant of one such community. Often maroons would return to their former plantations and attack them, “both from a Spirit of revenge for the barbarous and inhuman treatment … they had received … & from a view of carrying away plunder … in order to provide for their subsistence and defense.” This quote is taken from John Gabriel Stedman’s  Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname. Stedman was a British-Dutch colonial soldier who volunteered to assist local troops fighting maroons in Suriname.


View of a Surinamese plantation estate beside a riverView of the Estate Alkmaar, on the River Commewine. From J.G. Stedman, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname (London, 1796) 145.f.15

Stedman began writing his Narrative once back in Holland in 1778, based on the diaries he kept during his time in Suriname between 1773 and 1777. The book details the Dutch colony at the time as seen by an ‘outsider’ – Stedman documented most of what he witnessed, from military campaigns to flora and fauna to relationships between slaves and their masters. His editor, however, made significant alterations (unbeknownst to Stedman) to remove the text’s anti-slavery undertones. Indeed, extracts from later uncensored versions of the text proved valuable to those involved in anti-slavery efforts. The Narrative contains 80 etchings based on Stedman’s drawings, some made by William Blake, a close friend of Stedman during the mid-1700’s.

Slavery was not abolished in Suriname until 1863, although the slave trade had been illegal since 1814. To help prevent illegalslave trading, Dutch navy ships patrolled routes between Freetown in Sierra Leone and Paramaribo. Sierra Leone was then a British colony and, following the British Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807), there was a one-sided ban on the slave trade between Africa and Suriname. The British pressured other countries to ban the trade out of ‘economic necessity’, since while others continued to import plantation workers, they themselves faced labour shortages. After the British threatened not to return confiscated Dutch colonies, the Netherlands banned the slave trade in 1814. In a treaty of 1818 the British and Dutch agreed to work together to prevent illegal slave trading between their colonies. Both could search each other’s vessels, and two mixed commission courts, in Freetown and Paramaribo, were established with the power to sentence slavers.

Gerard Van Lennep Coster was a Dutch naval officer who served on one such ship from 1819 to 1821. I discovered this in his travel memoir Herinneringen mijner reizen naar onderscheidene Werelddeelen (‘Memories of my travels to different continents’), which I also find on my reading room desk alongside his Aanteekeningen, gehouden gedurende mijn verblijf in de West-Indiën... (‘Annotations kept during my stay in the West-Indies...’), a journal documenting his time in Suriname.

 

Cover of 'Herinneringen mijner reizen' with vignette showing the god Neptune in a sea-borne chariot

Above: Title page of Gerard van Lennep Coster, Herinneringen mijner reizen naar onderscheidene Werelddeelen (Amsterdam, 1836) 10027.e.7. Below: Title page from Gerard van Lennep Coster, Aanteekeningen, gehouden gedurende mijn verblijf in de West-Indiën, in dejaren 1837-1840 …(Amsterdam, 1842) 10470.d.3.

Title-page of 'Aanteekeningen, gehouden gedurende mijn verblijf in de West-Indiën'

In Fretz’s novel, Johannes’ trip to Suriname took him on a journey of self-discovery which also led me through the collections of the British Library. I may not have covered the distance that he did, but Fretz’s narrative certainly made me feel closer to Suriname. Suddenly, Suriname’s history doesn’t seem so distant, and I’m pretty sure that I could hold a conversation about the country that stretches a little further than quashing a child’s notion of the roots of the Surinamese.

Megan Strutt, University of Sheffield
Written as part of the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) scheme, working in collaboration with Marja Kingma (Curator Germanic Collections BL) and Filip De Ceuster (University of Sheffield).

13 February 2020

The return of Miloš Crnjanski to London

Miloš Crnjanski (1893-1977) was a major Serbian avant-garde poet and writer, who lived as an exile in London from 1941 to 1965. Almost 55 years later, Crnjanski’s life and work will be re-examined at a literary event at The British Library on 9 March.

Portrait of Crnjanski in 1936

Crnjanski in 1936. Image from the collected edition of his works, Sabrana dela Miloša Crnjanskog, ed. Roksanda Njeguš and Stevan Raičković (Belgrade, 1966) X.989/5721.

The panel of academics, translators and artists will discuss Crnjanski’s life in London as an exile versus his subsequent life and reception in Belgrade as well as the contemporary relevance of his writing. The panel will also be looking at how we approach Crnjanski today.

Title page of Crnjanski’s Maska with frontispiece photograph of the author

Title page of Crnjanski’s Maska: Poetična komedija (Zagreb, 1918; 012265.aaa.50/50) with the roundel logo ‘DHK’ of Društvo hrvatskih književnika (‘Croatian Writers’ Society’) and a photograph of Crnjanski as a young man with his signature in facsimile.

Human migrations and human destiny in an ever-changing world are the universal topics which occupy the central place in Crnjanski’s prose and poetry. In all of his acclaimed works – Maska (‘Mask’, 1918), Lirika Itake (‘Lyrics of Ithaca’, 1919), Dnevnik o Čarnojeviću (‘Journal of Čarnojević’, 1921), Seobe (‘Migrations’, 1929), Seobe druga knjiga (‘Migrations: part two’, 1962) – Crnjanski’s protagonists are constantly moving to new places in search of a better and more humane world.

Title page of Lirika Itake

Title page of Lirika Itake. (Belgrade, 1919). 011586.c.42., with an inscription on the cover by S[vetislav] B. Cvijanović, a well-known Belgrade publisher of Crnjanski’s early works.

In addition to literature, Crnjanski was also involved in journalism as a columnist and editor. His political engagement and confrontation with the Left at home subsequently made him persona non grata in communist Yugoslavia and led to his life in exile. In a 1918 letter to the Croatian Writers’ Society, Crnjanski says that while he was at war he learned about the war and the desire to die. That can be said about his life in exile from 1941, which was a deeply unhappy life for Crnjanski as a man, husband and writer.

Front page of the 20 October 1934 issue of Ideje: za književnost, politička i društvena pitanja. The photograph shows King Peter II of Yugoslavia

Front page of the 20 October 1934 issue of Ideje: za književnost, politička i društvena pitanja (‘Ideas: literary, political and social journal’; awaiting shelfmark). Crnjanski edited and published this weekly journal in both Cyrillic and Roman scripts from 1934 to 1935. The photograph shows King Peter II of Yugoslavia (1923-1970) who ascended the throne aged 11 following the assassination of his father, King Alexander I, in 1934 and reigned until 1945.

Despite everything, while in London Crnjanski produced several great works of Serbian literature. In his poem Lament nad Beogradom (‘Lament for Belgrade’, 1962) he finally becomes reconciled with the fate of man whose life is nothing “but seadrift, transient, whisperings in China”.

Front cover of Lament nad Beogradom

Front cover of Lament nad Beogradom, a 2010 edition in seven languages. YF.2012.b.2123.

The last two verses of Lament for Belgrade

The last two verses of Lament for Belgrade, which Crnjanski penned on Cooden Beach in East Sussex in 1956. Translated by Geoffrey N. W. Locke. Illustrations by Momo Kapor.

Crnjanski’s own life finally had a happy ending. His work was re-evaluated and welcomed back into the canon of Serbian and Yugoslav literature. He was urged to return home and was at last persuaded to do so in 1965.

Photograph of Crnjanski in 1966

Crnjanski after his return to Belgrade in 1966. Image from Sabrana dela Miloša Crnjanskog.

In his last major novel Roman o Londonu (‘Novel of London’), published in Belgrade in 1971, Crnjanski deals with two chief protagonists. One is a Russian émigré through whom we learn about Crnjanski’s own experiences of a life in exile, and the other is the city of London, in whose suburbs and streets the émigré drama takes place.

After nearly fifty years since the publication in Serbian, Will Firth’s translation is the first translation of this great novel into English.

Front cover of Crnjanski, A Novel of London. Featuring an image of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben

Front cover illustration by Bill Lavender for Miloš Crnjanski, A Novel of London, translated by Will Firth (New Orleans, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections

References:

Miloš Crnjanski, Dnevnik o Čarnojeviću (Belgrade, 1921) RB.23.a.35057

Miloš Crnjanski, Seobe; Druga knjiga Seoba (Belgrade, 1990) YA.1998.b.4001

Miloš Crnjanski, Roman o Londonu (Belgrade, 1996) YA.2001.a.5543

07 February 2020

The Centenary of the Treaty of Trianon

About a century ago, one of the major empires disappeared from the map of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, ruled by the Habsburg dynasty, was the second largest and the third most populous European country of the time. The multi-national empire included most of the lands known today as Central Europe, stretching from the Central Alps to the Eastern Carpathians.

Austria-Hungary suffered defeat in the First World War and disintegrated in its aftermath. For some nations, the end of the Habsburg Empire was a long awaited chance for (re-)gaining independence, for others, namely Austrians and Hungarians, a loss of imperial status. For Hungary it also meant the end of the kingdom in the borders established in the Middle Ages, as two-third of its territory was detached. Although the lost lands were populated mostly by other ethnic groups, some 3 million Hungarians found themselves outside the borders of Hungary, becoming citizens of the neighbouring countries: Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920 in one of the palaces of Versailles, sealed the territorial losses and entered the realm of collective memory as a national tragedy. Throughout the interwar period, the Hungarian flags remained at half-mast, children prayed at school for the resurrection of Greater Hungary and the public space became filled with irredentist symbols.

Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers (Trianon)

Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Hungary and protocol and declaration. Signed at Trianon, June 4, 1920 (London 1920), OP-fCmd.896

Apart from diplomatic efforts to revise the decision made in Trianon, Hungary tried to appeal to international public opinion about the perceived injustices. Hungarian societies published books and leaflets distributed abroad, presenting a variety of historical or ethnic arguments for the restoration of the old kingdom.

Cover of 'Justice for Hungary'

Pages from 'Justice for Hungary' with maps showing territorial provisions of the peace treaty of Trianon

Justice for Hungary! The cruel errors of Trianon (Budapest 1928), 8073.i.24.] 

Ethnographic Map of Hungary

Count Paul Teleki: Ethnographic Map of Hungary. In: Justice for Hungary: Review and Criticism of the Effect of the Treaty of Trianon (London 1928), 08072.dd.44.

Between 1938 and 1941 Hungary recovered about half of the lost territories thanks to the alliance with Nazi Germany, the leading revisionist power of the time. However, after the Second World War the Trianon borders were reinstated and confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1947. It led to a widespread disillusionment about the possibility of ever reclaiming the lost lands. Moreover, after the beginning of the communist dictatorship in 1949, the issue of Trianon became a taboo in a heavily censored public space.

Treaty of Peace with Hungary

Treaty of peace with Hungary. Paris, 10th February, 1947 (London 1948), OP-Cmd.7485

As one of the key events of Hungarian history, the Treaty of Trianon became again a widely discussed topic after the transition to democracy in 1989-1990. All major political parties renounced the idea of territorial revisionism, while the support for the Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries has been seen as the only viable way to mitigate the consequences of the Treaty. However, the irredentist slogans or postulates did not disappear entirely. They became part of a nationalist subculture, manifested in songs, stickers, memorials or non-professional historical publications. After 100 years nobody who witnessed the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hungary is alive anymore, nevertheless the sense of grievance still persists and is often nurtured by politicians, particularly on such occasions as the centenary this year.

Andrzej Sadecki, former British Library PhD placement student working on the topic ‘Politicisation of commemorative practices in Eastern Europe’

References/Further Reading:

István Bibó, ‘The Distress of the East European Small States’ In: Democracy, Revolution, Self-determination: selected writings, ed. Károly Nagy; trans. András Boros-Kazai. (Boulder, Co., 1991) 3646.315000 no 317

Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers: the Paris conference of 1919 and its attempt to end war (London 2001) YC.2002.a.13464

Ignác Romsics, The Dismantling of Historic Hungary: The Peace Treaty of Trianon, 1920 (New York, 2002) 3646.315000 no 607

John C. Swanson, The remnants of the Habsburg monarchy: the shaping of modern Austria and Hungary, 1918-1922 (New York, 2001) 3646.315000 no 568

Miklós Zeidler, Ideas on Territorial Revision in Hungary 1920-1945 (New York, 2007) YC.2008.a.11833

04 February 2020

The grandmother of all Czech authors: Božena Němcová

Although 4 February 1820 is officially commemorated as the birthday of Božena Němcová, one of the best-loved Czech writers of the 19th century, the actual date of her birth, and indeed her parentage, are surrounded by mystery. The register of baptisms in the parish church of the Holy Trinity in Vienna’s Alsterstrasse does indeed record the christening on 5 February of a daughter born the previous day to Terezie Novotná, a servant in an inn owned by Barbara Hauptmann, who stood godmother to the child, named after her but known by the Czech form, Barbora. However, the space for the father’s name is blank. On 7 August Terezie married Johann Pankel, coachman to Karl Rudolf Graf von der Schulenburg, on the Count’s estate in Ratibořice in Bohemia, and settled there. Terezie became a laundress to the Countess Wilhelmine, formerly Duchess of Sagan, but as her family increased (she had 12 children, though only six survived), she called on her mother for help, and Magdalena Novotná became part of the household in the Alte Bleiche. 

Portrait of Božena Němcová

Portrait of Božena Němcová from František Halas, Triptych o ohrožené zemi (Prague, 1959) X.989/70722.

In her book Tajemství Barunky Panklové (‘The mystery of Barunka Panklová’) Helena Sobková suggests that the child was actually the illegitimate daughter of Wilhelmine’s younger sister, Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord; other sources had previously claimed that her mother was Wilhelmine herself, who had given her to the Pankels to raise. Whatever the truth of this, after leaving the village school at ten the little girl was sent to the manor of Chvalkovice to acquire accomplishments such as etiquette, fine sewing and embroidery, piano-playing and flawless German to transform her from ‘Barunka’ into Fräulein Betty. Her mother, it appears, had little time or love for her, and her social pretensions also caused her to feel ashamed of Magdalena with her homely Czech speech and peasant dress. Possibly recalling her own illegitimate pregnancy, she determined to marry her eldest daughter off as quickly as possible, and on 12 September 1837 a wedding took place. The bride was 17, tear-stained and apprehensive; the groom, a customs official named Josef Němec, was 15 years her senior.

The marriage was unhappy from the outset, not helped by several moves during the next few years as Josef was transferred from one post to another. However, despite having her hands full with the care of a daughter and three sons, the young mother gradually found herself being drawn into a wider world. Josef was an ardent Czech patriot (something which would eventually cost him his job) and when the family moved to Prague in 1842 she came into contact with literary circles and met the historian and politician František Palacký and the author Václav Bolemír Nebeský, who encouraged her to write in Czech. On 5 April 1842 her first poem ‘Ženám Českým’ (‘To the Czech Women’) appeared, under the new name which she had adopted – Božena Němcová. Like many figures of the National Revival, she chose a name from Czech history: Božena was a peasant girl chosen as his bride by Prince Oldřich in preference to a German noblewoman.

By the time that Josef Němec’s involvement in the failed revolution of 1848 had caused him to be transferred to Slovakia, Božena’s literary activities had made her so unwilling to leave the Czech literary scene behind that she stayed in Prague with her children, although she made frequent visits to her husband. These journeys provided her with material for a book of travel writings from the Domazlice area (Obrazy z okolí domažlického, 1845), and also opportunities to collect Slovak folk-tales (1857-58) in the original – unusual for a Czech at a time when Slovak was not generally regarded as an autonomous language.

Illustration by František Slabý and Karel Štapfer of a castle and a procession from Národní báchorky a pověsti

Illustration by František Slabý and Karel Štapfer from Národní báchorky a pověsti (Prague, 1892) YA.1995.b.2351

Her best-loved work, however, was published in 1855. Babička (‘Grandmother’) draws on her recollections of a country childhood in the care of her own much-loved grandmother Magdalena, the ‘granny’ of the title who tells her grandchildren Barunka, Vilém, Jan and Adélka stories from her past, instils in them a simple but sincere faith and morality, and finally dies in the respect and affection of the whole village. In contrast to her is Viktorka, a girl who, seduced by a soldier, loses her wits, and is finally struck by lightning. The grandmother, however, teaches the children to show her compassion, and not to judge others hastily or harshly.

Illustration of a village market scene by Adolf Kašpar from Babička: Obrazy z venkovského života

Illustration by Adolf Kašpar from Babička: Obrazy z venkovského života (Prague, 1892) X.902/444

The first translation into German was made in 1858, and since then the novel has been translated into forty languages and reprinted in Czech more than 350 times. However, its success did not prevent Němcová from falling into poverty. Her later life was overshadowed by grief for her son Hynek, who died of tuberculosis in 1853, and as the wife of a civil servant it was impossible for her to take up any form of gainful employment, so that at times she actually went hungry. Her own health was deteriorating, and in 1861 it obliged her to return from Litomyšl, where she had been trying to earn a living with the publishing house which was preparing an edition of her work, to Prague and to her estranged husband. Her romantic relationships, including one with Nebeský, and disputes over the children had driven them further apart. On 21 February 1862 she succumbed to cancer, and was buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery, the last resting-place of many of the nation’s greatest writers, artists and musicians, close to the city’s ancient fortress.

Božena Němcová lives on today not only as a beloved author in her own right but as an inspiration to those who came after her. Jaroslav Seifert, the first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1984) to write in that language, wrote Píseň o Viktorce, and František Halas composed a cycle of poems about her, Naše paní Božena Němcová. Though never a grandmother in her lifetime, she is a true ancestress of Czech literature.

Illustration of the grandmother by Adolf Kašpar from Babička

The eponymous Grandmother. Illustration by Adolf Kašpar from Babička

Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

References:

Helena Sobková, Tajemství Barunky Panklové: Portrét Boženy Němcové (Prague, 2008) YF.2009.a.2612

Jaroslav Seifert, Píseň o Viktorce (Prague, 1950; X.958/30908)

František Halas, Naše paní Božena Němcová (Prague, 1940; X.958/3250