Although 4 February 1820 is officially commemorated as the birthday of BoĹžena NÄmcovĂĄ, 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 Viennaâs Alsterstrasse does indeed record the christening on 5 February of a daughter born the previous day to Terezie NovotnĂĄ, 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 fatherâs name is blank. On 7 August Terezie married Johann Pankel, coachman to Karl Rudolf Graf von der Schulenburg, on the Countâs estate in RatiboĹice 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 NovotnĂĄ became part of the household in the Alte Bleiche.
Portrait of BoĹžena NÄmcovĂĄ from FrantiĹĄek Halas, Triptych o ohrozĚeneĚ zemi (Prague, 1959) X.989/70722.
In her book TajemstvĂ Barunky PanklovĂŠ (âThe mystery of Barunka PanklovĂĄâ) Helena SobkovĂĄ suggests that the child was actually the illegitimate daughter of Wilhelmineâs younger sister, DorothĂŠe de Talleyrand-PĂŠrigord; 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 âBarunkaâ into FrĂ¤ulein 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 NÄmec, 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 FrantiĹĄek PalackĂ˝ and the author VĂĄclav BolemĂr NebeskĂ˝, who encouraged her to write in Czech. On 5 April 1842 her first poem âĹ˝enĂĄm ÄeskĂ˝mâ (âTo the Czech Womenâ) appeared, under the new name which she had adopted â BoĹžena NÄmcovĂĄ. Like many figures of the National Revival, she chose a name from Czech history: BoĹžena was a peasant girl chosen as his bride by Prince OldĹich in preference to a German noblewoman.
By the time that Josef NÄmecâs involvement in the failed revolution of 1848 had caused him to be transferred to Slovakia, BoĹženaâs 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 okolĂ domaĹžlickĂŠho, 1845), and also opportunities to collect Slovak folk-tales (1857-58) in the original â unusual for a Czech at a time when Slovak was not generally regarded as an autonomous language.
Illustration by FrantiĹĄek SlabĂ˝ and Karel Ĺ tapfer from NaĚrodniĚ baĚchorky a poveĚsti (Prague, 1892) YA.1995.b.2351
Her best-loved work, however, was published in 1855. BabiÄka (âGrandmotherâ) draws on her recollections of a country childhood in the care of her own much-loved grandmother Magdalena, the âgrannyâ of the title who tells her grandchildren Barunka, VilĂŠm, Jan and AdĂŠlka 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 by Adolf KasĚpar from BabicĚka: Obrazy z venkovskeĚho zĚivota (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 NÄmcovĂĄ 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 LitomyĹĄl, 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 NebeskĂ˝, and disputes over the children had driven them further apart. On 21 February 1862 she succumbed to cancer, and was buried in Pragueâs VyĹĄehrad cemetery, the last resting-place of many of the nationâs greatest writers, artists and musicians, close to the cityâs ancient fortress.
BoĹžena NÄmcovĂĄ 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 PĂseĹ o Viktorce, and FrantiĹĄek Halas composed a cycle of poems about her, NaĹĄe panĂ BoĹžena NÄmcovĂĄ. Though never a grandmother in her lifetime, she is a true ancestress of Czech literature.
The eponymous Grandmother. Illustration by Adolf KasĚpar from BabicĚka
Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services
Helena SobkovaĚ, TajemstviĚ Barunky PankloveĚ: PortreĚt BozĚeny NeĚmcoveĚ (Prague, 2008) YF.2009.a.2612
Jaroslav Seifert, PĂseĹ o Viktorce (Prague, 1950; X.958/30908)
FrantiĹĄek Halas, NaĹĄe panĂ BoĹžena NÄmcovĂĄ (Prague, 1940; X.958/3250