Czech writer Alois Jirásek (1851–1930) produced a staggering number of historical novels during his long career. Nearly all of them dealt with some facet of his nation's struggle for independence from German, Austrian, and later Austro–Hungarian colonial rule. Literature scholars consider Jirásek the most important Czech prose writer in the era before World War I, but his Old Czech Legends is the sole work of his to be translated into English.
Jirásek was born on August 23, 1851, in the village of Hronov in the Náchod area of northern Bohemia. His father was a baker with a small shop there. At the age of 11, Jirásek was sent to a German–language school in Broumov, the nearest town to his home. Bohemia had been home to a large number of German immigrants since the Middle Ages, and by the time Jirásek was of school age, Bohemia and the rest of the Czech lands were controlled by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, and German served as the official language. Native Czech customs and the language were dismissed as those of the peasant class, while the majority of Czechs eked out a living on the mountainous, barely fertile land, or worked as weavers in their homes. In his memoirs, Jirásek recalled seeing those weavers, who came to his village to sell their wares, and being struck by their poverty. "They arrived early in the morning," he wrote, according to Zdenék Nejedlý's Alois Jirásek, "when the trader had not yet opened his doors, stood waiting, poorly dressed even in winter, with a scarf or shawl around their necks in the freezing weather, otherwise lightly clad, stiff with frost, greenish in look."
Studied at One of Europe's Oldest Universities
In the 1840s, there arose a nationalist movement, and Czechs began agitating for a measure of self–rule. Jirásek found this movement in full bloom when he arrived at Charles University of Prague as a young man, and thrived there in the exciting cultural atmosphere of the city. Though he was a history major, many of his friends were aspiring writers or painters who would also go on to impressive achievements later in life. His own writing career began in 1871, with the publication of first poetry, then short stories, in Prague literary journals.
Viktora, published in 1874, was the first of Jirásek's works to deal with Bohemian history from a fictional standpoint. He would return many times over to the famous Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, a noted Czech uprising in which Bohemians massed against the forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic League. They were routed, Roman Catholicism was imposed, and the Protestant population was forced to flee. In "Host," a tale of Jirásek's from 1875, "he strongly criticized the strange morality of contemporary warfare in which a Czech could kill a Pole and vice versa—all for the interests of the Prussian king and the Austrian emperor," noted Nejedlý.
Jirásek's first novel was Skaláci (The Skalaks), set during the time of a 1775 peasant revolt in the Náchod area where Hronov lay. In it, he details the struggles of a fictional family and the abuses and injustices they suffered at the hands of the foreign powers who tightly controlled the region's economy. In the end, the family turns insurgent, but the story concludes "on the same heavy, sad tone which had characterized it throughout," noted Nejedlý.
One of Jirásek's more outstanding works is the 1878 volume Podvíky z hor (Tales from the Mountains). It features lengthy sketches and stories from the Náchod area, mostly detailing the long history of poverty and economic domination it endured during the harshest era of Hapsburg rule. That same year he also produced U domácího prahu (At the Home Threshold), which deals with the aftermath of an Austro–Prussian conflict of 1778, and the difficulties endured by one family. An 1880 novel, Ráj svěeta (Worldly Paradise), is set during the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the conference which redrew the map of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. "Especially lively are his descriptions of the terrible dissipation which reigned there," declared Nejedlý. "Jirásek does not spare the colours in painting the seductiveness of the life in this most charming and delightful society, but then how alien and repulsive this life is to us. For indeed all these charms and delights were extracted from the blood of those who fought in the war just over."
Settled in Litomy šl
From 1874 to 1888, Jirásek taught school in Litomyšl, an older town with a rich cultural history and delightful historic buildings. Its inhabitants were prosperous and spirited, and the livelier setting infected his work. Maloměstké historie (Small Town Anecdotes) was written during this period, as was the 1887 story "Sobota," set during the 1860s. The title character is a bookbinder who aids an uprising that took place in Poland against Russian rule. Yet Jirásek also began to feel dissatisfied with some elements of the emerging new rural bourgeoisie in Bohemia. An especial target was their patriotic sentiments, and he went so far as to ridicule the nationalist Sokol movement in Na ostrově (On the Island).
Skály (The Cliffs), published in 1886, deals with the aftermath of the Czech defeat at White Mountain. That same year Jirásek also published the first of a trilogy set during Bohemia's fifteenth–century Hussite conflicts, Mezi proudy (In the Current). The Hussites took their name from the priest and religious reformer Jan Hus, whose teachings predated Martin Luther and the Reformation. Hus was declared a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415 after having been summoned to the Council of Constance in Switzerland for trial. Afterward, Czechs venerated him as a martyr, and Hus's followers fomented rebellion in the area. The movement took decades to stamp out, but served as a flickering reminder of a brief golden era for generations afterward.
Carried on Dual Career
U naš (In Our Home Region), a four–volume work set during the Hussite period, chronicles the effect that the turmoil had upon the poorest Czechs in a small town in the Náchod region much like his own birthplace. The last volume in this work appeared in 1904. Jirásek, who settled in Prague in 1888 to teach at a gymnasium there, was also working on F. L. Věk another series with five books published between 1891 and 1906. The work deals with the renaissance period in Czech lands, following 1848 decrees that abolished some of the more stringent economic practices that had impoverished the Czechs. A trilogy that appeared between 1899 and 1909, Bratrstvo (Brotherhood), chronicled the end of the Hussite era. He touched upon this theme once again in the 1916 novel Husitský král (The Hussite King), about George of Poděbrady, the Bohemian ruler and the first king in Europe to renounce the Catholic faith for the teachings of Hus.
Jirásek's intense interest in the history of his homeland, and the compelling fiction he wove around it, has often earned him a comparison to Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish author whose works concerning British history were best-sellers in the early nineteenth century. Jirásek, noted Marie Holacek in her introduction to Jirásek's Old Czech Legends, "not only built his plots on the foundation of a thorough study of sources, so that his novels are historically accurate in every detail . . . but he was also able to show the inner spirit of his characters."
Collected Czech Myths and Fables
Jirásek also penned a dozen plays, and a two–volume autobiography. His sole work to be translated into English is Old Czech Legends, a work for children that sold quite well upon publication in 1894. In it, he traces the history of the Czechs and Bohemians all the way back to the earliest settlements, and the rich stories of old Prague. Commenting on it for her introduction, Holacek noted "even though the Legends are old–fashioned in style and content, dealing as they do with kings and noblemen, ghosts and magic, sacred objects and buried treasure, they are concerned with many problems that are still with us: wars and social injustice, personal jealousy and religious differences, minority rights and nationalism, women's liberation and sex discrimination, unemployment, government subsidies, and miners' strikes." Reviewing the same 1992 English edition for the UNESCO Courier, Calum Wise termed them "a seamless blend of romanticized historical facts and romantic or baroque fantasy, whose period charm encourages rather than hinders the reader from interpreting them on several levels."
Jirásek begins Old Czech Legends with the tale of Father Čech, who led a group of Slavs out of their original homeland, beyond the Carpathian Mountains, because of strife among the various tribes there. They moved westward, crossing the Oder and Elbe rivers, until they no longer met people whose language they could understand. Other tales in the volume recount moments in the history of Prague's Jewish settlement and their ancient synagogue. Another recounts a legend of the city's Old Town, where it is said that the ghosts of the 27 patriots hanged after the Battle of White Mountain haunt the square where they died.
Jirásek retired from teaching in 1909 at the age of 58. His works were widely read during the World War I era, a time of renewed struggle for independence from the Austro–Hungarian Empire. At the war's end, the empire was dissolved, and Czech and Slovak lands united to become the newly independent Czechoslovakia in 1918. Jirásek was elected to the nation's first parliament that year, and served seven years. He died on March 12, 1930. Several years later, with Czechoslovakia suddenly under new masters—in this case, Communists allied with the Soviet Russian empire—his works were promoted for the politically resonant themes that ran through them: the abject poverty of the peasants under colonial domination, the excesses of the noble class and ruling elite, and the struggle for justice and self–rule. In 1948, at the very onset of the Communist period in Czechoslovakia, the Minister of Information issued an unusual decree officially discouraging citizens from purchasing Christmas cards that holiday season. Instead, they were urged to contribute to a fund that would publish Jirásek's collected works. The Prague gymnasium where he once taught was named in his honor, and at the Nove Mesto side of Jiraskuv bridge in Prague a statue of his likeness was erected.
Nejedlý, Zdenék, Alois Jirásek, Orbis, 1952.
Old Czech Legends, translated and with an introduction and glossary by Marie K. Holeček, Forest Books, 1992.
International Herald Tribune, December 9, 1998.
Times (London, England), March 13, 1930.
UNESCO Courier, January 1994.