Nemcová, Bozena (c. 1817–1862)

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Nemcová, Bozena (c. 1817–1862)

Czech writer who was the first woman to occupy a major place in Czech literature. Name variations: Bozena Nemcova; Barbora Nemcová; Bozhena Nemtsova; Barbara Pankl; Betty Pankl. Born Barbara Nowotny, most likely in Vienna, in 1817 (although February 1820 has traditionally been accepted as her birth date); died in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on January 21, 1862; daughter of Maria Magdalena Theresia Nowotny, later known as Theresia Pankl (1797–1863) and Johann Pankl (1794–1850); had eleven brothers and sisters; married Josef Nemec; children: daughter, Theodora "Dora" Nemec ; sons, Hynek, Jaroslav (Jarous), and Karel Nemec.

The first Czech woman writer of distinction, whose masterpiece Babicka (The Grandmother) is a landmark in the history of her nation's prose, Bozena Nemcová had origins sufficiently mysterious to mislead generations of biographers. An illegitimate child, she was baptized Barbara Nowotny in the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity in Vienna-Alservorstadt on February 5, 1820, and it was long assumed that she had been born a day or two earlier; thus her place and date of birth traditionally have been given as Vienna on February 4, 1820. Also according to tradition, her mother was Maria Magdalena Theresia Nowotny (Theresia Pankl ), a servant in the employ of Duchess Wilhelmine von Sagan , and on August 7, 1820, Barbara Nowotny became legitimized as Barbara Pankl (called Betty) due to her mother's marriage in Böhmisch Skalitz (modern-day Ceská Skalice, Czech Republic) to Johann Pankl, a coachman also employed by the duchess.

In recent years, Adolf Irmann and other scholars have investigated the details of Nemcová's ancestry, discovering many new facts as well as tantalizing discrepancies and unresolved questions. At this point, the best evidence suggests that the child who eventually became Bozena Nemcová was born not in 1820, but most likely in 1817. Some documentation points to the possibility that Barbara Nowotny, later Barbara Pankl, was not the child of the servant Theresia Pankl. Who her actual mother was remains unknown, but some scholars have argued that the elements of the entire story point toward an aristocratic woman who became pregnant and then gave her child to a servant to raise. Irmann has even suggested the possibility that the girl's biological mother was the duchess, but admits that this question must remain open to speculation until more conclusive data comes to light.

What is known about Nemcová's childhood is that it was happy. She was largely brought up by her grandmother, Magdalena Cuda Novotná (c. 1770–1841), a loving woman rooted in the traditional culture of the Czech peasantry, who would serve as the model for Nemcová's Babicka (1855). Nemcová grew up in the seemingly idyllic world of the estate on which her parents were servants. These years, spent in what literary historian Arne Novák called "an enchanted corner of the Krkonos foothills," would turn out to be the only carefree ones of her short, tragic life. As a young girl, Nemcová was fully bicultural and bilingual, moving back and forth between the Czech peasant world of her grandmother and mother and the German culture of her father, her school, and many of her friends. She was drawn to German Romantic poetry, including that of Heinrich Heine, and her first writings were poems in German. Her love of literature was reflected in her memorization of many of the greatest masterpieces of German verse, old and new.

A beautiful, intelligent young girl, with good manners, Nemcová became increasingly attracted to many of the young aristocratic males in the town of Ratiboritz, where she lived starting in 1833. Worried that her daughter might succumb to the passions of youth, Theresia hurriedly made plans to arrange a "proper" marriage for her. Soon a groom was found in Josef Nemec (1805–1879), a former professional soldier, who worked as a customs official for the Austrian monarchy. Besides being a dozen years older than his wife-to-be, Nemec was a dour, unimaginative type whose personality was incompatible with that of a poetry-loving, dreamy young girl. The couple married in September 1837, in the same Viennese Church of the Holy Trinity in which Theresia Pankl had wed 17 years earlier.

In 1842, they moved to Prague, where the bride's life changed significantly. Nemcová's interest in politics had been minimal until then, whereas Josef was a passionate Czech nationalist. This meant that only Czech was to be spoken at home, and as children arrived on the scene they would learn only Czech from their parents (though German continued to be taught in schools). Now known as Barbora Nemcová, she caved in to pressure from her husband to stop reading (or writing) German poems and novels. Eventually, she chose to burn the German verse she had written in earlier years. Nemcová took instruction to improve her Czech grammar and diction, which had been essentially the rural, peasant language spoken by her mother and grandmother. Within a few years she mastered the learned forms of the Czech language, and also became a committed Czech nationalist, convinced of the rightness of the Czech cause in creating a distinct Slavic culture in the ancient but now German-controlled provinces of Bohemia and Moravia.

Living in the Czech metropolis opened up a new world for Nemcová, a world of compelling ideas and fascinating people who stood in sharp contrast to her unresponsive husband. She moved in a stimulating circle of intellectuals, one of whom was a young poet, Václav Nebesky. Nemcová's first poem, an expression of the friendship between them, was an appeal to Czech women to join their men in the struggle for the nation's freedom: "From the Urals to the Sumava, from the Balkans to the Vltava, the Slav rose to conquer glory." Verse of such nationalist intensity from a literary neophyte created a sensation, bringing her instant acclaim. That poem, "Zenam ceskym" ("To Czech Women"), appeared in print in the magazine Kvety in 1843, establishing her national reputation as an artist to watch. At this time, she changed her first name from the German-derived Barbora to the more Czech-sounding Bozena.

Lacking a higher education, Nemcová did not feel she was qualified to tackle more complex literary forms, and her friends often had to encourage her. Her physician (and later lover), Josef Cejka, who knew George Sand , understood Nemcová's talent and suggested she write fairy tales. His advice was perceptive; even her first efforts received high ratings from the Czech writer Karel Erben, a master of traditional folk tales. Between 1845 and 1848, Nemcová published a series of fairy tales in seven successive parts. Written from memory and lacking any framework or academic concepts, they were at times lacking in scholarly objectivity. As she herself would admit in a letter: "This fairy tale is not a true folk tale; a part of the subject comes

from my childhood memories; I took a fancy to it and made up the rest." Believing that in essence "authenticity" probably could never be achieved once an author had made the decision to write down, and adapt for readers' interests, the national heritage of folk tales, Nemcová noted in an 1846 letter: "When I hear a fairy tale all twisted and confused, I cannot resist making changes. In some places I add and in others I delete, especially the ugly parts."

By 1848, when the various nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian empire rose up to achieve their freedom, Bozena Nemcová's literary reputation was on the ascendancy. Her personal life, however, was in crisis; her marriage was crumbling, and because she and her husband were deemed to be Czech nationalists and politically unreliable, Josef's bureaucratic career in the customs service had hit a wall, with no promotions and raises. Financially, the couple's situation deteriorated from year to year. With four children, several of whom were in poor health, the situation was demoralizing. Starting in 1850, Josef was stationed in West Hungary (Slovakia), while Nemcová and the children remained in Prague. She and Josef would never again live together as husband and wife, though she visited him four times over the next few years. In Prague, Nemcová coped with raising her children, but the small amounts of money her husband sent were barely sufficient to pay for life's basics. She and her children ate food of poor quality (if they could afford to eat at all) and lived in a nearhovel of miserable rooms in one of Prague's poorest neighborhoods. Quite probably as a result, Hynek, her eldest and favorite son, died in October 1853 of tuberculosis, age 16.

Throughout the 1850s, when it had become obvious to Nemcová that her marriage was dead, she engaged in various forms of escapism. Never good at managing her household, she squandered her limited budget, forcing her to beg friends for money to buy food for her children, a situation that never improved given "her almost childlike inability to know the value of money." Once, after her friends had raised a large sum to help her, she immediately offered almost all of it to a writer who was also in debt. With what little remained, she had a splendid dinner prepared and invited her closest friends over to celebrate. Anna Cardová-Lamblová , the sister of one of Nemcová's lovers, commented in later years on "that fiery, desirable, perhaps even destructive woman. … [E]verything about her was charming. … She had many admirers and … many women envied her and condemned her free behavior and the way she was celebrated among literati. … Mrs. Nemcová was very fear less. She went … where nobody else dared to go. Living freely, without responsibility, she bore criticism with a smile."

Nemcová's trips to Slovakia to collect material for fairy tales caused her friends to criticize her for not producing the works of significant literature they were convinced she was capable of writing. Despite the perceptiveness of these criticisms, it must also be noted that Nemcová's love of the rural population of Slovakia helped strengthen cultural ties between the Slovak and Czech cultures in later generations. The first Czech writer to describe the beauty of the Carpathian mountains, she wrote with intensity about those who lived in the primeval beech forests and braved the bears of that region. She spent hours writing long and eloquent letters to friends, family, and members of the Czech intelligentsia. Although these letters would one day appear in print and be praised for both content and style, at the time they were appreciated only by their recipients and brought their author neither fame nor fortune.

Another sign of the instability of Nemcová's life were her many love affairs. Consistently over the almost 25 years of their marriage, her husband was verbally and even physically abusive to her, and in an 1860 letter to her son Karel she noted that "considering my nature it is a terrible fate to be tied to a coarse man." Among her lovers were Nebesky, Josef Cejka, Vilem Dusan Lambl, Ignac Hanus, Jan (Ivan) Helcelet, Hanus Jurenka, and Frantisek Matous Klácel. None of these affairs brought her happiness, and her youthful beauty rapidly faded as financial cares and emotional turmoil destroyed both her sense of well-being and her health.

In 1855, Nemcová published the book that would make her an immortal of Czech literature. Babicka (The Grandmother), which for more than a century has been the most revered volume in the Czech language, recounts one year of rural life. Obviously autobiographical, Nemcová's work gives detailed accounts of folk customs that reflect an idealized, harmonious world which, in fact, never existed. Babicka is the mother of a manorial official's Germanized wife who instinctively raises her grandchildren as solidly loyal and devout Czechs. Wisdom incarnate, Babicka advises the local duchess and countess as easily as she imparts traditional truths to the villagers. With her loving heart, horse sense, and superstitions, the grandmother is a figure of extraordinary strength, resoluteness, and solidity. The novel, which is actually a Biedermeier idyll and a series of sketches, restricts its action to interpolated tales in which the natural ordered rural life of Czech peasants is upset by foreigners. In one of these, a girl is raped (or seduced) by a Hungarian soldier, which makes her pregnant and eventually causes her to slip into a state of madness. None of the constituent parts of Babicka detract from one another, the entire book being an organic whole. Novák praised the book: "The figure of the grandmother, incorporating the Slavic ideal of motherhood, shines forth like a beneficent autumn sun, and the story, full of goodness and beauty, unfolds against an enchanting background of an equally maternal Nature; human beings grow, live and are lulled to sleep in Nature's lap."

Bozena Nemcová's final years continued to be tragic. Dying of cancer, she remained impoverished. Some of her best friends, including the great novelist Caroline Svetla , had broken off their friendships because of her irregular lifestyle. Toward the end of 1861, her husband brought her from Litomysl, where she had been living, back to Prague. Here she died, still destitute, on February 21, 1862. Ironically, Nemcová's funeral was a grandiose affair, as reported by the Moravské Noviny (Moravian News): "The procession, led by a clergyman who had slandered her earlier, included her hearse, decorated with laurel wreaths and an artistically embroidered Slav tree. There were colored flags donated by the 'Czechoslav Daughters' to the writer of The Grandmother. … On both sides, Czech girls in mourning marched with lit candles, then younger writers. … Behind the coffin were members of the family … [C]arolina Svetlá … Prince Thurn-Taxis, representatives of the provincial and imperial deputies, the mayor, the vice-mayor, writers, doctors, professors, students, etc. and an endless multitude. … [E]ter nal glory to her memory!"

Although her other works are read and respected by Czechs, it is for having written Babicka that Bozena Nemcová remains beloved by her people. Written by a tormented woman in an attempt to recapture the happiness she had known in the vanished world of her youth, this book has served to inspire Czechs on more than one occasion when their nation found itself in peril. During World War I, when she was imprisoned in Vienna, Alice Garrigue Masaryk wrote to her mother Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk , the American-born wife of Thomas G. Masaryk: "Dear Mother,—These days I have been in the Ratiborice Valley with Babicka. I was tired and remained in bed. Every movement required an effort; and I took Babicka into my hands and lived there with her. I was moved by her loving righteousness, her righteous kindness, which flowed from a deep heart. A closed, concentric world—simple and beautiful. In the present-day rush, in the atmosphere of steam, electricity, intellectualism, and Ibsenism, this book acts like a healing potion."

In 1939, with Czech independence about to be snuffed out by the Third Reich, the simple truths contained in Babicka again gave hope to Czechs. In his volume of poetry Our Lady Bozena Nemcová, published in that terrible year, Frantisek Halas gave voice to a small but proud nation's determination to defend, if only in spirit, its national traditions. Babicka has been translated into over 20 foreign languages, and by the centenary of its author's death in 1962 the book had appeared in print in an astonishing 312 Czech editions. Bozena Nemcová has been honored in countless ways over the years. Among the most recent commemorations are a 30-Heller postage stamp issued on February 26, 1962, and a portrait of her on the 500-Crown banknote of the series issued in 1993 by the newly established Czech Republic.


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Bozena Nemcová Museum, Ceská Skalice, Eastern Bohemia, Czech Republic.

Museum of Czech Literature, Hradschin Palace, Prague, Czech Republic.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia