Anyone who has gone to a Czech school will automatically link Božena Němcová's name to his bucolic 1855 novel, Babička, which means “grandmother” in Czech. With more than 300 editions, the book has been mandatory reading for Czech schools for generations. The story portrays an idyllic rural childhood nestled within a community of women who dedicate their lives to their husbands and families.
Born in 1820, Němcová's family forced her to marry a tax inspector 15 years older than her. With him he had four children and accompanied him throughout the Habsburg Empire when he was transferred to different locations. Very often, he had to beg for money and food to friends to feed his family, and died of exhaustion in 1862, just one day after the publication of the novel Babička, which became his most famous work.
On February 4, 2020, 200 years of his birth were fulfilled. Throughout these two centuries, Němcová has been remembered for different aspects of his life and work, in general, selected to adapt it to the spirit of the time: First, she was a nationalist against Germany; then, a communist icon; and today, finally, a feminist symbol.
Božena Němcová, the nationalist
The mid-nineteenth century was a turning point in the history of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multilingual Habsburg Empire: In 1948, a Palestinian movement that fought for the rights and unification of Slavic-speaking nations emerged, and was the forerunner of the national states that would emerge after the fall of the empire in 1918.
Czech and Slovak intellectuals of the time were openly involved in the movement. Němcová's husband sympathized with those ideas and, when he was transferred to what is now Slovakia and then to Prague, she personally met some of the most influential Palestinian thinkers.
While German was the language of social mobility, education, business and the press, Němcová chose to use Czech in his writing, since he had been educated in both languages. In several works he demanded that the Czech be promoted against the German imposed by the State.
That is probably why it became a symbol of the Czech national narrative, and so it is portrayed, for example, on the 500 Czech crowns bill. Of the seven banknotes in circulation, only two have women: On the other is Ema Destinnová, 19th-century opera singer.
In 2005, the Czech state television conducted a national survey to ask who to nominate for the most famous Czech character: Němcová was ranked 10 and was the first woman on the> list.
Božena Němcová, the socialist
The Republic of Czechoslovakia that emerged from the Habsburg Empire in 1918 did not maintain its political independence for a long time: After World War II, the Communist Party took power in 1948, and the country quickly became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, which imposed his ideology of socialist realism on all fields of art and culture.
Then Němcová began to have a new interpretation as a protosocialist writer who described the class struggle and female poverty in nineteenth-century capitalism. Moreover, “The grandmother” begins with a quote from German leftist thinker Karl Gutzkow:
Z toho vidíš, že chudí nejsou tak docela ubozí, jak si myslíme; jsou opravdu blaženější, než si představujeme a než my sami jsme.
From this you can deduce that the poor are not as pathetic as we think; in reality, they are happier than we think, and happier than we are.
In the 1940s, the journalist, writer and communist leader Julius Fučík wrote an essay called “Božena Němcová bojující ” (‘The struggle of Božena Němcová’), where he exalted her as a socialist heroine.
Božena Němcová, the feminist
One aspect that was carefully censored in all the previous appropriations was the life of Božena Němcová as a free woman, both intellectual and sexually.
In addition to having been a prolific writer – she wrote novels, short stories, fairy tales, tongue twisters and even ethnographic essays – she also became personally involved in the publication of her works, something unusual in her time. Franz Kafka, who spoke and read Czech, and had a compilation of her letters, saw her as an extraordinary author.
More recently, historians highlighted the fact that, despite his unhappy marriage, Němcová had an active sex life and several affairs with important intellectuals of the time. In his letters, he talked about his sexuality in an unusual tone for nineteenth-century women.
During an interview with Global Voices, the Czech writer Radka Denemarková explained her fascination with Němcová:
Dneska by z ní byla rebelka, bojovnice za lidská práva to bloggerka. Vnitřní nezávislost navzdory době, to je pro mě Božena Němcová. Nedovolí, aby v životě hrála jen stínovou roli dcery, manželky, matky, vždycky chtěla vědět, kdo je. Nechce být v životě otrokem.
Z literárního hlediska jí mnozí vytýkali, že měla takový talent a ztrácela čas právě korespondencí, která se ze záliby vyvinula ve vášeň. Ale copak měla volbu? Když v národních obrozeních malých národů zakotvila tradice, že spisovatel je svědomím národa a spisovatelé suplovali roli politiků, udržovali národní jazyk, obnovovali národní komunitu, povzdıdıdıdın Nechtěla být pouhou milenkou. Díky své korespondenci je světová autorka.
Moc se taky nepřipomíná, že psala i německy, „jak jsem dorůstala, jsem velké zalíbení nacházela v knihách německých, to české čtení to ta řeč zdálo se mi tuze sprostéě. Prvn ps. Neměla poslouchat manžela panslavistu to měla psát dál německy, byla by součástí světové literatury, nejen Národní tea.
Today she would be a rebel, a defender of human rights and a blogger. Internal independence against the period in which he lived, that is what Božena Němcová represents for me. He refused to reduce himself to the somber role of daughter or mother, he always wanted to know who he was. I didn't want to be a slave.
From a literary point of view, many accuse her of having wasted her talent with these correspondences. But did he have a choice? For small nations, the national rebirth movement established a tradition of the writer as the consciousness of the people and the authors as substitutes for politicians. She didn't want to be just a lover. Therefore, thanks to her letters, she is a universal author.
What is hardly mentioned is that Němcová also wrote in German: “As I grew up, I found pleasure in German books, while reading in Czech seemed vulgar.” He had burned his first texts in German. She should not have paid attention to her Palestinian husband, and should have written in German; thus, it would not only belong to the Czech literature, but to the universal one.
Since February 4 was her official birthday (there is some controversy about the real date), the independent Czech weekly Respekt put it on the cover with the phrase “Zázrak jménem Němcová“, Or“ A miracle called Němcová ”:
Respekt 6: Dvě stě let od narození Boženy Němcové • Koronavirus se již nejspíš nepodaří zastavit • Reportáž: Děti bez budoucnosti • Pět roků soudu Terezie Kaslové • Rozhovor s novou děkankou ksvnk ksnk / P7YYxEi9hr ? pic.twitter.com/IB8omkbP4Q
– Týdeník Respekt (@RESPEKT_CZ) February 2, 2020
Respect 6: Two hundred years after the birth of Božena Němcová • Koronavirus is unlikely to stop • Report: Children without a future • Five years of the court of Terezie Kaslová • Interview with the new dean of FAMU • How to explain unprecedented assistance in Czech cinemas .cz / weekly / 2020/6 ?
The special coverage begins with an article by renowned Czech journalist Sylvie Lauder, who writes:
Sejdou is Franz Kafka, Julius Fučík to Vlasta Chramostová. A v čem by tato značně nesourodá trojice mohla najít společnou řeč? Odpověď je překvapivě prostá. Všichni obdivovali Boženu Němcovou, byť každý jinak. Pro Fučíka byla spisovatelka, od jejíhož narození tento týden uplyne dvě stě let, „první socialistkou“, pro Kafku „jasnozřivě chytrá“ mistryně slova, pro Chramostovou insprací pro zápas s totalitní mocí.
Franz Kafka, Julius Fučík and Vlasta Chramostová (one of the few female dissidents of the Prague Spring) meet. And what would be the common theme that this unlikely trio could talk about? The answer is surprisingly simple. Everyone admired Božena Němcová, although each one in a different way. For Fučík, the writer was “the first socialist”; for Kafka, it was of a “clairvoyant intelligence”; for Chramostová, an inspiration to fight against totalitarianism.