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Nationalist, socialist, and now feminist: The many facets of Czech author Božena Němcová

Engraving of Božena Němcová. Image by Czech artist Jan Vilímek, Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 3.0

Anyone who has attended a Czech school will automatically associate the name of Božena Němcová to her 1855 bucolic novella Babička, which means “grandmother” in Czech. With over 300 editions, the book has been mandatory reading for Czech school students for generations. The story paints an idyllic rural childhood nestled in a community of women who devote their entire lives to their husbands and family.

Born in 1820, Němcová was pushed by her family to marry a tax inspector 15 years older than her. She bore him four children and followed him around the Habsburg Empire as he was posted to different locations. She often had to beg her friends for money and food to feed her family, and died of exhaustion in 1862 only one day after her novella Babička, who turned out to be her most famous, was published.

February 4, 2020, marks the 200th anniversary of her birth. Over the past two centuries, Němcová has been remembered for different aspects of her life and work, usually picked to fit the contemporary zeitgeist: first, as an anti-German nationalist, then as a communist icon, and finally, today, as a feminist symbol.

Illustration representing the main character Němcova's novella “The Grandmother”. Image by Czech artist Adolf, Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 3.0

Božena Němcová the nationalist

The mid-19th century was a turning point in the history of the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, and multilingual Habsburg Empire: A Pan-Slavism movement advocating for the rights and unification of the Slavonic-speaking nations emerged in 1848, a precursor of the future nation-states that would come out of the fall of the empire in 1918.

Both Czech and Slovak intellectuals of the time were openly involved in the movement. Němcová's husband sympathized with those ideas and, when he was posted in what is today Slovakia and later in Prague, she became personally acquainted with some of the most influential pan-Slavic thinkers.

While German was then the language of social mobility, education, business, and the press, she decided to opt for Czech as her writing language, as she had been educated in both languages. In several of her works, she calls for the Czech language to be promoted in the face of the state-imposed German.

This is probably why she became a symbol of the Czech national narrative, and is now, for example, pictured on the 500 Czech crown banknote. Of the six banknotes in circulation, only two portray women: the other is the 19th-century opera singer Ema Destinnová.

All the Czech crown banknotes in circulation. Božena Němcová is represented on the 500 crown bill. Image from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 3.0

In 2005, the Czech State Television ran a national survey to ask people who they would nominate as the most famous Czech person: Němcová came out 10th, and the first woman on the list.

Božena Němcová the socialist

The Czechoslovak Republic that emerged from the Habsburg Empire in 1918 did not keep its political independence for very long: following World War II, the Communist Party took over power in 1948, and the country rapidly became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, which imposed its ideology of socialist realism to all realms of art and culture.

Němcová was then given a new interpretation as a proto-socialist writer describing class warfare and female poverty in the capitalist 19th century. Indeed, “The grandmother” starts with a quote by 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 see that the poor are not as as pathetic as we think; they are in fact happier than we think, and than we are.

The Czech journalist, writer, and communist idol Julius Fučík wrote in the 1940s an essay called “Božena Němcová bojující” (the fighting Božena Němcová) in which he extols her as a socialist hero.

Božena Němcová the feminist

One aspect that was carefully censored from all previous appropriations was Božena Němcová's life as a free woman, both intellectually and sexually.

Besides being a prolific writer — she has written novellas, short stories, fairy tales, travelogues, even ethnographic essays — she was also personally involved in the publishing of her works, a rare feat at that time. Franz Kafka, who spoke and read Czech, and kept a volume of her “Correspondence”, saw in her an outstanding author in her own right.

More recently, historians have highlighted the fact that, unhappy as she was in her marriage, Němcová had an active sexual life and several affairs with leading intellectuals of the time. In her letters, she speaks about her sexuality in a tone that was not common for women in the 19th century.

Interviewed by Global Voices, Czech writer Radka Denemarková explains her fascination with Němcová:

Dneska by z ní byla rebelka, bojovnice za lidská práva a 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, povzbuzovali národní sebevědomí, tlumočili národní vůli? 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, a to české čtení a ta řeč zdálo se mi tuze sprosté.“ První německy psané texty spálila. Neměla poslouchat manžela panslavistu a měla psát dál německy, byla by součástí světové literatury, nejen té národní.

Today she would be a rebel, a human rights defender, and a blogger. Inner independence against the period she lived in, that is what Božena Němcová represents for me. She won't allow herself to be reduced to the shadow role of a daughter, mother, she always wanted to know who she was. She doesn't want to be a slave. 

From a literary point of view, many accuse her of wasting her talent with this correspondence. But did she have a choice? For small nations the National Revival movement established a tradition of the writer as the conscience of the people, and of authors as replacements for politicians. She didn’t want to be just a lover. So thanks to her letters she is a world author. 

What is not often mentioned is that she also wrote in German: “as I grew up, I found great pleasure in German books, while I found the reading in Czech and the Czech language vulgar.” She burnt her first texts in German. She shouldn't have listened to her pan-slavist husband, and should have written in German, she would then belong not only to the Czech literature but to the global one. 

As February 4 marks her official date of birth (there some controversy about her real date), the Czech leading independent weekly Respekt put her on the cover with the headline “Zázrak jménem Němcová,” or “a miracle called Němcová:”

The special coverage starts with an article by renowned Czech journalist Sylvie Lauder, who writes: 

Sejdou se Franz Kafka, Julius Fučík a 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 inspirací pro zápas s totalitní mocí.

Franz Kafka, Julius Fučík and Vlasta Chramostová [one of the few female dissidents of the Prague Spring] get together. And what would be the common topic this unlikely trio would find to discuss? The answer is surprisingly simple. All of them admired Božena Němcová, though each differently. For Fučík the writer was “the first socialist”,  for Kafka, she was “clairvoyantly smart”, for Chramostová she represented an inspiration to fight totalitarianism.

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