I went on a UNISMA tour of the Kladsko Borderland area, the region where 19th century Czech writer Božena Němcová grew up. In this post I will refer to her as Barunka, her nickname, as I felt I got to know her well during the excursion. There were about 40 women on the tour, traveling to commemorate this Czech patriot, who was one of the most influential prose writers in the Czech National Revival. During this movement, Czechs tried to promote the Czech language and culture while they lived in the Habsburg Empire, where Germanization was enforced.
Božena Němcová from http://www.bozena-nemcova.cz
Barunka was an inspiration for women trying to make names for themselves as writers, too and for women in general. Barunka’s most famous literary creation is the novel The Grandmother, about an idealized grandmother and her family living in the countryside of the Kladsko Borderland region. Written during a tumultuous time of her life, The Grandmother was inspired by Barunka’s happy, carefree childhood. We would also visit the Ratibořice Chateau as Barunka had spent joyful days in Ratibořice during her youth. Also on the itinerary was Barunka’s home in Červený Kostelec, where she lived for six months after she got married. We would admire the countryside from a lookout point that commemorated the prestigious writer. First, though, we would travel to Česká Skalice, the town where Barunka went to grammar school and got married.
The Grandmother or Babička by Božena Němcová from http://www.radio.cz
The Kladsko Borderland region includes 13 towns, such as Nové Město nad Mětují, which boasts a chateau that I wrote about in another post. It also consists of the Broumov area. I spent a weekend in Broumov – see my post about it – where I toured the impressive monastery and visited the wooden Church of the Virgin Mary, the oldest wooden building in the country. The unique rock formations of Adršpach also belong to this area. I was there one cold, depressing day in November years ago and have always promised myself I would return sometime during the summer.
Božena Němcova from http://www.martinus.cz
Because I find Božena Němcová’s life to be so intriguing, I am going to go into some detail about the trials and tribulations she faced. Born in 1820 as Barbora Panklová in Vienna, she spent her childhood in Ratibořice. In 1825 her grandmother settled in with the family. Her grandmother played a major role in Barunka’s upbringing. During 1837, Barunka tied the knot at age 17 in an arranged marriage. Her husband, Josef Němec, was a 32-year old customs officer. They had four children, three sons and a daughter.
Josef was a Czech patriot, but he was a rude, outspoken man. He was transferred many times, so the family moved from place-to-place. When they were living in Polná, Barunka started to read books and newspapers in Czech, even though it was an era of Germanization. After they moved to Prague in 1842, she published poetry in a well-respected periodical.
In 1848, while the family was living in Domažlice, Josef was accused of treason, which brought about more transfers in his job. When he moved to Hungary in 1850, Barunka and the children lived in Prague, where she met with literary figures who were Czech nationalists. The family had severe financial problems and was often in debt. Then Barunka and her husband joined the Czech-Moravian Brotherhood, which promoted the idea of a utopian society, but the Brotherhood fell apart.
Božena Němcová and her children from cs.wikipedia.org
Barunka was no saint. She had several lovers. When her son Hyněk became gravely ill, she was the mistress of Hyněk’s doctor. Then one day Josef came across a love letter and put an end to her affair. Josef’s job then took him to Hungary again, and this time Barunka and the children accompanied him. They visited Moravia and Slovakia, two places where Barunka picked up many folk tales from people living in the countryside.
While they were living again in Prague during 1853, Hyněk died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 15. The family had other problems, too, as Josef found himself unemployed. It was while the family was in such dire straits that Barunka wrote The Grandmother, as she mentally transported herself back to the cheerful days of her youth, when she had lived with her grandmother in Ratibořice. In the book the grandmother figure stands for goodness, love and moral values.
The Kladsko Borderland
The following year Barunka had an affair with a young medical student, but the man’s parents found out and forced him to move from Prague to Poland, ending the relationship. During 1856 Barunka attended the funeral of influential writer and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský. She paid tribute to him by placing a crown of thorns on the casket as a symbol of martyrdom. That same year Josef was accused of embezzlement. Barunka and Josef had heated arguments about the children’s future, and Josef filed for divorce. He beat her, and Barunka called the police. They got back together, but they fought so often that Barunka eventually left him.
During 1861, she moved to Litomyšl, where she worked for a publisher as Josef was no longer supporting her. However, illness and the resulting financial problems forced her to honor society’s rules and return to Prague and to her husband. The first installment of the second edition of The Grandmother was published the day before she died on January 21, 1862.
A portrait of Božena Němcová from the Božena Němcová Museum in Česká Skalice
First, we visited Česká Skalice, where the Božena Němcová Museum was situated. The school that Barunka attended and the Baroque church where she was married in 1837 are nearby. Coincidentally, her parents had married in the same church, during 1820.
Česká Skalice has an impressive history. It was first mentioned in writing during 1086, but a settlement existed there even earlier. It obtained the status of a town in 1575. During the Thirty Years’ War, Česká Skalice was occupied by both Swedish and the Emperor’s troops. During the 18th century, the town concentrated on agriculture and textile production. The 19th century was fraught with floods and fires, yet the town still expanded. In 1866, during the Prussian-Austrian War, a significant battle took place nearby. The Austrians lost, amassing over 5,000 casualties. It was a hint of what was to come as the Austrians would go on to lose the war.
from the Božena Němcová Museum
The 19th century was also a time when Dahlia Festivals took place. They were held from 1837 to 1847. Dahlias were plentiful in the region, and the festival took on a nationalistic tone. At the first festival in 1837, Barunka was voted Queen of the Ball. Composer Bedřich Smetana participated in the festival during 1839. Factories for textile production cropped up during that century, too.
Many citizens of Česká Skalice died during World War I, but life in independent, democratic Czechoslovakia was good. A statue called “Grandmother with Children,” based on the book The Grandmother, was unveiled in 1920 in Ratibořice. The sculptors were the well-renowned Otto Gutfreund and Pavel Janák. A museum dedicated to Božena Němcová was opened in 1931. During the Second World War, times were bleak. Many inhabitants lost their lives in resistance fighting.
Statuary inspired by The Grandmother, Božena Němcová Museum
We could only peek through the iron grille of the Baroque church, but I read that the chapel dates back to 1350, and the baptismal font hails from 1450. The interior became Baroque in 1825.
The Museum of Božena Němcová gave me an overview of her life. I saw her writing desk and tried to imagine her sitting there, composing a story. Photos and documents were on display as well as many editions of her books. A book fiend, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the various editions and noticed how the books’ designs differed. I also peered at some of her favorite paintings. I learned that Barunka admired English literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens and that she was deeply interested in the fate of textile workers, servants and clerks, for instance. She had even visited textile factories in order to get a sense of the grueling work and long hours that prevailed. I admired a richly decorated fan she had owned. The part of the exhibition dedicated to The Grandmother in film and drama also caught my attention. I had seen the popular film, and I had attended a performance of her literary masterpiece, on stage at the Goose on a String Theatre in Brno.
From the Textile Museum in Česká Skalice
Adjacent to the literary museum was a textile museum, founded in 1936. Česká Skalice is home to the only museum in the country that focuses on the history of textile production.
We also visited Barunka’s timbered school, which she attended from 1824 to 1833. While it is not known when it was built, legend says that it dates from the 13th century. It was first mentioned in writing during the early 15th century. The school was destroyed by the Swedes in 1639, but, four years later, a new one was built. In 1771, some 280 children were registered at the school. However, only about 80 pupils showed up for lessons. Until 1790 there was only one grade. Later, when Barunka attended, there were two grades. Now it looks like it did from the 1830s and 1840s. The building last served as a school in July of 1864.
The teacher’s desk in the school that Božena Němcová attended
I tried to imagine Barunka going to this school every day. Each row in the classroom consisted of one long bench. I could not imagine how painful my back would be if I had to sit on one of those hard benches all day. A sentence written in 19th century Czech using correct penmanship was on the blackboard. An edition of Barunka’s story, The Teacher, was on display, as she described this school in that work. While I could not imagine going to classes in such a claustrophobic, though quaint, space with uncomfortable seating, some of my fellow seventyish travelers reminisced that the grammar schools they had attended had looked similar. I had spent my elementary school days at a small, modern, private school in the town where I lived in northern Virginia. We had strict rules and a dress code. If students went to their lockers between classes, they were punished. However, we had great teachers and a terrific theatre program. How different my childhood had been from the childhoods of these seventy-something women who had grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia!
The benches where the students sat in the school Božena Němcová attended
The wall in the atrium of the building was richly decorated with ceramics and paintings. Quotations from Barunka’s books adorned the wall, too. I admired the bright colors and cheerfulness of the display.
The display of ceramics in the atrium of the school
The highlight of my trip was visiting Ratibořice Chateau, where I had been only once, more than a decade earlier. The village of Ratibořice was first mentioned in writing during the 14th century, when a fortress had stood on the site. The chateau has its origins in the early 18th century, when the then owner, Prince Lorenzo Piccolomini, had it built as one of his residences. It has the appearance of an Italian countryside summerhouse, an architectural style that was popular during the 16th century.
Its golden age took place when Kateřina Frederika Vilemína Benign – the Duchess Zaháňská – inherited the place at the turn of the 19th century. Barunka even based one of the characters in The Grandmother on this former owner of Ratibořice. She made the chateau her permanent residence and was responsible for reconstruction that took place from 1825 to 1826. The chateau was transformed into Classicist style. Also, the park was founded during her tenure as owner. Kateřina was married and divorced on three occasions. The duchess loved children, but her only child was taken away from her in 1801 because she was illegitimate. Then Kateřina was unable to have more children. So she helped educate girls and helped them find rich husbands. She treated them as if they were her own children. One of these girls became a character in The Grandmother, fictionalized as Countess Hortense.
Kateřina had influential friends. She was on friendly terms with Russian Czar Alexander I, Klemens von Metternich, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and poet Lord Byron. In June of 1813, a significant political meeting took place at the chateau. Czar Alexander I and representatives from Prussia and Austria formed a coalition after the defeat of Napoleon in order to establish the divine rights of kings and Christian values. The alliance focused on preventing revolutions, democracy and secularism. The duchess died during 1839 in Vienna.
Other major reconstruction took place from 1860 to 1864, when Prince Vilém Karel August from Schaumberg-Lippe gave the chateau a second Rococo style makeover. The chateau remained his family property until 1945. The Nazis occupied the chateau during World War II, and after the war, the interiors were changed into Classicist, Empire and Biedermeier styles, which decorate the chateau today. Ratibořice now appears as it did during the first half of the 19th century. In 1978 it obtained the status of a national cultural monument. From 1984 to 1991, there was much restoration work.
In the chateau I was enthralled with six Italian paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. The pictures showed people in landscape settings. How I loved Italy! I had been there nine times and would soon be visiting that country again. I loved the Italian language, too. I wanted to see all the towns in Italy, to visit everything noteworthy. Rome, Arezzo and Pompeii were my three favorite places in Italy.
The Men’s Salon was designed in Empire style. In this space I took note of the elegant Empire style bookcase on top of which are busts of the members of the Holy Alliance – Russian Czar Alexander I, Austrian Emperor Franz I and Prussian King Frederick William III along with a bust of Metternich. I loved the paintings of Italy in this room, too. The Social Salon featured a pool table along with Empire style card tables that boasted intarsia designs and a large painting of a biblical scene. I also admired a wooden gilded clock from the first third of the 19th century.
There was a portrait of a woman who was 46 years old, my age at the time of my visit. I thought she looked so old. Suddenly, I felt so old. I had lived in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia for half my life, 23 years. Time went by so fast, and that scared me. Before long, I would be 50. I wondered if I looked that old to other people. Some younger people on trams and Metro gave up their seats for me, an act of respect to elders.
A painting in the Music Salon, which was decorated in Napoleon Empire style, caught my attention. The large canvas portrayed a carnival parade in Naples during 1778. There were 2,338 people painted in the picture. I admired the attention to detail. I thought back to my trip to Naples the previous year. The museums, the pizza, the picturesque streets in the historical center, the opera house, the churches and the cathedral – it had truly been a wonderful experience. And Naples seemed so different from the other towns and cities I had visited in Italy.
In another room I admired a statue of a Dancing Fawn on a column, an artwork based on a statue unearthed in Pompeii. I recalled seeing the original in the Archeological Museum in Naples. Visiting that museum was certainly a highlight of my trip to southern Italy.
Ornate gilded clocks also decorated interiors. I loved the paintings of two lakes in Italy. I had wanted to visit Lake Garda and surroundings this year, but the trip was not offered at a time when I was free. I also would love to see Lake Como and the surrounding area. I recalled flipping through a book I have about the region and feeling overwhelmed by the beautiful photos. A desk in the room was exquisite, too. I loved the Klimt-style candlesticks in the bright, dynamic blue, gold, and red. What looked like a pile of books was really a trash can. That was an object I wanted in my own home.
On the first floor I was enthralled with the Servant’s Room. The servant slept on a high, wooden bed that he also used for ironing. My back started to hurt just looking at the hard bed. On the lower floor I loved the coffee service that included cups with pictures of three chateaus on them. One of these was Amalienburg, which I fondly recalled visiting in Munich, although the day had been so rainy that it had not been pleasant walking in the park. The elegant Biedermeier furniture in the Schaumburg Room caught my attention. I especially liked the dark green couch and the room’s warm colors. The Graphics Cabinet was impressive, too.
I also liked the Second Rococo style adornment of the Men’s Parlor, where there were black-and-white portraits of various monarchs, including Russian Czar Nicholas II. In the Women’s Salon I was drawn to an elegant fan picturing cats. A cat lover, I dreamed of having my own shelter for black cats or of owning a mansion where there was enough room for 15 or 20 black cats. I liked black cats best because they are often overlooked. People are prejudiced against them because of their color. Some people consider them to be unlucky, but, to me, they are not unlucky at all.
I imagined Czar Alexander I seated in the Big Dining Room along with many guests at a lunch honoring the Russian leader. I admired the English Copeland service on the table as well as a green tiled stove. Other appealing rooms had Neo-Baroque and Second Rococo décor.
Near the chateau was the Grandmother Valley, where old buildings, some from the 16th century and others from the 19th century, stood among beautiful scenery. The Rudr Mill hails from the second half of the 16th century. It has two floors, and one room is decorated with folk-style furniture. There is an exposition about the processing of flax, too. The statue of the grandmother with her grandchildren was inspired by Barunka’s novel. A timbered pub from the second half of the 16th century impressed me, too. I also saw a timbered cottage covered with shingles. It was built in 1797. I liked the folk-style furniture inside. Finally, I reached Viktoria’s Weir, originally made of wood but redone in concrete during the 1920s. The valley was tranquil and idyllic. I walked at a leisurely pace on that windy day, enjoying the landscape.
The Winter Kitchen in the house where Božena Němcová once lived in Červený Kostelec
The house in Červený Kostelec
We visited the small house where Barunka had lived with Josef for six months, shortly after their wedding, when she was only 17 years old. In the small town of Červený Kostelec, she had written the book Poor People and had posed for her first portrait. She had also become pregnant with her first child, Hyněk. The three rooms on display included the Winter Kitchen, where the landlady sometimes cooked for Barunka and her husband. Barunka did not cook. The couple often ate at a nearby pub. Across from the house was an orange church, an interesting structure, but we could only peek inside, barred from entering by an iron grille.
The house in Červený Kostelec
Then we came to Barunka’s Lookout Point commemorating the region where the well-known writer grew up. The views of the countryside are spectacular. It was a wonderful way to end our trip.
When we got back to Prague, I felt enlightened and invigorated. I had learned a lot about Božena Němcová and the region of her happy childhood. The chateau interested me the most, but everything was intriguing. I thought of how she had been physically abused and how she had to return to her husband in the end, and I became sad. What a life she had lived and what magical books she had produced!
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
The Kladsko Borderland from the lookout point