SVU 2001

Margaret H. Peaslee [click here to return to my home page]

To see the web site of the Museum of Božena Němcová in Česká Skalice click here

Paper presented at the 2001 SVU North American Conference, Lincoln, Nebraska, August 1-3, 2001

(additional pictures taken in by the author in July 2002 have been added to the original presentation)

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Božena Němcová Remembered


Margaret Heřmánek Peaslee, University of Pittsburgh at Titusville, Titusville, Pennsylvania


Bena Němcová

I became interested in Bena Němcová as a result of working with material about F.M. Klácel, teacher of Johann Gregor Mendel.  She and Klácel were very good friends, and she apparently was a friend of Klácel’s family, as well.  Through conversations with the granddaughter of Marie Hartman, I learned that Bena Němcová acted as Godmother at Marie's Christening.  Marie was born on November 11, 1850, to Hynek Hartman and Johanna Klácel Hartman, F.M. Klácel’s sister.

When we examine more closely the life of Božena Němcová, we find a woman who lived life passionately, and who was not afraid to challenge social and political attitudes of the time.  There is much more to this woman than appears in cursory biographies.

Bena Němcová is recognized in a number of reference publications as a Czech authoress.  Most acknowledge her most widely read book, Babička (The Grandmother), a pleasant tale describing country life in the Czech Lands.  It deals with the relationship between the country folk and the aristocracy in a most flattering manner.  Granny, the protagonist, might, indeed, be Božena’s maternal grandmother, Magdalena Novotná, who raised her and whose story-telling made a powerful impression on her.

Bena Němcová
bulletYoung beauty
bulletSoft spoken
bulletFree spirit
bulletKeen intellect


She lived in Northeastern Bohemia, in the region bordered by Červený Kostelec and Česká Skalice
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From the very beginning Božena’s life is shrouded in mystery.  When was she born?  Her tombstone says February 4, 1820.  School records say possibly as early as 1818 or even 1817.  Who were her biological parents?  Her mother is said to be Terezie Novotná (1797-1863), laundress and seamstress for the Duchess of Racibořz, Kateřina Zahánská.  Terezie married Jan Pankl, coachman for the Duchess, after Božena’s birth.  Because Božena was so different both in appearance and in demeanor from these parents, it was rumored that she was not related to either Terezie or Jan but was actually the bastard child of members of the nobility.

Her treatment, the fact that she was allowed special privileges at the castle and was tutored there, gave credence to that story.  The words delicate, beautiful, extroverted, intelligent, witty, charming, and idealistic are used to describe the young Barunka.  Hardly the adjectives normally used to describe the usual strong, hard-working, minimally-educated individuals who were the servants of the nobility.


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The Upa River

The Hunting Pavilion

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The Racibořz Chateau

The Racibořz Chateau, now a museum
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Červená Hora

Červená Hora

Božena attended school in Česká Skalice and "The Old School" is now a museum.  Another building in Česká Skalice, the former Steidler's Inn called U bílého českého lva (At the White Lion) built in 1824, now houses the Museum of Božena Němcová and the Textile Museum.

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The former U bílého českého lva

Sign on the former U bílého českého lva

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Statue of Božena Němcová in the Courtyard of the Museum in Česká Skalice

She was married on February 12, 1837, to Josef Němec (1805-1879), a customs official who was poorly educated but a loyal Czech patriot, persecuted for his nationalist sentiments.  Their first apartment was above a shop in Červený Kostelec.

Červený Kostelec is named for its Red Church 

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The red church at Červený Kostelec

Street where Božena and Josef lived in Červený Kostelec

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Their apartment was on the second floor

Sign above the door 


Another question:  If Božena was the darling of nobility, why, before the age of 20, was she allowed to marry this unsophisticated government official, 15 years her senior?  Perhaps to provide her with a secure future in an environment of domesticity.  They were poorly suited to each other in personality, but they did share a strong Czech nationalistic spirit.  In any event, Josef loved her deeply and displayed his loyalty throughout the years of their marriage.

By the fifth year of the marriage they had four children, sons Hynek (1838-1853), Karl (1839-1901), and Jaroslav, and a daughter, Theodora.

Bena was a devoted mother who loved her children.  Poverty remained a persistent problem throughout her married life.  Poor diet and inadequate living conditions contributed to the poor health of mother and children.

Josef Němec, a strong Czech nationalist, acquired a reputation for treason, was persecuted by the Austrian government and eventually lost his employment, leaving the family in desperate financial need.

Friends of Josef and Bena were frequently individuals with strong nationalistic feelings, many were members of a group called the Patriotic Society.  Josef and Bena together with F. M. Klácel, I.J. Hanuš, and J. Helcelet formed an organization named Českomoravského bratrstva (Brotherhood of Mankind), an indication of their agreement with Klácel's developing philosophy.

Božena could not be confined to the roles of wife and mother.  Her ebullient spirit took her into social circles far beyond hearth and home.  She interacted with the movers and shakers of the time--politicians, authors, educators, and journalists.  It was to her misfortune, however, that she unsuccessfully searched for love and a soul mate within this circle of her friends.  

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František Matouš Klácel taken in 1854 (age 46 years)

During this period František Matouš Klácel (1808 - 1882) was a member of the Augustinian Monastery in Brno and was one of the intellectuals with whom Božena interacted.  He was a staunch Czech patriot as well as a strong believer in the unity of all mankind. He believed that the communal life could provide the companionship and stability necessary for a successful society.  He was encouraged by Božena to publish his paper, “Letters of a friend to a lady friend about the origin of socialism and communism,”.  Publications of this type drew the attention of both the civil and church authorities.  Klácel was eventually forced to leave the church and to immigrate to America.

Ignác Jan Hanuš (1812 - 1869)

          The Hegelian Ignác Jan Hanuš (1812 - 1869) was professor of philosophy at the university in Lemberg (now Lvov in Ukraine) from 1838 to 1847.  After moving to Prague, Hanuš cooperated with another Hegelian. These spokesmen of the small, oppressed Czech nation promoted the Hegelian philosophy as the starting point for the historical development. After the revolution in 1848 the authorities governing Bohemia and Moravia undertook a series of measures directed at the adherents of the Hegelian philosophy. Authorities claimed that they were the instigators of the 1848 revolution.  In 1852 Hanuš was deprived of his right to teach philosophy in Prague.

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Jan Helcelet (1812 - 1876)

Jan Helcelet (1812 - 1876), a doctor of medicine, was appointed professor of natural and agricultural sciences at the new Technical Institute in Brno in 1850. He and Klácel had common interests in the subjects of natural science, philosophy, and philanthropy. As did many others, he eventually broke off his relationship with Bena.

Alois Vojtěch Šembera (1807 - 1882)

Alois Vojtěch Šembera (1807 - 1882) was a linguist, a professor of Czech language and literature, who befriended Bena and to whom she turned for money for food.

The early 19th Century found much of Europe being influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment and of the French Revolution. The despotic Austrian monarchy enjoyed the support of the Roman Catholic Church.  Moravia was governed by the German aristocracy, and the German minority in state and regional offices hindered the Czech’s national and cultural development. Czech patriots had to fight for the preservation of their national heritage, a serious situation both in Moravia and Bohemia.

  During this period Karel Havlíček-Borovský (1821 - 1856) was the editor of a leading newspaper which became the living conscience of the Czech nation.  In 1850 all publications of this type were suppressed, and Havlíček was sent into exile with a trial.  He returned to Prague in 1855 in a state of severe illness.  Many of his former "friends" were afraid to associate with him because of his difficulties with the authorities.  His funeral in September of 1856 saw thousands of Czech patriots paying their respects, which displeased the authorities.  Bena and Josef Němec were persecuted for their participation in the funeral, and Josef was jailed for eight days as a result.

Bena had begun writing for publication in the early 1840s, producing poetry, novels, and folk tales.  In 1850 she began traveling through Bohemia and Slovakia, collecting folk tales.  She apparently developed a friendship, also, with Klácel's family, because in 1850 she acted as Godmother at the Christening of Marie Veronica Hartman, daughter of Hynek Hartman and Johanna Klácel Hartman, born November 11, 1850, in Česká Třebová.

Her best known book, Babička, was published in 1855.  Many feel that this book harks back to the humble beginnings of the author’s life, and that she used herself as the model for the eldest daughter.  Babička is an idealized version of Czech country life in the mid-nineteenth century, dominated by the kindly wisdom of the story's grandmother figure.  Bena's own maternal grandmother lived in a similar humble cottage in Babiččino údolí (Grandmother's Valley) and may have provided the inspiration for this book.  Česká Skalice marks the beginning of the Úpa Valley (Babiččino údolí), made famous by the novel, and the valley has become a national literary and historical monument.

          Various buildings and locations in Grandmother's Valley played significant roles in the life of the family described in Bena Němcová's famous book, Babička (The Grandmother).

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The Mill

The Mill (side view)

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Grandmother with her Grandchildren by Otto Gutfreund, 1922
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Grandchild Barunka is probably Božena

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Drawing from the 1918 edition of Babička Drawing from the 1961 edition of Babička 
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Drawing from the 1961 edition of Babička Drawing from the 1961 edition of Babička

The publisher for some of the author's works was Antonin Augusta.  He invited her to Litomyšl to work at correcting the galley proofs.  Augusta paid for her room but gave her very little money for board.  She was already very ill with cancer at this time.  Her husband, Josef, felt Augusta was about to go bankrupt and was taking advantage of her.  Josef brought her home to Prague, and she died there on January 21, 1862.     

Bena Němcová is buried in Vyšehradský hřbitov (Vyšehrad Cemetery)
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Her grave site and monument 
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Plaque on her monument 

Her son, Jaroslav (184? - 1898), and daughter, Theodora (184? - 1920), are buried at the same site


In 1944 Frantisek Halas wrote a series of nine poems, Our Lady Božena Němcová, which were translated into English by Frederick Ost.  In the introduction Ost explains that this author, as did a number of writers during periods of political repression, concealed the true meaning of their words.  Surrealistic and poetistic expressions once looked upon as the moody sentiment of a “mad”poet became at the present time of political repression the only “communicating vessel” between the poet and his people. Poetry is, in times of joy but also in times of trial and peril, the true expression of the whole nation whose only mouthpiece remains the poet.


The Death of our Lady Božena Němcová

The windows all are open - There is death

Her soul departed like a flare of light
Only candles watch the passing of her breath
The heart stops at last - And silent yet weeping
The women leave the body clean and sleeping
Sleep Yellow and hollow is the dead alas
A star in decline - Aurora trims her head
She would have liked to sow some seeds of wrath
Frantisek Halas

          In this politically repressed and depressing atmosphere we find Božena Němcová.  She explored the wealth of Czech folksong and described the conditions of her own people in their struggle for liberation from the Austrian yoke.  Thus the unique revival of Czech literature, which started in the second half of the past century, is mainly due to the efforts of Havlíček and Božena Němcová.

Božena Němcová is for the Czech poet and for the Czech people the symbol of the glory and sufferings of the nation, the redeemer and protector of Czech heritage.


 “Central Europe Review – Bozena Nemcova’s The Grandmother”  <> [Accessed 7/10/01]

 Dvořáková, Zora.  1976.  František Matouš Klácel.  Melantrich, Prague.  287pp.

 Halas, Frantisek.  1944.  Our Lady Božena Němcová.  Translated by Frederick Ost.  The Handcraft Press, Wellington, New Zeland.  23pp.

 Iggers, Wilma Abeles.  1995.  Women of Prague:  Ethnic Diversity and Social Change from the Eighteenth Century to the Present.  Berghahn Books, Providence, Rhode Island.  381pp.

 Janáčková, Jaroslava (ed.). 1995.  Božena Němcová Lamentace.  Český Spisovatel, Prague.  238pp.

 Kundera, Milan.  1993. Three Contexts of Art:  from Nation to World.  Cross Currents,  Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.  Number 12, pages 5-14.

 Michl, Karel and Zdeněk Menec.  1976.  Babiččino údolí.  Albatros, Prague.  102pp.

 Němcové, Boženy.  1918.  Babička.  Národní Tiskárna, Omaha, Nebraska.  227pp.  

 Němcové, Boženy.  1961.  Babička.  Obrazy venkovského života od Boženy Němcové.  [Grandmother.  A picture of country life by Božena Němcová.]   Kreslil Adolf Kašpar.  [Illustrated by Adolf Kašpar].  Albatros, Praha.  207pp.

 Pargeter, Edith.  1976.  Granny.  Translation of Božena Němcová’s Babička.  Greenwood Press, Inc., Westport, Connecticut.  349pp.

 Peaslee, Margaret H.  1997.  “In the Footsteps of Mendel.”  In the Mendel Web at  <>

 Peaslee, Margaret H. and Vítězslav Orel.  Fall, 2001.   F.M. (Ladimír) Klácel: Teacher of Gregor Mendel.  Kosmas: Czechoslovak and Central European Journal, Volume 15, Number 1, pages 31-54. 

 “Radio Prague’s Virtual Cemetery – Bozena Nemcova.”  <> [Accessed 16 February 2001]. 

 Sayer, Derek.  1998.  The Coasts of Bohemia.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.  442pp.

 Součkova, Milada.  1958.  The Czech Romantics.  Mouton & Co., Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands.  168pp.

 Trumpener, Katie.  “Is female to nation as nature is to culture?  Božena Němcová, Libuše Moníková, and the female folkloric.”  Pages 99-118.  In Karen Jankowsky and Carla Love (eds.), Other Germanies.  State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1997.

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