There was once a young girl who lived with her mother, a Viennese maid, and her father, a coachman, in a servants’ cottage of a castle in northeastern Bohemia. She was beautiful, with raven-black hair and soft, pale skin, and this set her apart from her brothers and sisters. Although she was the apple of her father’s eye, her mother mistreated resented her stubborn nature and mistreated her. Indeed, it was said by some that she was the natural daughter, not of her servant mother, but of the princess of the castle, and given to her servants to raise in secret, for she was always close to the princess and even sent away at thirteen to be educated, unlike her siblings. She loved the countryside around her home, the wildflowers and the birdsong, and, when she could, she escaped to the cottage of her beloved grandmother, her Babička, who shared with her all her country wisdom.
But when this girl was seventeen, her mother made sure that her beauty and her learning would no longer trouble the household by marrying her off to a customs officer fifteen years her senior, with whom she had four children. Her life was to be one of struggle, pain, hardship, and neglect, yet when she died at the age of forty-one, she was given a hero’s funeral.
This is not a fairytale, but the details of the early life of the woman who was to become one of the most noted Czech writers of the nineteenth century, a collector and transcriber of several collections of Czech and Slovak fairy tales, as well as the author of the novels Podhorská Vesnice (The Village Under the Mountains) and Babička (The Grandmother), an idealised narrative based on her own grandmother, and a member of Czech nationalist circles at a time when Bohemia was struggling to throw off the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Born in 1820 (or perhaps as early as 1817, as the dates are disputed) and christened Barbora Panklová, which she later changed to Božena, Božena Němcová moved in 1842 to Prague. Her husband’s nationalist political beliefs had often cost him positions and promotions, and they moved frequently. In keeping with the “fairy tale” qualities of her external life, people in the various villages to which they were banished remembered a beautiful young woman strolling through fields of flowers, her arms and her hair full of blossoms, jumping over streams and singing happily. Němcová both romanticised the simple values of the country people and was at the same time eager to combat their ignorance, especially that of the women, through education. Yet the family’s circumstances were dire, and during this time, Němcová supplemented their meager income through writing, although at times such writing had to be done in the midst of a crowded and hungry household, with the family of six (five after the death of her eldest son from tuberculosis) sometimes occupying a single damp attic room. Indeed, among Němcová’s letters are many written to friends, lovers, and Bohemian patriots asking for a few kreuzers to purchase potatoes or bread, or medicine for her sick children. At the same time, she and her husband were at the centre of a burgeoning group of Bohemian nationalists, when, as one acquaintance put it, “reciting Czech poems, hanging up a picture from Czech history and buying Czech books were considered patriotic deeds.” They were also dangerous deeds, as the Němec family’s circumstances could attest.
Němcová’s beauty and intelligence attracted a number of young and not-so-young men, poets and patriots who admired her heroism, and she was rumoured to have had lovers, although not all of these relationships may have been consummated in the modern sense of the term. Nevertheless, the sisters, mothers, and other female acquaintances of these men frequently regarded her with an ambiguous mixture of admiration and suspicion, so much so that Němcová herself wrote that she when she had once “loosened [her] reins” for one night, she “experienced enough from poisonous mouths.” Some even broke with her over what they considered her questionable lifestyle.
Yet, when Božena Němcová died in 1862, in poverty and abandoned by her husband and many of her friends, it was these same patriots who arranged for a funeral whose richness rivaled that of a state funeral. Babička has inspired a number of stage and film adaptations, and Němcová’s portrait now adorns the Czech 500 koruna note.