Bozena Nemcova

While the date of this great Czech writer's death is certain, the date of her birth was a mystery all her life. It's also certain that her life was transformed by her failed marriage, which lasted almost 25 years. Her conflict-filled married life was further accompanied by poverty, constant moving, and her poor health was worsened by the sudden death of her talented oldest son in 1853, who died at fifteen of consumption.

Bozena Nemcova's grave, click for close-up

After his death, Nemcova had to see to the feeding of her three remaining children - Karel, Theodora, and Jaroslav - mostly on her own, with the earnings she made from her writing. Less than six months before her death, she left her husband and moved from Prague to Litomysl, where the Augusta publishing house was waiting for her with a promise to publish her work and provide a room for her at the U modre hvezdy (At the Blue Star) Inn. Her husband tracked her down and told her in a letter that he'd heard from various people that Augusta was on the verge of bankruptcy. The publisher denied this and pressured her to finish the manuscript of "Babicka (Grandmother)" more quickly. After a month and a half of her stay in Litomysl, she recieved a letter from the company informing her that they wouldn't wait for her manuscript any longer and she had to vacate her lodgings. Obviously, the publisher realized it couldn't expect much from the poor, sick writer's presence. For the owner of the hotel, Nemcova, who had run away from her husband, had nothing to pay with, and was suffering from hemorhaging, wasn't a particularly welcome guest. However, she didn't want to ask for her husband's help or turn to any of her friends, who thought she had an income from the publisher in Litomysl. She was sinking into powerlessness and solitude, which destroyed her just as surely as the unrestrainable advance of cancer in the most sensitive organ of the female body and unbelievable poverty.

At the end of November, Nemcova's husband discovered her in her little room at the Hotel U modre hvezdy, though who told him what was going on in Litomysl is not known. He paid the entire bill and took his wife, who could barely stand, back to Prague. She was on death's door, but when she came home, aged and emaciated, to her crying children, she comforted them by recovering among them, and she spent her last Christmas with them. On January 20, she recieved her author's copy of the first edition of "Babicka". She burst into tears over it, because it was printed with so many mistakes and on the cheapest paper. Although she felt no pain, she was weakened further by this and fell into a troubled sleep. Her husband then brought a priest to give her the Last Sacrament, but she never woke again. Death came to her softly - she slipped away at six in the morning on January 21, 1862. In a few days, she would have been forty-two, or forty-three, or even forty-five years old.

The news of her death was carried by all the Czech and German newspapers in Prague, and a thousand people took part in her funeral procession on January 24, 1862. After prayers were read over her coffin in the church at Vysehrad, it was carried out into the freezing dusk to the cemetery through the flickering candlelight.

According to the textbooks, encyclopedias and her tombstone, Nemcova was born on February 4, 1820 and her parents were Terezie Novotna, a laundress for the Duchess of Raciborz, Katerina Zahanska, and Jan Pankl, a coachman there. Barunka (short for Bozena) was born before these two were married, as an illegitimate child. The mystery remains, whose illegitimate child Barunka was, as this question also rases the fact that she wasn't at all similar to either one of her parents. Her mother, now Terezie Panklova, was said to be strong, not pretty, and by nature the exact opposite of the smiling, extroverted Barunka. She was strict, taciturn, acted like a lady, and apparently didn't like Barunka very much. Her attitude towards her daughter appeared to those around her more like a step-mother's than a mother's... Her father, Jan Pankl, was said to be a good-hearted, hard-working, frugal, well-liked, stocky, blue-eyed blonde, who Bozena might have taken after in personality, although the only physical resemblance was the blue eyes.

Bozena Nemcova was, however, apparently born two or three years (1817 or 1818) before the official date of her birth. School documents from Ceska Skalice repeatedly give her date of birth as 1817, possibly 1818, and Nemcova herself made it clear several times in her memories and correspondence that she considered herself older by two or more often three years. The nobility of her appearance supported the quietly circulated rumor that she could be the illegitimate daughter of the lady of the Zahanska house, as Barunka a number of Barunka's physical characteristics resembled the Duchess'. Another question is the increased interest the Raciborz family showed in the Pankl family, and especially Barunka, who from a young age recieved, in comparison with her other siblings, disproportionate advantages. Among these were her stay in Chvalkovice cstle for teaching, a home tutor who visited Barunka before she even started school, as well as the interest of the Duchess Zahanska, who allowed her to borrow books from her castle library. In short, the daughter of a coachman was recieving the unprecedented and extraordinary interest of nobility...

The unknown date of her birth and the extraordinary favour of the nobility towards this daughter of a common serf, creates the impression that Terezie and Jan Pankl were only Bozena Nemcova's adoptive parents and that the writer was given up for adoption by some aristcratic parents. Prince Metternich, Count Karel Clam-Martinic or even General Windischgratz. As for the mother, the most frequent conjectures were two beautiful ladies, the Duchess Katerina Zahanska herself or her younger sister Dorothea, or possibly Lady Perigordova-Talleyrandova, the lover and later heiress of the famous French politician, intriguer, and Napoleonic and Bourbon Minister of Foreign Affairs. Each of these hypotheses about Nemcova's parents has its holes, so the only thing that seems to be certain is that the Pankls were only her adoptive parents.

Something else strange in Nemcova's life is that it appears that the concern of the nobility for her fate ended abruptly the moment she married, and the Duchess presented her in place of a dowry and dress "only" gold earrings. The mystery thus remains, how the Raciborz family could consider as a sufficent partner for such a favoured girl the substantially older finance and customs official Jan Nemec. The happy beginning of this beautiful and talented girl's life would come to an end in 1837 with her marriage to Jan Nemec, with whom she had no hope of living free of conflict due to an absolute divergence of personalities. This rough, primitive man with inclinations to brutality, despite his patriotism and displays of courage worthy of a man, could never win the love of a woman as intelligent, delicate, and idealistic as Bozena Nemcova was. At the same time, he wasn't able to get over loving her and give her up because she was too beautiful and fascinating.

Nemcova, yearning for love and affection, in the end looked for the fulfillment of her dreams in extra-marital affairs. Although these relationships were common for the society of the period, the writer was condemned during her love affairs by the public, because she failed to conceal them as much as others did. In spite of the fact that, according to surviving accounts, Nemcova was beautiful, witty, intelligent and charming, her relations with men were exceedingly complicated. Today, four great loves of hers are known to have gone on for more than ten years altogether and it's interesting that it was always her lover who ended the relationship. Nemcova didn't live to see the man of her dreams, however, so the love she was missing in her life was at least deposited in her stories, fairy tales, and novels.

From Wanderings of the Czech Past by Jaroslav Horejsi
and the Bibliography of Jiri Morava formerly Betta