Božena Němcová’s home restored for bicentennial of “Babička” author’s birth

21-05-2020

The central Bohemian home of writer Božena Němcová, known today as the “mother of Czech literature”, has been restored to its full glory to mark the 200th anniversary of her birth. As of June, visitors can again tour the grand merchant’s house in Červený Kostelec where Němcová, then a teenage bride, began to dream of a literary career.

Božena Němcová’s home (left) in Červený Kostelec, photo: Vladislava Wildová, Czech RadioBožena Němcová’s home (left) in Červený Kostelec, photo: Vladislava Wildová, Czech Radio

Božena Němcová, photo: Public DomainBožena Němcová, photo: Public Domain Božena Němcová was just 17 years old and newlywed when in 1837 she moved into a two-room attic flat in Červený Kostelec with her husband Josef, a customs officer 15 years her senior. It was an arranged marriage and the union did not prove to be a happy one, their four offspring notwithstanding.

She was, however, enamoured of the small town of Červený Kostelec, the life of which she recounted decades later in a short story called Chudí lidé – Poor People. From the courtyard window of their attic flat, Němcová would watch the flickering candles dutifully placed on the graves of loved ones in the church cemetery a stone’s throw away.

While that cemetery is long gone, her reflections upon it survive. And in a flourish of artistic licence, a tombstone for “mad” Viktorka, a character from Němcová’s famous novel The Grandmother (Babička), was installed in the garden behind the merchant’s house. That garden also now grows the very herbs and vegetables she wrote of in Poor People.

Tomáš Šimek from the Červený Kostelec cultural centre, gave a local Czech Radio reporter a preview of the soon-to-reopen grounds, following a festive restoration spurred on by a crumbling ceiling.

Božena Němcová’s home in Červený Kostelec, photo: Tomáš ŠimekBožena Němcová’s home in Červený Kostelec, photo: Tomáš Šimek “We uncovered the original paintwork, and have restored elements of it. The geometric shapes are like what you’d find in a chateau, all done by hand, typical for the upper bourgeois. However, this paintwork likely does not exactly correspond to the time when Božena Němcová lived here.”

Neither did Němcová herself belong to the “upper bourgeois” – despite the success of her novel The Grandmother. In fact, she died in poverty, estranged from her rather boorish, controlling husband (and while, reputedly, in a secret relationship with the poet Václav Bolemír Nebeský, a fellow Czech National Revival icon).

The House of Božena Němcová, as it’s now known, actually belonged to a merchant named Augustin Hůlka when she lived there. His quarters have also been restored to how they looked in their heyday, says Tomáš Šimek.

Photo: Vladislava Wildová, Czech RadioPhoto: Vladislava Wildová, Czech Radio “As for the ground floor, a study is being done now for the finishing touches of the first room that visitors will enter, which was the merchant Hůlka’s shop. There, a minimalist depiction of the historic site will soon return. We will add a certain original style to this room as well… We also have plans for the attic. We’d like to modify it and create a children’s corner. But that might have to wait for the next tourist season.”

Němcová’s house in Červený Kostelec opens to the public for the first time this year on June 2. Fans of the “mother of Czech literature” can also visit a museum dedicated to her memory in the nearby town of Česká Skalice, where she attended grammar school.

21-05-2020