While our Issue Zero anthology of contemporary Czech women writers is in the works, contributor Melvyn Clarke summons up some of their half-forgotten foremothers in this special feature about avant-garde writers during and just after the Belle Époque.
The Czech fin de siècle was a culturally potent time marked by a shift in cultural values, avant-garde literary movements, and sexual reform. While the first part of the 1800s ushered in the early “awakeners” of the first Czech women’s movement, with their patriotic endeavours and high moral principles, it was not until the 1890s and the arrival of the Decadent movement that women writers began to move on to more distinctive social and personal perspectives.
The following article is the result of a browse ’round forgotten libraries, listening out for snatched whispers from that time, which, when channeled, will speak meaningfully to the world today. It is intended to serve as an illustrative introduction to some of the fascinating and half-forgotten feminist pioneers from this stimulating era, though it remains a fairly random list as there are certainly too many to fit into one piece.
The Decadents of Moderní revue
During the start of the 1890s, the chief Czech literary salons were run by the writers Anna Lauermannová-Mikschová, Růžena Svobodová, and Eva Jurcinová. They were in part associated with some of the ‘Decadent’ writers of the time who centred around the magazine Moderní revue, a journal of Czech and other European avant-garde work, established in 1894. Ironically, the movement was notorious for the frequent misogyny and negative stereotyping of women that grew rampant alongside its characteristic individualism and aestheticism.
And yet, Moderní revue included several women and was inspired by the symbolism and diction of Decadent precursor poet and storyteller Irma Geisslová, who was involved in the Czech Women’s Production Association. She is credited with pioneering the distinctive vocabulary and symbolism of the Decadents’ texts. Geisslová’s poetic work is thus uniquely poignant and worth translating:
Jerkily dances the wind in the bushes,
As the moon enshrouds the earth,
Wild desire flames in my soul.
And in my heart satanic mirth.
And in my soul – a bottomless hell,
Monkshood and nightshade rampant have grown,
While in henbane sleeps the dragon, whom I bring
Black pearls from my lips’ bloody foam.
Original translation by Melvyn Clarke
Another woman author associated with, and to some extent sharing the style of, the “Moderní revue Decadents” was Luisa Ziková. Before her death from tuberculosis at the age of 22, she left behind one complete collection of tales which often read like prose poems, including Spodní proudy (Undercurrents), among prose fragments and poems. One of nine children born to an impoverished Prague family, she was nevertheless well-read and absorbed influences from Jaroslav Vrchlický, Svatopluk Čech, Karolína Světlá, and Byron translated by the influential feminist author Eliška Krásnohorská.
What awaits me? A void of darkness
where I feel the hands of those weird beings
who spin out life, casting onerous hours
of cruel pain in my path,
clattering their hard steel chains
and with curses on their pallid lips
dragging their pale shadows through the mire,
yet enticing me with their enchanting voice.
Original translation by Melvyn Clarke
Ziková’s experimental prose, exploring the typical Decadent theme of attaining higher awareness through infirmity and madness, can often sound very modern, with its unique combination of impressionism, romantic lyricism, symbolism, decadent diction and realist satire as she struggled to establish her own distinctive style and voice while the shadows closed in. Her boyfriend Karel Kamínek, also a Moderní revue writer, recalled:
“She loved nature, but only its colours, smells, the brightness of the air, the whisper of the trees, the song of the birds: that entire intoxicating symphony of colours and shadows was her nature. She despised it when it was brutal, exploding with uncontrollable force. She hated men for their manliness and women for their womanliness.”
Many classic Decadent topoi emerge in Ziková’s work, including disillusion, a sense of futility, the solitude of the soul, dreaminess, suggestiveness, mysticism and dark forebodings of death. Her protagonists are mostly women looking for a meaning to life. One copy of her book is currently selling for €1,150 (or 30,000 Kč)—though it can also be viewed online
A third 19th Century artist, Růžena Jesenská, actually used Moderní revue as a springboard into politics, for which she lost her teaching job, but which earned her much greater literary renown in later years. Her stories often involve a conflict between urban civilization and rationality and the forces of irrationality in untrammeled nature. The Decadent association between Eros and Thanatos – sex and death – is a common motif.
Another female author who made numerous contributions to Moderní revue was Vladimíra Jedličková. With masculine pseudonyms still commonly used by Czech women authors at that time, Jedlicková wrote her contributions under such noms de plume as Edvard Klas, Edvard Story, Ivan Gösch and V. Smrček. Her collection Povídky o ničem (Tales About Nothing) are indeed stories with little plot and much Secession-style ornamentation and symbolism.
Here we see the love of nuance that is a hallmark of the Decadent aesthetic. Every landscape is a state of the soul. To quote Amiel: “What we observe in the things around us is our soul.”
Other notable mentions
Other periodicals of the time were focused specifically on women’s voices, including Lada, Ženske listy (Women’s Papers), Ženská revue (Women’s Revue) and Ženský svět (Women’s World), many of which can nowadays be found online. Some of the feminist pioneers were also involved in the sexual reform movement and even wrote for the first periodicals for the homosexual community, published in the 1930s, Hlas sexuální menšiny (The Voice of The Sexual Minority) and its successor Nový hlas (New Voice). Let us continue with some of the distinctive voices from that period.
Writing under the pen-name of Julie Sedláčková, Gill Sedláčková explores bisexuality and lesbianism in her 1937 novel Třeti pohlaví (The Third Sex), while portraying the hedonism of the Prague demi-monde. Gay lifestyles also crop up in her short stories and screenplay. Unlike previous literature that described the desperate plight of the gay population, here the chief protagonist is not weighed down by the tragedy of her situation despite some of the sordid predicaments described. Interestingly, her father Viktor Sedláček was Chairman of the Czechoslovak League for Sexual Reform. Check out my previous article on fin de siècle writers for more on this reform movement.
Writing under the pen-name of Lida Merlínová, Ludmila Pecháčková also wrote a novel with a homoerotic theme Vyhnanci lásky (Exiles of Love), considered the first lesbian novel in Czech with a print run of 4000 which quickly sold out. She contributed fiction and essays to the Hlas sexuální menšiny (Voice of the Sexual Minority) journal when it came out in 1931. In correspondence with Jiří Karásek, she explained that she was nineteen when she wrote the novel and found that the impassioned response of hundreds of readers had placed her at the forefront of the reform movement. Together with her husband she also wrote Alfa a Omega (Alfa and Omega), a comic operetta with homoerotic elements.
Another fascinating writer to come out of this period was feminist poet and philosopher Anna Pammrová who was strongly influenced by theosophy, ancient Indian religion, occultism, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. She is also known for her correspondence with Synbolist poet and mystic Otokar Březina, who takes pride of place in the Czech canon to this day, and her contacts with Vácslav Havel, grandfather of president Václav Havel, and another proponent of theosophy and the occult. Despite her extreme poverty and isolation, living in a forest cabin after divorcing her brute of a husband, she was well-read (with good knowledge of English and French) and wrote several philosophical works, including the autobiographical Antieva, published posthumously.
Božena Viková Kunětická
Božena Viková Kunětická (1862-1934) was a well-known feminist and the first female member of the Czech parliament. Her novel Vzpoura (Rebellion, 1901) defends free love but attacks anarchism as another selfish, degenerate male ideology. Her Symbolist drama, Lidé (The People) involves a backdrop of North Bohemian spiritualism.
Maryša Šárecká started off at the age of eighteen with short stories in Stín padl na duši (A Shadow Fell on her Soul) with erotic decadent subthemes that caused a minor sensation at the time. She later took up biography, cultural history and historical epics. Her most famous work, Pod Svatou Horou (Under Holy Mount), is a chronicle account of life in the late nineteenth century and was popular when it came out under the Protectorate.
Several other women authors to come out of this period have been credited with writing philosophical, speculative and science fiction. Thus it would be fascinating to explore such prewar space opera by Emilie Procházková as Marťané (Martians) or her mystic V koloběhu světů (Cycle of Worlds) series featuring beings at a higher karmic and technical level living on other planets and reincarnating on Earth, or Mezihvězdní piráti (Interstellar Pirates) by Marie Grubhofferová, or Marconiho telefon s Marsem (Marconi’s Martian Telephone) by Josefina Nyklesová-Bukovanská.
Olga Scheinpflugová, who was married to author Karel Čapek, wrote a utopian novel Acheirové before she was silenced for some time by the Communists, and the little known Augusta Skálová wrote a science fiction work Věčný krb (The Eternal Hearth) during the Nazi occupation about a future energy crisis and two women, one a passionate engineer and the other a romantic idealist, who set about resolving it. She was another to fall into obscurity under the Communists, and her work has not been published to this day.
This list only begins to scratch the surface. I hope only to point out some intriguing works that you might want to look out for yourself in the second-hand bookshops, or that you may even wish one day to see translated. For more details see the expert opinions of such Bohemists as Kathleen Hayes, Dobrava Moldanová and Robert Pynsent.
Melvyn Clarke is a Czech-English translator living in Prague | Check out his blog.