An entire existence dedicated to the emancipation of women. Her friendship to Karolina Světlá, the first to recognize her great talent, and to Bedřich Smetana, who wanted her as his librettist


If in the eighteenth-century Maria Theresa of Austria introduced compulsory schooling for males and females, it was still Eliška Krásnohorská  that, a century later, guaranteed higher and university education to young girls

Eliška Krásnohorská nella sua casa praghese di via Černá / Eliška Krásnohorská in her Prague home in Černá Street

Eliška Krásnohorská nella sua casa praghese di via Černá / Eliška Krásnohorská in her Prague home in Černá Street

During a recent trip to Prague, we happened to stay in a building located between Národní třída and Karlovo náměstí, precisely on Černá Street, in a neighbourhood that in the nineteenth century should not have been high-ranking. A plate affixed to number 169/15 gives us the opportunity to tell the story of a woman who deserves to be remembered for her contribution to society and culture during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Eliška Krásnohorská, whose Christian name is Alžběta Pechová, was born in Prague on November 18, 1847, as the seventh of the eight children of Andreas Pech, a craftsman who died of cholera when Alžběta was only three years old. Despite constraints, the mother managed to have the children study and taught them values such as modesty, frugality and simplicity. Alžběta attended the private institute of the Svoboda spouses and her future pseudonym was born there; the director was calling her Eliška, a purely Czech version of the Jewish name Alžběta. When she was twelve, the teacher Svobodová advised the mother to suspend her daughter’s studies because there was nothing new that she could be learning there. In fact, Eliška deepened many areas of study by self-studying and reading, and more so, the Pech family had always been in contact with a circle of artists, so it was not difficult for her to cultivate the study of the piano and singing, drawing and painting, poetry and prose.

In January 1863, she participated in her first ball dance in society and met the Czech patriots of those times, among which the great writer Karolina Světlá. The latter, with whom she established a long-term friendship, recognized her talent and convinced her to devote herself to writing and initiated her to feminism. Her first poems were published in the magazine Lumír and it was precisely at this point that the pseudonym of Eliška Krásnohorská was born. The surname was a tribute to the locality of Krásná Hora, the birthplace of her father.

The fundamental encounter with Smetana

During the same year, she also met the composer Karel Bendl who offered her a collaboration on the libretto of his first work, Lejla, while her brother Jindřich, musician and piano teacher, introduced her to Bedřich Smetana. A fundamental encounter for both music and literature. Smetana asked Eliška to translate Schumann’s duets into Czech and was highly impressed by how the translation paired up so perfectly with the melody, despite having sent her the text without a score.

Eliška loved music and back then she was singing as contralto in the Hlalol choir in Plzeň, where she had moved with her mother. Unfortunately, at the age of sixteen she was forced to abandon the piano because of her first symptoms of a rheumatoid arthritis that would accompany her for the rest of life and became the reason why she never married nor had children.

In 1871, she started collaborating with Smetana on what was to become the Hubička (The Kiss), Tajemství (The Secret) and Čertova stěna (The Devil’s Wall), the last three operas of the composer. Their friendship and mutual esteem are testified by a rich correspondence that highlights the creative process, Eliška’s awareness of Smetana’s genius and the extreme dedication of putting herself at the service of music despite having been repeatedly attacked by critics for her contribution as a librettist. The girl considered the drafting of a libretto comparable to poetic activity and knew how to advise Smetana on enhancing an opera and trying to achieve perfection. In her opinion, the main problem of the librettists in those times was the tendency to underestimate the natural rhythm of words and the Czech musical recitation. Back then, the language used in education and written communication was German. Czech language was used only in speech. As a representative of the Ruchovci, a group of poets and writers who fought against foreign influences in Czech literature in the 70s and 80s, Eliška Krásnohorská tried to promote the Czech language and purely nationalistic themes.

During the same 1871, she lived on Černá Street and the Jiránek brothers, former students of Smetana, rented an apartment in the same building. During a visit to that building, Smetana asked the writer for a new libretto and she proposed Hubička, a story by Karolina Světlá. To convince him, she tried to write the music and text of the first scene by herself and Smetana was thus conquered by the musicality of the lyrics and therefore, immediately began to compose the score. Eliška remembered she had never seen him work with such enthusiasm. The premiere, which welcomed various personalities from the back then cultural scene, had an unusual success and the wonder of the public, initially sceptical because the composer was already deaf, only intensified as the evening unfolded.

Smetana immediately asked her for a new text, allowing her to choose the theme. The text of Tajemství (The Secret), which had comic and romantic traits and was inspired from the countryside life, was exclusively the result of the poet’s imagination. Smetana perceived it as melancholic, perhaps being influenced by the pessimism of that period, due to his financial problems. He had the opportunity to personally discuss it with Eliška in the spring of 1877, when Smetana stayed in Prague for three months, in the apartment of the pianist Josef Jiránek on Černá Street. The room where Eliška was receiving him had little to no cupboards full of decorations. In her opinion, in the house of a modern woman, married or not, the appearance and simulation of luxury had to be excluded for the benefit of a functional furniture. The decorative trinkets were replaced by a library and instead of decorated chairs there was a comfortable armchair in which she would immerse herself reading.

The Secret (Tajemství) was positively welcomed and Smetana wanted to demonstrate his gratitude by gifting her a silver made coffee service with the engraving of the names of the operas they had been working on together. In fact, Eliška had always been satisfied with the role of collaborator and had never asked for a compensation from Smetana. She considered their collaboration as an act of solidarity between patriot artists and a support for the Czech people who needed to live the culture in their maternal language. She had never tried to convince him of the quality of her texts and suffered by becoming a target of criticism. Smetana was advised to change his librettist from the first opera they collaborated on but he never listened to that advice and trusted her: “People don’t even imagine what it means to create a magnificent work like an opera, especially for me, deaf and exhausted by worries! I am accustomed to your lyrics, to that music that I perceive in them and that I do not feel in the lyrics of anyone else”.

The work on the Devil’s wall was difficult for both of them, for him because of his health problems and for her because she couldn’t produce a sufficiently comic text, without being excessive. She was decided not to write another libretto and dedicate herself only to the literary activity that required a minor mental stress. Despite all this, they started working together again on Viola, a musical libretto started in 1871 and put aside for thirteen years, but the first act was never finished and the opera remained incomplete.


The fight for women’s rights side by side with her friend Světlá

During the decade of collaboration with Smetana, Eliška didn’t neglect other activities. In addition to drafting sixteen librettos, she was the author of the rhythmic version in Czech language of the opera Carmen of Bizet; she wrote critical essays and novels for young girls, translated known authors such as Puškin, Mickiewicz, Byron or the Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances H. Burnett and dedicated herself to children’s literature, an underdeveloped area. Through her tales she wanted to transmit to the little ones some moral values such as a right behaviour towards their parents.

However, she felt a lack of acknowledgment and attributed it to the inequality of rights between men and women. She often talked about it with her friend Světlá who already fought for women’s rights and had founded the Ženské Listy magazine. In the pages of the magazine, for which Eliška worked for 35 years, the women of that time, who were accustomed to taking care of the family and the house, could express their opinions.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the talk was mainly about female emancipation, even in the small-bourgeois Czech environment. In 1871, the “ Ženský výrobní spolek český” began its operation, a Czech women’s cooperative association that has always been managed by Karolina Světlá and then by Eliška Krásnohorská. The latter saw education as the essential condition for social emancipation of young girls. She was dreaming of a school where teaching was provided in Czech, which would last as long as male gymnasiums and would end with a high-school diploma. It took sixteen years to make that dream come true. Until then, young girls could attend short courses in which classic subjects and more practical activities such as taking care of the house, family and sick people and some simple arithmetic calculations were taught. Eliška called on a petition to open a new school but had to deal with the disapproval of many Czech politicians and patriots, including Alois Jirásek, a father of five daughters. With a few thousand signatures, in June 1890, she initially founded the Minerva Association, meant to finance the institution. The homonymous school was inaugurated the following month and was the first Czech female gymnasium of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nowadays, the gymnasium where Alice Masaryková, Milena Jessenská or Zdena Škvorecká have studied, bears the name of her founder.

The next goal was for young girls to have access to university and this was achieved in 1897, with the first inscriptions to the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles University in Prague.

It is challenging to find other women which, counting on their own strength, had such a massive contribution to the female reform movement and the fight for women’s education. A merit that was eventually attributed to her. Eliška Krásnohorská was the first woman ever to be appointed as an ordinary member of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and Art, in the new Republic under President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and the first one to be awarded the Doctorate of Honour from the Charles University in Prague. Among other awards, we must mention the Austrian Merit Cross awarded by Emperor Franz Josef I and the Silver Medal for civil merits awarded to her by the city of Prague.

The results appear even more commendable if we consider that she was seriously ill since adolescence. In the last few years, the pain in her hands prevented her from writing, she moved with difficulty and looked at the world from her window on Černá Street until her torments ended in 1926.

Today she is remembered by some commemorative plates and, walking around in Prague’s New Town, one cannot fail to notice the white marble statue in Charles Square, the work of an artist who is almost unknown today. Her name is Karla Vobišová and she was the first Czech woman to support herself with the profession of sculptor. She created the statue dedicated to Eliška Krásnohorská with funds provided by the Ženský výrobní spolek; the monument was inaugurated on May 31, 1931 and placed in front of the statue of her friend Karolina Světlá.

Karla Vobišová, whose most noteworthy work is the tomb of Saint Adalbert in the St. Vitus Cathedral, is also the author of the commemorative plate found at 169/15 Černá Street from where our story started, and affixed to the house where the advocate of the Czech female emancipation passed away.

by Sabrina Salomoni