'The Most Splendid City in Germany?' George Eliot and Prague

By Reynolds, Susan | Contemporary Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

'The Most Splendid City in Germany?' George Eliot and Prague


Reynolds, Susan, Contemporary Review


IT was in July 1858, a decade after 'the year of revolutions', that the novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) and her partner George Henry Lewes undertook a journey that led from London to Dresden by way of Munich. Preoccupied with German culture, Eliot was eager to explore the delights of the Saxon capital, and wrote rapturously in her letters and diaries of the art treasures that she saw there. On the way, however, they travelled through Vienna, and spent a day and a night in Prague, their first visit to the city. Immediately after breakfast, as Eliot explains in her journal, they went out to see as much of 'the grand old city' as possible in one day.

'The most interesting things we saw were the Jewish burial-ground (the alter Friedhof) and the old Synagogue. The Friedhof is unique--with a wild growth of grass and shrubs and trees and a multitude of quaint tombs in all sorts of positions looking like the fragments of a great building, or as if they had been shaken by an earthquake. We saw a lovely dark eyed Jewish child here, which we were glad to kiss in all its dirt. Then came the sombre old synagogue with its smoked groins, and lamp for ever burning. An intelligent Jew was our cicerone and read us some Hebrew out of the precious old book of the Law. After dinner we took a carriage and went across the wonderful bridge of St. Jean Nepomuck with its avenue of statues, towards the Radschin--an ugly straight-lined building but grand in effect from its magnificent site, on the summit of an eminence crowded with old massive buildings. The view from this eminence is one of the most impressive in the world--perhaps as much from one's associations with Prague as from its visible grandeur and antiquity. The Cathedral close to the Radschin is a melancholy object on the outside--left with unfinished sides like scars. The interior is rich, but sadly confused in its ornamentation, like so many of the grand old churches--hideous altars of bastard style disgracing exquisite Gothic columns. (...) We got our view from a Damen Stift (for ladies of family) founded by Maria Theresa, whose blond beauty looked down on us from a striking portrait. Close in front of us sloping downwards was a pleasant orchard; then came the river with its long, long bridge and grand gateway; then the sober-coloured city with its surrounding plain and distant hills. In the evening we went to the theatre--a shabbily ugly building--and heard Spohr's Jessonda.'

Despite her cool appraisal of what she perceived as the imperfections of some of Prague's buildings, George Eliot was obviously impressed with the beauty of its setting and the nobility and sense of history that she perceived in the city. equally enthusiastic; in a letter to John Chapman of 23 July 1858, he called Prague 'the most splendid city in Germany'--a glowing if now inaccurate description. Their journey had taken them through Salzburg, Ischl, Linz and Vienna, and unpardonable as it might seem to a modem reader, Lewes was simply including Prague in a broad application of 'Germany' which enveloped not only Bohemia but much of the Habsburg Empire. (Lewes was a well-known biographer of Goethe and eventually became editor of The Fortnightly, now incorporated in the Contemporary Review.) Had either of them had any real awareness of the developing consciousness of Czech nationhood or Czech literature, he might not have made this mistake. This was, after all, just five years after the publication of Erben's Kytice (1853) and three since that of Bozena Nemcova's Babicka. Karel Havlicek Borovsky had died two years before, and the 1850s were a reactionary period in which journalism stagnated, as not only political and educational periodicals but literary ones were suppressed. But Jan Neruda had just brought out his Hrbitovni kviti (Graveyard Flowers) the previous year, and Vitezslav Halek was working on his Vecerni pisne (Evening Songs; 1858-59), similarly influenced by Heine. This same year, 1858 was also the year which saw the publication in the Tagesbote aus Bohmen, one of Prague's two major German newspapers, of a series of articles questioning the authenticity of the Dvur Kralove and Zelena Hora manuscripts, 'discovered' in 1817-18 by Vaclav Hanka and Josef Linda and containing fragments of Czech epic and lyric poetry allegedly dating from the 10th-13th centuries. …

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