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‘Continually Walking a Tightrope’: Edith Pargeter’s Literary Crusade for Czechoslovakia

« Continuellement sur la corde raide » : la croisade littéraire d’Edith Pargeter pour la Tchécoslovaquie
Suzanne Bray


Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) first heard of Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich crisis when, she felt, Britain had betrayed it. During the Second World War she met Czechoslovak military personnel and, in 1947, visited the country in the context of a Workers' Education Association summer school. This visit was decisive for Pargeter who fell in love with Czechoslovakia. She also made friends with several literary figures from the Writers' Union, all of whom were very enthusiastic about the future of their country after their liberation from the nightmare of Nazi occupation. The optimism did not last as one year later the Communists took over and the iron curtain became a reality. The only means Pargeter could find to help her Czechoslovak friends was literature or, more precisely, the act of writing, which became a weapon in the Cold War. First of all, she taught herself Czech and started to translate several classics of Czech literature into English, thus providing her Czechoslovak friends with ‘a lifeline to the West’ and stimulating interest in the country in the English-speaking world. A travel journal, The Coast of Bohemia (1950), also sought to combat ignorance of the country and give British people the desire to visit it. Pargeter also, more discreetly, translated and wrote critical introductions to some more controversial texts, including Josefa Slanska's Report on my Husband about the arbitrary arrests and show trials of the early 1950s. All the time, she was conscious of ‘walking a tightrope in order to avoid harming people [she] only wanted to serve.’ However, it is Pargeter's two novels set in Czechoslovakia, The Fair Young Phoenix (1948) and The Piper on the Mountain (1966), which provide the best examples of the tightrope their author was walking. Ostensibly, The Fair Young Phoenix is a love story and The Piper on the Mountain a light-hearted detective novel. Both have an attractive, British, young woman as protagonist. In reality, both are serious presentations of key moments in Czechoslovak history. The former captures the unique, fleeting moment between liberation from the Nazis and the communist takeover in 1948, showing the promise of a bright and free future for Czechoslovakia. The Phoenix is ‘Czechoslovakia herself, emerging from the ashes,’ before she was pushed back down into the fire. The Piper on the Mountain, on the other hand, is set in the period leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968, when the population, mistakenly, felt optimistic about their immediate future. It plays with and inverses the stereotypes of most Cold War literature, shows that the British are not always blameless and presents the Czechoslovaks as gracious, artistic and peace-loving individuals who only want to be left alone to manage their own affairs without foreign interference and to take their rightful place as a free nation in global society.

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1British author Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) is best known today as the creator of Brother Cadfael and author of the twenty novels and three short stories that make up the bestselling Cadfael Chronicles. However, Pargeter was already 64 when A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first Cadfael novel, was published in 1977 and had been a prolific published author for over forty years. If the last years of her career were devoted to the town of Shrewsbury, its history and her monastic sleuth, much of the period between 1947 and 1970 was spent using her talents in the service of Czechoslovakia, a nation Pargeter loved passionately and referred to as ‘my other country’ (1990a, 10). During the Cold War, the only means Pargeter could find to help her Czech friends was literature or, more precisely, the act of writing. Translations into English of the classics of Czech literature and more contemporary, controversial works, a travel narrative and three novels all played their part in keeping the lines of communication open, providing the Czech people with ‘a lifeline to the West’ (Lewis 1998, 118) and stimulating interest in their plight in the English-speaking world. All the time, Pargeter was conscious of the delicacy, even danger, of the work she had undertaken and felt as if she was ‘walking a tightrope in order to avoid harming people [she] only wanted to serve’ (Lewis 1994, 41).

2Edith Pargeter described herself as having been ‘an outraged partisan of Czechoslovakia’ (1990b) since the Munich crisis in 1938, which she regarded as ‘a dishonour it took five years of war service to wipe out’ (1990a, 10). As Margaret Lewis has observed: ‘Many British people were ashamed of their Prime Minister’s betrayal of an ally, even in search of “peace in our time”, and Edith Pargeter was one of them’ (1994, 16). As a result of this betrayal and the German atrocities that followed it, Pargeter became passionately pro-war. She also, like her character and alter ego Mary Thayer in The Fair Young Phoenix, started assembling a picture of the country for herself, ‘building it from photographs and books and maps, from newspapers and music, from any scrap of information which offered’ (7). This feeling of guilt, of ‘a debt waiting to be paid’ (Pargeter 1948, 37) to Czechoslovakia also motivated Pargeter to enlist in the WRNS, working in the naval communications department for the duration of the war. At this time she became friendly with many Czech airmen, stationed near her base in Liverpool. Although no details about their identity exist, Pargeter’s lifelong close friend, Jiří Edelmann, believes that ‘she fell in love with a Czech […] who didn’t come back from the war’ (Vaughan), perhaps a similar situation to that experienced by her character Audrey in the detective novel Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Heart (1967). The only hints we have about the Czechs she actually met at this time come from her novels. Mary Thayer speaks about ‘two or three of the Pioneers from the camp outside Liverpool’ who ‘had put in their clear, grave colours for shading to the naked outline’ (Pargeter 1948, 7) of her knowledge of the country. In the same way, another alter ego, Catherine Saxon in She Goes to War (1942), speaks of meeting on a train ‘an airman who turned out to be Czech,’ who had ‘a great sense of humour, sharper perhaps than the English, but remarkably similar’ (236). In the context of this young man, Catherine Saxon claims to have been told by a superior officer that ‘the Germans fear the Czechs more than any other nation, because they mix ridicule with hate’ (236). Even Inspector George Felse, Pargeter’s 20th century detective, admires the self-exiled Czechs during the war who, in his opinion, ‘formed at that time, the most articulate, the most reticent […] and the most nearly English component of the European armies in Europe’ (Pargeter 1967, 95). All these factors gave Pargeter the strong desire to visit Czechoslovakia as soon as she could.

  • 1 Inside front cover text for The Fair Young Phoenix.

3The opportunity came in the summer of 1947, during what Sir Cecil Parrott, British ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, referred to as ‘a short semi-democratic breathing space’ (Lewis 1994, 38) between the Nazi occupation and the Communist oppression. Pargeter, who had always been ‘fairly left-wing in her views’ (Lewis 1998, 117) was, together with her brother, Ellis, a member of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), in which context she had been actively involved in setting up the Shropshire Adult College at Attingham Hall. That summer the WEA organised several international summer schools, including one just outside Prague. Edith and Ellis Pargeter were part of the delegation, which also included several lecturers from Birmingham University. As Pargeter’s biographer, Margaret Lewis, simply states, the experience ‘obviously changed her life’ (1994, 35). Pargeter’s publisher would later describe the experience as ‘a story of conquest by comparison, of conversion by faith, of enthusiasm ignited by youth’,1 and attributes this to her finding ‘a guide who illumines for her the whole drama of sacrifice, suffering, tenacity and faith’ of the Czech people. This guide was 20 year old Jiří Edelmann, who would become Vit in The Fair Young Phoenix, Honza in The Coast of Bohemia (1950), a lifelong close friend and, later, practically an adopted brother for the Pargeters. Edith and Jiří would exchange letters at least every fortnight for the rest of Edith’s life (Edelmann). At the time, 34 year old Edith felt that ‘the friendship stood on no defined ground, and fell into no clearly marked category’ (Pargeter 1948, 128), while years later she would explain: ‘We were very close . […] There was a loving relationship but without a tincture of sex’ (Biedermann). From Edelmann’s point of view, Edith ‘was interested in everything and was asking me more and more questions. She wanted to know how it was during the war, what we were doing, how things were here and so on’ (Vaughan). He invited the Pargeters to spend half a day with his family in Prague before they left and the whole Edelmann family encouraged them to return for a longer visit as soon as they could. Jiří, a Social Democrat, a Christian and an engineering student, encouraged Edith to tell people back in Britain about Czechoslovakia, what the country had gone through and its vision for a brighter future. He also, knowing she was a writer, asked her to write a book about her visit. At that end of The Fair Young Phoenix, published the following year and dedicated to Edelmann, Pargeter declares: ‘And this is the book which she has written,’ openly identifying herself and her friend with the fictional characters Mary and Vit.

4Although The Fair Young Phoenix has been described as ‘a rather private and self-indulgent book’ (Lewis 1994, 37), it sold fairly well and according to Lewis, ‘displays Pargeter’s talent to transform immediate events into fiction’ (37). It is also a unique eye-witness account of a key moment in Czech history, when the nation that would soon undergo a Communist coup and be firmly crushed by Soviet power, was still, almost innocently, enjoying a brief period of optimistic freedom and making great plans to rebuild itself and reassert its national and cultural identity. The phoenix of the title is the Czechoslovak Republic rising from the ashes to live again after the Nazi occupation and, for Edith Pargeter as much as for Mary Thayer, even in small acts of reconstruction like the opening of a new school, ‘the phoenix renewed its golden being and came fresh and vivid upon the world, indestructible in its loveliness’ (Pargeter 1948, 322). Despite the horrors of the next forty years, Pargeter would retain her faith in that indestructibility and in the vision she had seen, continuing to affirm that ‘The Habsburgs couldn’t make a scratch on it and neither could Hitler . […] Whatever happens to you, you’ll emerge from it greater and not less’ (1948, 335). Repeating this conviction and arranging for a new edition of the novel in 1972 encouraged her Czech friends to keep believing too.

  • 2 Czechoslovakia, including Bohemia, has no coastline. Pargeter is alluding to Shakespeare’s Winter’s (...)

5In 1948, Edith Pargeter returned to Czechoslovakia for a much longer stay, giving her the opportunity to visit a large part of the country, including the more rural areas of Slovakia. In February 1948, a Communist takeover had already taken place and by the time Edith left at the end of the summer ‘a Soviet style constitution was already in place and all opposition was being eliminated’ (Lewis 1994, 38). It would be the last time she could stay with the Edelmanns. Later it was ‘not possible, too risky for the family’ (Edelmann) and she had to stay in a hotel. Once again, the book which came out of her visit, in this case The Coast of Bohemia,2 shows the author as ‘an observer at history being made’ (Lewis 1994, 37) although she was not fully aware of all the implications at the time. At the beginning of the book, she refers ironically to the fact that since the previous summer ‘Czechoslovakia had achieved what amounted to a major revolution, and by some mental trick had been expelled by most English people to a limbo many thousands of miles removed from civilisation’ (Pargeter 1950, 4). However, she found her friends of the previous year more or less unchanged and still cautiously optimistic about the future. She therefore concluded that ‘there must be considerable changes, of course; but that absolute change from white to black takes place only in the limited imagination, never in reality’ (4). Later on, the author would see things slightly differently: ‘No one had realized the enormity of what had happened in 1948 and I was unwilling to believe it could clamp down as it did […] it took a little time to believe in what was happening behind a landscape and a cityscape virtually unchanged’ (Lewis 1994, 38). Pargeter had realised this by the time The Coast of Bohemia was published, but her positive portrayal of the country helped the authorities believe later on that its author was not unfavourable to them. Once again, its value lies in the witness it bears to a particular moment in Czech history, ‘to events that were still historically fluid’ (Lewis 1994, 39). It also led Manohar Lal Sondhi, future Professor of International Relations in Delhi and Indian cultural attaché in Prague from 1958-1960, to identify and make contact with Edelmann, who thus gained another valuable contact with the free world (Edelmann).

6Although Pargeter managed to visit Prague for a few days with an organised group in 1950, it was clear by this time that travel to Czechoslovakia would be difficult. From 1950 to 1956, ‘visas, though never refused, never materialised’ (Pargeter 1990a, 10) and the author was sad to miss Edelmann’s wedding in 1954. She therefore sought a way she could help her Czech friends from a distance. Her solution was to translate some of the classics of Czech literature she had seen in all her Czech friends’ homes into English. Although she had picked up some words of Czech during her two visits, her knowledge was still very sketchy, so ‘armed with a somewhat old-fashioned set of books and teach-yourself records’ (Pargeter 1990a, 10), she painstakingly taught herself. In fact Edith never did learn to speak Czech fluently (Edelmann) as she never got any oral practice, but she learned to read very quickly and consulted her Czech friends about the finer points of the texts she chose to tackle. Her first translation was Jan Neruda’s famous Tales of the Little Quarter (1877). At that time she was publishing with Heinemann’s and discovered that the managing director of the company was a Czech Jew called John Beer, who had escaped to England just before the war (Vaughan) and whose step-mother was one of the Heinemann family. Beer helped Pargeter publish the Neruda book, which was well received in Britain. The BBC’s woman’s hour even saw the political importance of the translation and claimed that Pargeter had done Britain ‘a great service in reminding us of the indestructible tradition rooted in the small countries that lie behind the iron curtain’ (qtd. in Lewis 1994, 40). The Neruda translation led the Czech Union of Writers to make contact with Pargeter and the Prague foreign-language publishing house, Artia, asked her to do some other translations, ‘in the first place mainly poetry’ (Pargeter 1990a, 10). For the next twelve years, Pargeter translated a mixture of Czech classics, commissioned by Artia, and more recent, often controversial works. Her English versions of universally popular books, like Bozěna Němcová’s Granny or Karel Hynek Macha’s great romantic poem May ‘went on to become classics in themselves’ (Vaughan) and enhanced Pargeter’s reputation as a writer. They also gave her a good excuse to visit Czechoslovakia and, as she was paid for her work in the local currency, enabled her to finance her Czech holidays. In addition to the friends she had already, Edith met various people actively involved in resistance to the regime, including George Theiner, the English editor of Artia, who had a long association with Amnesty International, and the writer and translator Zora Wolfova, whom she met at a poetry reading at the Charles University in Prague and who became a very close friend. She also established links with writers in the underground literary resistance, who would later be among the principal movers in the Prague Spring, including Bohumil Hrabal whose well-known book A Close Watch on the Trains she also translated, although this potentially more subversive work had to be published in the West. Throughout this period, Pargeter had to tread very carefully indeed. As Jiří Edelmann explains: ‘Czech people were often afraid to meet Western visitors. Private visitors were very rare. You had to be very careful who to trust, careful what to say in public’ (Edelmann). Edith did not even tell the Edelmann family all that she learned about the resistance from her literary friends and although she was convinced that Russian communism was ‘a new oppression, which deformed legality […] and preyed upon innocent people’ (Pargeter 1968, 2), she pointedly refrained from expressing this opinion in public until much later.

  • 3 Although Czechoslakia was one sovereign state at this point, the inhabitants still made a clear dif (...)

71958 was a key year for Edith Pargeter as she renewed her friendship with Jiří Hájek, whom she had first met in the summer of 1947 and who was appointed as Czech ambassador in London. Hájek intervened with the authorities and enabled Jiří Edelmann to make his first short visit to England. From then on for the next ten years, the situation gradually improved. Pargeter was publishing her translations regularly, working closely with those she referred to as ‘fine, honourable people working under extreme difficulties’ (qtd. in Lewis 1994, 41). In the 1960s she was able to visit the country annually and relations between Britain and Czechoslovakia gradually became more friendly. Pargeter, being very musical herself, had long ago come to the conclusion that the Czechs and Slovaks were ‘the most genuinely musical people in Europe’, and admired not only their command of classical music, but also ‘the astonishing wealth and beauty of their folk music’ (Lewis 1994, 43). On her first visit to Slovakia3 in 1948, she had particularly appreciated the way the population had ‘maintained its costumes, dances, songs and customs intact’ (Pargeter 1950, 227). Her 1966 detective novel, The Piper on the Mountain, set principally in rural Slovakia, ‘was a fictional celebration of these qualities’ (Lewis 1994, 43). It was also a complete reversal of the typical British Cold War novel set behind the iron curtain, gently but deliberatly poking fun at all the stereotypes of the period.

  • 4 The statement is also amusing in the context as Mirek is, in fact, a Slovak.

8In The Piper on the Mountain, the author takes Dominic Felse, the son of her usual detective family, on a trip to Slovakia with three friends, to the place where Tossa’s step-father had recently died in mysterious circumstances. Crossing the border into Czechoslovakia, the English students encounter ‘no iron curtain, no nothing’ (Pargeter 1966, 49) and continue on their way meeting only the most friendly and helpful locals. Tossa even kisses Mirek, a young hitchhiker they had picked up, telling him ‘you’ve been absolutely everything some people at home would like to think Czech people aren’t—so kind, and warm and sincere’ (64).4 However, Tossa’s attempts to do some amateur detective work into her step-father’s death leads to the murder of a young British diplomat and Tossa herself is suspected. At this point the British students are divided: Toddy and Christine believe they are ‘in enemy territory’ and ‘can’t co-operate’ (117) with the local police. They see their situation as ‘a real-life spy thriller’ (116) and believe they have to play a lone hand ‘against the Czech authorities, against every soul around them,’ because ‘there’s a matter of national security involved’ (115-116). When Tossa is remanded in custody, the petrified Toddy raves ‘about police states, conspiracies and frame-ups, and threaten[s] everything from diplomatic intervention to gunboats’ (128), forgetting that Czechoslovakia has no coastline. Dominic, on the other hand, can see the locals’ point of view: ‘We’re in Central Europe, in a communist country. If our people think we haven’t all that much reason to trust the Czechs, how much reason do you think the Czechs have to trust us? Historically, a hell of a lot less!’ (87). This awareness of the legacy of the Munich crisis, together with his inside knowledge as the son of a policeman, help Dominic to come to trust the two heroes of the tale, in particular the elderly policeman Lieutenant Ondrejov who, whatever Toddy and Christine think, bears no resemblance to ‘the grim, smooth police official of cold-war fiction’ (121) but, in fact, protects Tossa from her real, British, enemy, and is the first to work out the identity of the murderer. It is Ondrejov who gives Dominic the St Wenceslas medal which will enable him to solve the mystery in Pargeter’s next book. The other hero is Karol Alda (Charles Alder), who has dual British and Slovak nationality, and who used to work in scientific research with Tossa’s step-father. He had left Britain several years previously and was assumed to have ‘changed sides in the Cold War’ (161). In fact, Alda had gone back to live with his elderly grandmother in Slovakia and was devoting himself to music, writing an opera about the famous Czech thinker, John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), whom Edith Pargeter much admired (Lewis 1994, 32) particularly since she had translated Frantisek Kozik’s highly acclaimed biography of him in 1958. Alda left Britain because ‘he objected to the exclusively military use of innovations which he […] considered could have been beneficial in civil life’ (31). At the end of the book, he explains his philosophy of life: ‘Every man must use his own tools for the reshaping of the world. I’ve gone back to mine. Music, human affection, human dignity—they can all be used to state the political truths I believe in’ (161-162).

9If literature is added to the list, this was also Edith Pargeter’s philosophy. She remarked in a letter to Kevin Thomas of the Welsh Academy: ‘When there is genuine feeling, a writer’s politics will emerge of themselves. Politics, that is, in the widest sense, the art and ethics of living together in society’ (Pargeter 1990b).

10The Piper on the Mountain ends peacefully. The villains are all British and dead. Even Tossa’s official diplomatic rescuers have revealed their ‘ludicrous staggering Englishness which […] is never even detectable at home’ (135), as well as their complete inability to solve the crime. Lieutenant Ondrejov can send them away, happy that a diplomatic crisis had been averted and admonishing them: ‘England is your own house, gentlemen […]. Set it in order yourselves!’ (190). Alda carries the English students off to his grandmother’s house for a happy evening of Slovak folk music and stories, while the British authorities rejoice that ‘technical and cultural co-operation between our countries is making such progress’ (189). Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the book’s reviewers seem to have noticed Pargeter’s reversal of Cold War stereotypes and it was praised most of all for its evocative atmosphere and setting. As Hester Makeig wrote: ‘the scenery is memorably described, and one really longs to hear for oneself the cascade of fluting, plaintive notes of the fujara played by the mysterious Alda. Imaginatively done’ (20).

  • 5 Havelka is a diminutive form of Havel.

11Pargeter’s next novel, Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Heart, also demonstrates the author’s love of the Czech people and may, if Jiří Edelmann is right, have autobiographical elements. Audrey, the birth mother of the famous folk singer Lucien Galt, whom she was forced to give up for adoption in her youth, discovers him again over twenty-five years later. When her jealous husband, who does not know of the relationship, attacks Lucien during a folk music conference, Audrey kills him. Dominic Felse, who identifies the St Wenceslas medal worn by Lucien, enables his policeman father to discover that Lucien’s father was ‘one of the Czech pilots who were stationed at Auchterarne during the war’, who ‘must have been killed in action in 1942’ (212). Interestingly enough, Pargeter christened this pilot Václav Havelka, a name which strongly resembles that of the future president of the Czech Republic5 whom, by this stage, Pargeter had met through the Czech Writers’ Union and whom she would later acclaim as ‘a hero, an artist and incorruptible, and truly the elect of his people’ (Pargeter 1990a, 10).

12By the time Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Heart was published in 1967 the Prague Spring ‘had actually begun to show signs of leaf and bud’ with ‘the writers […] in the forefront of the battle’ (Pargeter 1990a, 10). The Writers’ Union’s fourth congress in June of that year had enabled several of the nation’s best-known literary figures to comprehensively denounce government policies and call for greater freedom. By early 1968 censorship had been lifted and it appeared that their hopes were being realised. A flood of previously suppressed works were published and ‘contacts with the West brought a wave of intellectual and artistic excitement that was felt throughout Europe’ (Lewis 1994, 44). Pargeter visited Czechoslavakia twice that year and, as she said, ‘shared the ecstatic but practical joy of the brief Prague Spring’ (1990b). The first visit, in the spring, was at the invitation of the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations, who presented her with their Gold Medal and Ribbon at a literary lunch held in her honour in the Prague Writers’ Club. She returned a couple of months later for her usual summer holiday. A week after she left Russians tanks started crossing the border and the Prague Spring was over. According to Jiří Edelmann, up until the last moment Pargeter’s Czech friends ‘were optimistic and believed in change’ (Edelmann). They ‘didn’t see the Soviets coming’ (Edelmann). Censorship was reimposed in 1969 and by 1971 the Writers’ Union was outlawed and many of Pargeter’s literary friends had fled to the West. For a few years it was once again impossible for her to obtain a visa to visit as, by this time, her real political views were known.

13Pargeter’s literary contributions to the Prague Spring unfortunately had to be published in Britain as, by the time they were ready, it was no longer possible to bring them out in Czechoslovakia. Her English translation of Josefa Slánská’s very controversial Report on My Husband created something of a sensation and her preface to this work is perhaps her only clear political statement before the final fall of Communism. Jiří Edelmann never understood why she chose to translate it (Edelmann), as the work may be seen as a defence of the clearly Communist and not always admirable Rudolf Slánsky, liquidated in 1952, the victim of false accusations and a mock trial. As Pargeter wrote, Slánsky’s trial and execution in Czechoslovakia were ‘the culmination of the Stalinist terror in that country, modelled on the Soviet trials, effected by police methods instigated from Russia, and indeed directed and supervised by Russian “counsellors”’ (xi). Such practices were, in Pargeter’s opinion, ‘the absolute antithesis of everything in the Czech and Slovak characters, even though Czechs and Slovaks were certainly found to do the menial work under orders’ (xii). However, despite her sympathy for Josefa and many of the other victims, Pargeter fully understood those Czechs, including her own closest friends, who thought Rudolf Slánsky was ‘partly responsible for introducing into Czechoslovak legal procedures the methods which subsequently destroyed him’ (xiv). So why did she translate the book? The final paragraphs of her preface provide some indications. Pargeter explains the political context: ‘A study of the struggles of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers against censorship, in 1967, will show beyond doubt that one of the things that must not be mentioned was the political trials of the 1950s. Truth, like rehabilitation, had its limits’ (xiv).

14It was only when censorship fell into abeyance after January 1968 that ‘the truth in which Josefa Slánská’s interrogators were “not interested” began to be heard, published and discussed’ (xiv), and it was almost certainly at this point that members of the Writers’ Union asked Pargeter to translate the book. However, by the autumn, Pargeter was convinced ‘that the invasion by Russia in August 1968 had as one of its main objectives the suppression of such evidence as this book contains’ (xiv). And she speculates that this may have been because Russia ‘regretted the retreat from Stalinism and desired to return by the same road and to the same methods’ (xiv). The publication of Report on my Husband may then be seen as a warning to the Czech people. A similar warning, although in less direct language, is also evident in Pargeter’s last major translation, published in 1970: Ivan Klíma’s two fairly transparent political allegories, published under the title A Ship Named Hope. At this point, Pargeter felt there was little more she could do: ‘Everything in Prague was disrupted, half the staff of Artia […] had escaped abroad or were suppressed, like all institutions that had shown liberal tendencies. There was simply no communication, and also nothing being published I would consider translating’ (qtd. in Lewis 1994, 46).

15Pargeter remained in contact with her Czech friends, in their native land and in exile, continued to draw attention to their plight via the British-Czechoslovakia Friendship League and translated the occasional text to help out, but for the rest of her career, she devoted herself to her own work. From 1977 she obtained such fame with the Cadfael Chronicles that Zora Wolfova and others started to translate her bestsellers into Czech. In 1989, when her ‘other country’ obtained the freedom her friends had sought for so long, she was jubilant: ‘They and we have waited twenty-one years for what we knew must happen, since no empire lasts forever. None of us expected it so soon or so suddenly and totally, the delayed Spring in full flower at last. I doubted if I should live to see it, but I have. Nunc dimittis!’ (1990a, 10).

16From then on, for the last years of her life, Edith Pargeter remained in constant contact with her Czech friends and was able to rejoice in the birth of Jiří Edelmann’s first grandchild in January 1990. His granddaughter, Edith, was named after her. She died in 1994 in her own house, named Troja, after the district of Prague where the Edelmanns live, with Jiří at her bedside. She had accompanied his nation from the tragedy of Munich in 1938 to their eventual, hard-earned freedom. Zora Wolfova testified to the role she had played:

She was always careful not to endanger her friends and discreet. It was a great encouragement for those of us who knew her that she was visiting our country even in the difficult times and she helped us be in touch with English life and culture…

[…] She was a great friend of our country, music and literature (qtd. in Lewis 1994, 41 and 47).

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1 Inside front cover text for The Fair Young Phoenix.

2 Czechoslovakia, including Bohemia, has no coastline. Pargeter is alluding to Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Act 3, Scene 3, where Antigonus asks whether his ‘ship has touched upon the deserts of Bohemia’.

3 Although Czechoslakia was one sovereign state at this point, the inhabitants still made a clear difference between Czechs and Slovaks and between the territories of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

4 The statement is also amusing in the context as Mirek is, in fact, a Slovak.

5 Havelka is a diminutive form of Havel.

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Electronic reference

Suzanne Bray, ‘Continually Walking a Tightrope’: Edith Pargeter’s Literary Crusade for CzechoslovakiaÉtudes britanniques contemporaines [Online], 52 | 2017, Online since 01 June 2017, connection on 25 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Suzanne Bray

Suzanne Bray is Professor of British Literature and Civilisation at Lille Catholic University. She specialises in the history of ideas in Britain in the 20th century and, in particular, in the communication of religious ideas in popular culture. She has published extensively in English and in French about authors such as C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers and Charles Williams. Her latest work, Dimensions of Madeleine L’Engle, was published by McFarland in December 2016.

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Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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