<1> Karel Capek (1890–1938) is considered to be one of the most significant and versatile figures of Czech culture in the 20th century. Capek was not only a world-renowned novelist, storyteller, poet, playwright, and dramatist of the Vinohrady Theatre, but also an essayist, publisher, literary and arts critic, philosopher, and last but not least, the author of numerous fairy tales. It was also Capek who initiated the foundation of the Czechoslovak PEN Club as one of the centers of the International PEN Club founded in 1921 in London, becoming its chairman. Capek’s works have been translated into dozens of world languages, including Esperanto and Bengal. It is also interesting to note that Capek himself was an excellent translator from French, and his ingenious and thorough translation of French Poetry of the New Age (1920) became a model for translation. In light of the sheer scope and versatility of all Capek’s activities and interests, his friendship with Tomas Garrigue Masaryk should not go without mention as it provided Capek with the inspiration to write the unique trilogy entitled Talks with T.G.M. (1928–1935). Capek loosely linked a fourth volume to this trilogy, entitled Silence with T.G.M. (1935). The life and works of Karel Capek have served as the subject of numerous memoirs and have been examined from a myriad of diverse angles (e.g. Vlašín 1988, Vocadlo 1975, 1995, Klíma, Comrada 2002, etc.). Capek’s dramatic and prose works make up an integral part of the repertoire of Czech (but also foreign) theatres. Just recently, Capek’s War with the Newts (1936) premiered on April 4, 2009 in the Moravian and Silesian National Theatre in Ostrava. Capek’s creativity and innovation may also be seen in the lexical field: his use of the word robot, used in the utopian science-fiction drama R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920), enriched international vocabulary. Extracts of Capek’s works hold a significant place in the Czech and international literary curricula.
<2> Since the beginning of the mid 1930’s, Karel Capek was intensively aware of the impending threat of fascism which he actively engaged himself against. Capek’s article entitled Czech writers — why do you remain silent? (1926) became an open response to the Czech Fascists’ Manifest to Writers. On January 21, 1934, Capek signed an appeal to authors, artists, and scientists to help children suffering from the effects of the economic recession. In November of the same year, he also gave his signature to the protest organized by the Czechoslovak Writer’s Community against organized fascist disruptions of peace. Capek’s open anti-fascist sentiment and his sense of nationality are also reflected in his climactic prose and dramatic works – in the satirical fantasy War with the Newts (1936) and dramas entitled Power and Glory (1937) and The Mother (1938), which blurred the boundaries between utopia and reality. The quality of Capek’s art form was confirmed by a nomination for the Nobel Prize for literature in the year 1936.
<3> Capek’s untimely death, which actually prevented him from falling into the hands of the Gestapo, was painfully felt by Anglo-Irish dramatist G.B. Shaw:
It is absurd. It should have been my turn this time. Karel was far too young to go like that. He had at least another 40 years to give so much to the world! His plays proved him to be a prolific and terrific playwright.” (Shaw qtd. in Vocadlo 1995, 12)
<4> Tomáš Halík adequately summarized the timelessness of Capek’s ideas at the memorial ceremony of the 70th anniversary of his death, December 25, 2008 at Vyšehrad in Prague. This renowned theologist emphasized the relevance of Capek’s works, which speak even of our present times through their vivacity and spirit — times that are similar to Capek’s in their amount of possibilities and weaknesses.
<5> The aim of this study is to analyze Capek’s travel essays which were created during Capek’s stay in London in 1924 based on the author’s correspondence with Otakar Vocadlo, Capek’s guide in London, while drawing from relevant historical sources. Capek’s visit to England was partially thanks to professor Otakar Vocadlo (1895–1974), a significant Czech Anglicist and Bohemian scholar, who functioned as senior lecturer in the years 1922–1928 at the Institute of Slavic Studies, University of London. During his career at the university Vocadlo nominated two figures as honorable members of the London PEN Club — Alois Jirásek, representing the older generation, and Karel Capek, who was a mere 33 years old at the time. While Jirásek gratefully accepted the membership, it is likely that Capek did not realize the scope of such an award. This can be partially confirmed by his use of the diminutive form of the word “club” (klubek), referring to the PEN Club in a private letter to Vocadlo (Vocadlo 1995, 34-35).
<6> Capek’s visit to England began to finally materialize towards the end of 1923 though the specific confirmation of his planned stay came in February 1924. According to Otakar Vocadlo (1995, 39), Capek’s decision was affected by the British Empire Exhibition taking place in England as Capek was interested in seeing it. Before his trip, Capek was gripped by fears that there would not be an adequate form of accommodation and also hesitated in choosing the proper attire. In his correspondence with Vocadlo, Capek expressed his wishes to meet with G.B. Shaw, H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton. Vocadlo took Capek’s wishes into consideration and created an itinerary for his stay. For the first days he offered Capek accommodation in Surbiton, which most likely calmed the author’s largest concerns, and also arranged tentative meetings with Shaw, Wells, and Chesterton.
<7> According to Vocadlo’s testimony, Capek arrived in London (at Victoria Station) on May 28, 1924 fresh and in good spirits. After his arrival, both friends headed to Waterloo Station by the underground and from there on to Surbiton. Vocadlo’s comments on the fact that Capek was displeased by elevators and underground transport from a rough sketch of Capek’s first moments spent in London, which contrasted with the pleasure he took in riding on the open tops of buses.
<8> Vocadlo’s house in Surbiton became Capek’s asylum. It was there where he spent his first days in England and also the place where he gladly returned from busy London. His Letters from England began to take form:
It was beautiful sunny weather and Capek liked to sit in the garden under the wide-branched Lebanese cedar. He was attracted by parks, and was fascinated by the spreading trees and the dense, closely trimmed English lawns. He was impressed by the fact that he was at liberty to step upon them without risk of being chastised. (Vocadlo 1995, 45)
<9> Capek was to meet with numerous figures from London’s cultural, social, and artistic life. One of the most significant events of this first week in London was a luncheon held by the London PEN Club on 3 July, 1924 in Capek’s honor. During this celebratory occasion Capek met with the Romanian Queen Mary, who had wished to meet him in person. Capek also met with John Galsworthy and G.K. Chesterton. Unfortunately, neither Wells nor Shaw were able to attend. Capek gave a speech in English at the banquet in which, according to Vocadlo, he drew a parallel between Shakespeare’s depiction of the Czech coast (Capek was undoubtedly referring to Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale) towards which boats sailed loaded with English books and his own bibliophilia. According to his following words, Capek — despite his proficiency and enthusiasm for English literature — was surprised by his own unfamiliarity and inability to communicate in English and compared himself to a deaf-mute traveler. Capek also shared with his listeners another impression of England; a country which seemed to him to be so surprisingly English and so different from what he knew of it before from the works of the authors attending the banquet. In the following segment of his speech, Capek masterfully praised the works of the individual authors attending the banquet, but also of those absent, and concluded by summarizing and praising the efforts of the PEN Club. The speech was extensively reproduced by The Times.
<10> At the end of his first week in England, Capek met with G.B. Shaw and later with H.G. Wells. Upon meeting Shaw, Capek elaborated on his theory stating that everything in England seems familiar to him. Shaw subsequently responded to this by telling Capek that he may once have been (previously) Shakespeare. It is true that Shaw was merely reacting to Capek’s assertion, but an analogy drawn by such a famous playwright remains a true honor for Capek as a Czech playwright. According to Otakar Vocadlo’s memoirs (1995, 62), Capek’s weekend spent at Wells’ estate in Easton Glebe was among one of the most inspirational and successful events of his visit to England. Capek admired Wells’ literary works and was also fascinated with him as a person. Capek’s interlude in Essex was most probably a welcomed change from his hurried London program, during which he met with the actors studying his play R.U.R. and Insect Play (published 1921). Capek’s London social engagements were closed before leaving to Easton Glebe by a ceremonial luncheon organized for Capek by the contemporary ambassador of Czechoslovakia Vojtech Mastný on 20 June.
<11> Apart from these important social obligations, Capek was still left with enough space to explore and scrutinize the famous but also less well-known sites of London. Otakar Vocadlo’s memoirs explicitly point to Capek’s fascination with London’s greens, trees, lawns, and parks. At the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Capek was captivated by the vast variety of exotic vegetation and extensive grassy areas. Capek seemed equally enchanted by his experience of the London Zoo. Vocadlo adds that Capek was intrigued not only by the flora and fauna, but also by the non-living exhibits such as the crystals in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. Capek humorously recreated his experiences from the famous Wax Museum of Madame Tussauds including the Chamber of Horrors in one of his Letters from England as he did with his experience of Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. Capek also relates his impressions of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. London undoubtedly provided Capek with a myriad of stimulating ideas and experiences, but the city also frightened Capek to a certain degree by its sheer expanse, population and, in his eyes, disharmony.
Letters from England
<12> Capek’s observations of London recorded with great character in the travel essays entitled Letters from England which were first published June 15, 1924 in the Czech newspaper Lidové Noviny. These ’letters‘ do not represent travel material in the classic sense of the word, as they give a rather more personal interpretation of Capek’s travel experiences. For Capek, an objective medium that simply interpreted what he saw was not a priority preferring instead to create a subjectively colorful interpretation unique in its point of view, resilience, and certain level of irony. Capek’s analogies and contrasts between foreign and domestic are not limited only to landscape and scenery or places close to his heart, as he also empathetically puts himself in the place of his countrymen. This can be seen, for example, in the description of his travels through the English countryside as Capek from time to time uses the Czech peasant as the recipient of certain information, and makes characteristic comments to him:
My uncle, a Czech peasant farmer, how you would shake your head with indignation looking at the red and black herds of cows on the most beautiful meadows in the world and say, ‘What a waste of such beautiful dung!’ And you would say, ‘Why don’t they sow turnips here? (Capek, Newsome 2004, 74)
<13> Letters from England is characterized by a rich vocabulary, which brings to life all of Capek’s geographical, cultural, and social observations. The choice of specific lexical items is influenced by the subject matter of the individual letters. The text is naturally dominated by English nomenclature, proper names and appellations which are fluently inserted into the Czech text to enrich the authenticity of the information recorded. Capek’s repertoire of nominal constructions is unusually rich, as can be seen equally among his inventory of verbs ‘… it rattles, rumbles, purrs, gurgles and bubbles’ (Capek, Newsome 2004, 31), forming a text literally overflowing with colorful synonyms. The flow of the text is also enlivened by informal expressions (e.g. “they’re beating around the bush”), rhetorical questions (e.g. “Where is the perfection of man? How should I say it modestly?”) and also metaphors. Personification represents a specific characteristic of Capek’s language, in which perfectly prose-like objects, for example transport vehicles, take on a fairy tale-like character, one either attractive or mysterious. Buses change into wheezing mastodons trampling around in herds, and motorized elephants carry hordes of tiny people on their backs.
<14> In the process of interpreting what he experienced, Capek thoroughly preserves his role as the uncommitted observer and mediator of events. Capek’s relatively passive role can be confirmed by his choice of sentences, preferring impersonal expression of the subject though at the same time putting himself into the role of the object. Similar formulations appear namely in connection with forms of transport, which Capek evidently made an effort to distance himself from. Capek’s description of his trip from London’s Victoria Station to Surbiton emphasizes a certain disgust and bitterness which he had for the commotion of London transport: “They loaded me onto the train and took me out at Surbiton, cheered me up, fed me and put me into a feather bed” (Capek, Newsome 2004, 26). Capek utilizes a similar strategy in describing his first contact with London transport, which surprised and possibly shocked him by its variety and sheer size.
<15> Letters from England (more fitting might be Letters from London) moves from specific aspects of London which interested Capek in various ways (parks, streets, methods of transport, museums, clubs) to the human being and the meaning of human actions. True to his nature, Capek takes note of the diversity of animal life and vegetation and makes no attempt to hide his admiration of the English trees, which he considered to be a decoration of England (Capek 1958, 62) and the source or reservoir of English traditions. He ascribes exclusively human attributes to trees, and uses such terms as “broad-backed, old, ample, free, venerable and huge”. Capek also superlatively describes English lawns, which most probably fascinated him by their open entrance, giving him a feeling of what he described as “boundless freedom”. In a humorously ironic manner, Capek draws a direct relation between freedom and unboundedness (referring to the grassy lawns) and the creation of character and world view. The trees and lawns also very likely formed Capek’s overall concept of England as the most fairy-taleish and romantic country he had seen.
<16> Capek drew a sharp contrast between the quiet, tranquility, and magnificence of these parks with the commotion of London’s streets. He does not fail to remember his own home while forming his narrative, as he paints a picture of London’s streets and squares while providing the reader with intimately familiar terms and comparisons. Capek compared the Strand and Piccadilly Circus with all its noise and bustle to “a spinning mill with thousands of spindles”. In a nontraditional manner, he is able to recount the details of London’s streets — contrary to the avenues and trails of his home — which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Capek describes the English streets as a sort of impersonal channel of transport used exclusively to transport oneself home. He also notices the spatial arrangement of the streets and at the same time specifies the attributes of a genuine British home, for example a garden with a swing or playground, lattices, ivy, small lawns, hedgerows and door-knockers, all functioning as dividing points between residential dwellings and the street. In Capek’s conception, the poetry of the English home is countered by the monotony of the street. London’s streets – or roads – were not, however, drearily quiet and impersonal; they were also crowded and sometimes overloaded with the numerous forms and means of transportation. Traveling through the complex system of underground tunnels reminded Capek of feverish states or frightening underground dreams evoking the feeling that hell was in close proximity. His suggestive description of the London transport system as a mammoth process with a myriad of participating organisms evokes a parallel with Weiss’s The House of 1000 Floors (1929). Capek, being rather timid, perceived the intensity and variability of London’s transport as being something incomprehensible and excruciating.
As soon as I want to acknowledge what is going on around me I have the same torturous feeling of something bad, monstrous and disastrous for which I know no solace. And then, you know, I feel unbearably lonely. (Capek, Newsome 2004, 74)
<17> Contrary to the busy streets, Hyde Park became Capek’s source of pleasure and amusement. In a masterful hyperbole, Speaker’s Corner is transformed into a giant multi-celled organism, dividing up and rearranging according to the immediate interest of the audience. Capek concludes his contemplations on the magnificence and significance of the orators’ topics and their degree of erudition with a humorously ironic description of a sheep’s sermon, which for him as a sinner had a cleansing effect much like a religious service. To Capek, London’s museums were similarly informative and provided a diversion. Apart from visiting the British Museum, the Wallace Collection, the Tate Gallery, and the National Gallery, he also visited the Natural History Museum which enthralled him. Capek’s inclination towards nature is evident in The Gardener’s Year(1929) or Calendar (posthumously published in 1940) but also in his fictional works, and is fully expressed in the poetic description of the museum exhibits which become a true homage to nature (for specific examples see Capek 2004, 46). In his hunt for experiences, Capek also did not fail to mention the Wax Museum of Madame Tussauds, particularly the Chamber of Horrors which compelled the author to reflect on the moral that people must not be judged only by their appearances.
<18> The concept of Letters from London confirms Capek’s gradual transformation from nature-oriented or animated industrial themes to people, their activities, interests, and also, of course, their traditions. One of the English traditions he noted was “club life”. According to Otakar Vocadlo’s memoirs, the Czech sampled the Atheneum Club and the Caledonian Club during his stay in London where he met with Arnold Bennett and Desmond MacCarthy. Although London’s club life in Capek’s narrative is described mainly as a ritual of pipe-smoking, browsing through Who’s Who, and sitting in silence, he was in fact very pleased with the intellectually stimulating atmosphere of the historic chambers, leather armchairs, and the presence of significant personages (Vocadlo 2004, 57). According to his plans, Capek also visited British Empire Exhibition in Wembley Park which in spite of its financial difficulties revived the British tradition of international exhibitions established by the 1851 Great Exhibition in (Rydell 1993, 3). The exhibition became an effective demonstration of British colonial rule over one quarter of the world presented across 216 acres of Wembley Park. According to the advertising materials that Capek was likely to have had, the exhibition provided those interested with the unique opportunity to see the empire “from end to end” (Betts 2004, 5). Capek was impressed not only by the sheer number of visitors, but also by the quantity and quality of the exhibits and natural products, which became “the horn of commercial plenty” in Capek’s summation (Capek 1958, 82). Yet the direct comparison underlying his text imply an ambivalent attitude towards the exhibition: Capek undoubtedly sensed the diversity and uniqueness of the exotic products and goods, giving the reader a detailed summary of them, but at the same time perceived the exhibition as a largely commercial matter eclipsing real people and their lives and fates:
The Exhibition at Wembley shows what four million people do for Europe and partly also what Europe can do for them. But there is nothing here they do for themselves. (Capek 1958, 86)
Capek characteristically closes his treatise with the nostalgic wish to return from his bustling trip around the world and traveling through “an excessively large bazaar” or “gigantic hubbub” to the blissful home of his childhood, where the goods in Prouz’s store — black gingerbread, ginger, vanilla, and bay leaves — in Úpice meant as much to him as all the treasures in the world.
<19> The London segment of Letters from England is concluded by an essay on the East End, a neighborhood teeming with unique historical, geographical, cultural, societal, and economic features. Capek’s original urge to visit the East End is not evident although he mentions setting out for the East of London alone, armed with the advice of the natives of the West End. The East End of the 1930’s which Capek passed through evoked an image of poverty and endless accumulations of inhabitants, monotonous rows of uniform residential dwellings, shops, taverns, and industrial structures:
But, my God, what sorts of millions of people live in this larger half of London, in these short, uniform, joyless streets which swarm on the map of London like worms in immense carrion. (Capek, Newsome 1998, 71)
With a thoroughness characteristic of Capek, he gives his testimony to the amazingly long, exotic-sounding streets, Jewish shops, workers, dock loaders, cockneys, and so forth. Capek’s empathetic interpretation of East London draws a logical correlation between the overcrowded East End and the indeterminateness of his situation. In such a way, Capek presents the reader with a simple formula in which the infinite equals the hopeless as he a paints a subtle picture of the East End as “a geological formation, the black magma disgorged by factories”, describing the “dregs of the trade”, or the “layers of soot and dust” (Capek 1958, 88). Surprisingly, the author does not mention the East End as being the first stopover for immigrants, or the hunting grounds of Jack the Ripper. Capek’s skeptical vision of the East End in many ways corresponds to the depiction of East London in more recent studies by Marc Brodie (2004), Gareth Stedman Jones (1971), and others.
A new look into a familiar topic
<20> Thanks to Vocadlo’s systematic archiving of Capek’s correspondence, unique details have been preserved including his travel preparations, first impressions on English soil, the specifics of his exploration of London and London’s atmosphere. Capek’s private letters in fact make up the initial concepts of Letters from England. The first English translation of Capek’s travel accounts (Newsome 2005, 3-4) was created by Paul Selver, the translator of Capek’s dramatic and prose works, and later Geoffrey Newsome. Capek originally wanted Otakar Vocadlo to translate the Letters, who refused the honor in favor of Paul Selver. In Great Britain, Letters from England first came out under the title How It Feels To Be in England in Manchester’s Guardian, then later in book form (Vocadlo 1998, 79).
<21> A specific characteristic of these travel sketches is Capek’s use of language, typical in its richness and elaborateness on the levels of morphology, lexicology, and syntax. Capek’s texts are made unique by the use of synonyms, similes, and very often the use of ironic view as an outsider. An integral part of Letters from England are Capek’s illustrations, which can be perceived as a reflection of the author’s disposition and opinions or the as the embodiment of the quintessence of Capek’s work. Readers may find themselves in English parks, on London’s streets, in the endless waves of traffic and transport, in the Speaker’s Corner, in front of the Natural History Museum, in London’s social clubs, at the British Empire Exhibition or in the East End. Also of course are included Capek’s favorite fauna, for example a herd of deer grazing in Richmond Park.
<22> Capek’s observations during his travels provide a novel glance into the diverse cultural, social and economic aspects of 1920s London all conveyed through his unique point of view. While interpreting what he saw and heard, Capek remained a thoroughly perceptive and contemplative observer. Despite a certain passivity, his reflections on reality are sensitive and empathetic. In his observations, Capek does not, however, interfere with reality; nor does he moralize or pass judgment.
<23> Generally speaking, Capek’s diverse and vibrant travel images can be characterized by a deep sense of humanity and a faith in people themselves, which can be seen through his often childishly clear perspective, helping the reader perceive these familiar topics from a new viewpoint. Capek’s Letters from England are considered to be not only the masterpiece of an excellent observer, but they also provide a unique depiction of London, seen through the eyes of this Czech author and wanderer — the gentleman stroller of London streets.
 This study was supported by the The Czech Science Foundation project GACR 405/09/P035.
 Capek held the position of chairman of the Czechoslovak PEN Club during the years 1925 – 1933.
 For more information see http://www.ndm.cz/inscenace_detail.php?insc=135&zdroj=repertoar (cf. Works Cited).
 For more information see http://www.karelcapek.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16&Itemid=27 (cf. Works Cited).
 For more information see http://www.halik.cz/kazani/capek_prosinec2008.php (cf. Works Cited).
 Otakar Vocadlo (1995, 39) also states that the exhibition could have helped solve the financial issue of Capek’s visit to London.
 Professor Vocadlo lived in the home which was provided to him by Bernard Press, director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies during his stay in the United States (Vocadlo 1995, 45).
 Otakar Vocadlo gives detailed information on Capek’s social obligations (1995, 45).
 Otakar Vocadlo (1995, 46-47) further states that originally a ceremonial dinner was to take place, and was changed to lunch time due to the presence of the Romanian Queen, who had other social obligations that same evening.
 The puppet play Shakes Versus Shav (1949) created by Shaw at the end of his life revolves around the characters of two playwrights and recapitulates Shaw’s lifelong contention with the works of William Shakespeare (Stríbrný 1987, 597).
 Otakar Vocadlo (1995, 44-45) also similarly describes Capek’s dislike for elevators and underground transportation. See also above.
 In the letter entitled Hyde Park, Capek (1958, 69-72) humorously comments on his resignation at the opportunity to speak and did not publicly present his rhetorical works.
 Capek’s moral, much like that of the ending of a fable, stems from his humorous description of his blunder while visiting the Chamber of Horrors where he mistakenly interchanged the pages of the guidebook and mistook some famous figures (Shaw, Blériot, and Marconi) for criminals.
 The official advertising materials motivated visitors with the promise of traveling around the world and studying the shop windows of the British Empire “at a minimum of cost, in a minimum of time, with a minimum of trouble” (Betts 2004, 6). The hypothesis of Capek’s possessing these materials can be partially confirmed by his comparison of the exhibition to “a journey around the world” (Capek 1958, 83).
 In connection with this matter, Otakar Vocadlo (1995, 54) adds that Capek’s description of the exhibition provides a stern critique of the more shadowy sides of colonialism and commercialism.
 In connection with the translation of Letters from England, Otakar Vocadlo (1998, 153) points out Selver’s translation to be inaccurate in places, which is also confirmed by Geoffrey Newsome (2005, 3-4) in the preface to his translation of The Gardener’s Year.
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To Cite This Article:
Ivona Misterova, ‘Letters from England: Views on London and Londoners by Karel Capek, the Czech “Gentleman Stroller of London Streets”’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 2 (September 2010). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2010/misterova.html. Accessed on [date of access].