by Michaela Medveďová, Anežka Hrežová
Imagine studying English during the period it was considered to be the “enemy” language. Few English-spoken movies, restrictions on books, and scarce contact with native speakers. This is what the Department of English and American Studies looked like in the sixties when Professor Milada Franková was a student here. Now, being one of the most valued members of the Department, she offers an insight into the struggles and joys of a different era.
How do you perceive Masaryk University has changed since your student days?
Extremely. It has expanded hugely and it has turned into a modern open European university. The change is enormous. I think it is incomparable.
What was your student life like compared to ours today?
Very different as well, because I studied in the mid-sixties and late-sixties. Student life, fortunately, was open enough outside the universities. We enjoyed pub-going and big beat-dancing and partying. There were not any compulsory extracurricular activities because the in the mid-sixties there was already a kind of lull in the political arena at the university so in this respect we were sort of left alone. Actually – I was, in fact, a part of the beginnings of The Gypsywood Players.
What did the group look like back then?
One can say it was pre-Gypsywood because we were actually the first people with whom it all started. It was not extracurricular then, it was a very enjoyable part of our intensive fourteen-day course at Cikháj. Our Scottish teacher at the Department, Doctor Jessie Kocmanová, came up with the idea. We were only happy to oblige because then we were exempted from all the teaching and studying and we devoted all of our time to Gypsywood – the rehearsing and, in the end, the performance. We gave one performance to our colleagues and teachers at Cikháj and that was it; it was not taken to Brno and performed to wider audiences. It only expanded much later.
What plays did you stage?
I think I was in two or three plays. One was Party Through the Wall by Muriel Spark; another was The Doctors of Philosophy, also by her; and then Edward Albee’s The Sandpit. I had quite a long Gypsywood experience as it went over three years, starting in my second year. But we didn’t actually call ourselves The Gypsywood Players then. That only came much, much later.
One can suppose you are still a fan of The Gypsywood Players now.
I was very enthusiastic about the revival that happened a couple of years ago. I went to all performances and kept my fingers crossed for them. They were excellent.
We never heard of Animal Farm
What were the differences in your studies compared to the present day?
The studies were strictly double-subject, there was no single English, nothing of the kind. I did English and German. It was always major and minor and the groups were very, very small. There were very few of us – there were fifteen of us in one year in my studies in major English and fifteen who were major German-minor English. Altogether there were 30 people in the year – and that was already in a time when the intake of students into the Department was allowed to expand. Those groups before us were even smaller, and so were the ones after normalization.
the students, of course, did not know that there were books the teachers were not allowed to tell them about
What about the subjects?
The syllabus was fixed, there was no choice of subjects; everything in the particular semester was compulsory. But I largely enjoyed my English studies, I cannot say there was anything too dull. We had excellent teachers – Jan Firbas, Ludmila Pantůčková, Jessie Kocmanová. They were all still fairly young doctors then. They were excellent so I enjoyed both literature and linguistics – and that was all we actually had. We had history at the beginning but that was only a minor part of the studies.
Was there a part of your studies you did not enjoy as much?
What I hated in the studies were the compulsory, all-faculty subjects: Marxism, Political Economy – that was really a punishment for being here.
Were there any restrictions on the literature you were allowed to read? Was anything forbidden?
Not that we knew of. The syllabus had to be constructed in some way but the students, of course, did not know that there were books the teachers were not allowed to tell them about. We never heard of, for example, George Orwell’s 1984, or Animal Farm. These things would have been avoided quite naturally, even without trying to sneak something in.
It is amazing, though, that such studies were even possible then.
It was more or less on sufferance because English was seen as the language of the enemy. That is why there were so many restrictions there. Only a few students were allowed to study the language at all. The access to spoken English was difficult. You cannot imagine how happy we were when we were given a few tapes with lessons spoken by native speakers. There was no access to films in English that were not dubbed and could be shown to us. It made studies entirely different from what you have today.
I would not have dreamt of an academic career in the English studies then. Without the Communist party membership there seemed to be such little chance that I just did not think of it at all.
Did the previous regime showed its force in other ways as well?
There were huge restrictions in terms of how many people could actually get in. It was very difficult without a lot of luck and the proper background. I did not have one – so it was a miracle that I had managed to get in. And the same goes for the academic career. I would not have dreamt of an academic career in the English studies then. Without the Communist party membership there seemed to be such little chance that I just did not think of it at all. I would not even try.
What did you choose to do instead?
I was happy I got a teaching job at a language school in Brno – that was the one and only state language school there. I enjoyed teaching English – mainly to adults because it was an evening school. A little later we also had day classes for young students at secondary school leading to final state exams in various languages; I only did English but there were other languages as well. I enjoyed this job and came to the Department only after the Velvet Revolution. Suddenly there was this need for huge expansion and I was sort of invited to come in as a language teacher. But soon enough there was also demand for literature teaching and that is how I embarked on my academic career and research.
London? A multicultural, swinging place
Your biography states that you briefly worked as an office clerk in Skoda London. How did you gain this position?
More or less by chance. It happened when I was in London as an au pair. There was briefly a possibility to get a longer exit visa – those were necessary after 1969. It was possible to have long-term visa if you had a proper invitation. I had this invitation to be an au pair in a family of some friends’ of mine and I was given the one-year exit visa to apply for visa in England. While I was in London I learned that it was possible for Czech people – after the Russian invasion of 1968 – to get a work permit and that it was easy enough to find a job with Skoda London.
I liked the job, because it meant living an ordinary life in England.
How did you enjoy the job?
It was a rather dull job, I must say. I worked in the warranty claims department and this amounted to writing up warranty claims and adding up the sums that were to be paid. It was still the pre-decimal currency system in England so I had to count in pounds, shillings and pennies which was a disaster. But outside that, I liked the job, because it meant living an ordinary life in England.
What did London look like in 1969?
At the time there was already a fairly rich cultural mix – there were the English people but also the Pakistani, the Indian from the Caribbean… It was the year 1969 and London was already a multicultural, swinging place. For me, it was an exciting experience – it was entirely new, having people from all parts of the world as colleagues at work.
Were you not tempted to stay there, to never come back?
I was, I can tell you. At the end of 1969 it was over, the Iron Curtain fell hard again. However, I applied for an extension for my exit visa. In the meantime, I managed to gain both a scholarship and a place for post-graduate studies at Liverpool University. I really wanted to stay in England and carry on with my studies there. But I was not granted the extension. The choice was either to emigrate or to go home. Because of my family in Czech Republic I just could not decide to stay there and become an émigré – my family would have suffered all kinds of consequences. I decided to return – and returned exactly on the last minute of my visa.
At the end of 1969 it was over, the Iron Curtain fell hard again. The choice was either to emigrate or to go home.
Have you ever returned to London?
Yes, after twenty years. I managed to go back for an English course supported by the British Council, and that was in 1989. During the years of normalisation it was virtually impossible to go there. There was no way of getting exit visa to go to England just for fun.
There are always excellent and weaker students
Do you have a favourite book or author?
There are far too many, it would make a very long list. I have actually written about some 25 women writers in my books and articles. Almost every one of them would count as one of my favourites.
Why did you choose to pursue female writers and characters?
It developed. I have always read a lot, even from my early childhood. During my studies here I came to know some of the contemporary British writers and women writers, so I never stopped reading them. However, reading in English was also a difficulty. It was difficult to get hold of the books. But I lived in Brno, and the people in the English Department were very kind to me and would allow me to borrow books from the library. At that time it was the Department library – departments had their own libraries. All the contemporary novels that were donated by the British Council to the Department were thus available to me. Therefore I actually knew a lot of contemporary writers. When the need arose – when I came to the Department to do academic work and research – it was a natural choice that I reached for contemporary writers and women writers in particular. Many of them are so little written about in comparison to the male authors. But for the most part – I liked them better.
Is there any particular publication of yours that you are most proud of?
No, I do not think so, really. I somehow always got very much involved and absorbed in the particular topic that I was researching and writing on. It links me to my publications. I really enjoyed writing them. But whether something was better than others – I rather not think about it.
What about courses? Do you have a favourite one to teach?
I do not teach many courses, and I must say I like all of them. I like the topics that I teach whether it is Medieval or Contemporary Literature – at some point I also taught Renaissance Literature.
Do you still enjoy teaching?
Yes, I enjoy teaching because I teach what I actually like, and hope that the students may be interested in some of the topics as well. I have not had any problems with students over the years, whether during teaching or examining.
Do you perceive teaching as something that has become more demanding over time?
I do not have this feeling at all. I know that every now and then there are complaints that our students are less interested or that we had some better students in the past. I think you cannot generalize because there are so many of you. In these numbers there are always excellent and very good students and there are always also weaker students and those who are not particularly interested. That is something that cannot be avoided. It has always been here.
In the past you taught at different universities in Czech Republic and in Slovakia. Do you consider this Department to be unique in a way?
Making comparisons between the departments would not be a fair thing to do because of my limited activities there. In Opava I taught only a few very small groups of students in one-semester courses. In Ružomberok, on the other hand, I had lectures to a bit larger audiences but I was not involved in exams so there was very little interaction between the students and myself. I have the most intensive and longest experience at this Department. I am very happy with everything – my research, teaching, or students. I´ve been very happy with all of this over – how many years now? Twenty-five, twenty-six years that I have been here.
Professor Milada Franková
Professor Milada Franková was born in 1946 in Libavá. She studied at Masaryk University and the University of Warwick. She worked as an office clerk in Skoda London, Ltd. and as an English teacher at state language school in Brno. After her return to academia in 1990 she worked at the Silesian University in Opava and at the Catholic University in Ružomberok, Slovakia. Most importantly, she has been a member of the academic staff of the Department of English and American Studies at Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University in Brno. In her academic work and research she focuses on female writers in English literature, the British novel and British cultural studies.