|December, 30, 1819
|September 20, 1898
Theodor Fontane (December 30, 1819 – September 20, 1898) was a nineteenth century German novelist and poet. He was the first German realist writer of significance. Realism eschewed some of the excesses of Romanticism, focusing less on the heroic individual, instead preferring to depict social reality, especially the social problems that face the common man. Fontane's most enduring work, Effi Briest, addresses the problem of adultery and the consequences for his heroine in nineteenth century society.
Fontane was born in Neuruppin into a Huguenot family. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to an apothecary, his father's profession, subsequently becoming an apothecary himself, and in 1839, at the age of 20, wrote his first work (Heinrichs IV. erste Liebe, now lost). His further education was in Leipzig, where he came into contact with the progressives of the Vormärz. Fontane's first published work, "Sibling Love," appeared in the Berlin Figaro in December 1839. His biographer, Gordon A. Craig, in Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich (Oxford University Press, 1999), observes that this work gave few indications of his promise as a gifted writer: "Although the theme of incest, which was to occupy Fontane on later occasions, is touched upon here, the mawkishness of the tale… is equaled by the lameness of its plot and the inertness of the style in which it is told, and [the characters] Clärchen and her brother are both so colorless that no one could have guessed that their creator had a future as a writer."
His first job as apothecary was in Dresden, after which he returned to his father's shop, now in the provincial town of Letschin in the Oderbruch region. Fleeing the provincial atmosphere there, Fontane published articles in the Leipzig newspaper Die Eisenbahn and translated Shakespeare. In 1843, he joined a literary club called Tunnel über der Spree (i.e. Tunnel over the river Spree) in Berlin, where he came into contact with many of the most renowned German writers such as Theodor Storm, Joseph von Eichendorff, and Gottfried Keller.
In 1844, Fontane enrolled in the Prussian army and set out on the first of numerous journeys to England, which fostered his interest in Old English ballads, a form he began to imitate then. At that time he became engaged to his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer, whom he had first met when still at school.
He briefly participated in the revolutionary events of 1848. In 1849, he quit his job as an apothecary and became a full-time journalist and writer. In order to support his family he took a job as a writer for the Prussian intelligence agency, Centralstelle für Preußenangelegenheiten, which was meant to influence the press towards a German national cause. Again he specialized in British affairs, and the agency sent him as a correspondent to London for a couple of years, where he was later joined by his wife and two sons. While still in London, he quit his government job and, upon his return to Berlin, became editor of the conservative Kreuzzeitung.
His books about Britain include Ein Sommer in London (1854), Aus England, Studien und Briefe (1860), and Jenseits des Tweed, Bilder und Briefe aus Schottland (1860). During the period, following the fashion of Walter Scott, traditional British stories were still en vogue on the continent. His Gedichte (1851) and ballads Männer und Helden (1860) tell of Britain's glories in days gone by.
Back in Germany, Fontane became particularly interested in the Mark Brandenburg region. He was especially proud of its past achievements and delighted in the growth of its capital city, Berlin. His fascination with the countryside surrounding Berlin may be seen in his delightfully picturesque Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (1862-1882, 5 vols.) in which he successfully transposed his former fascination with British historical matters to his native soil.
In 1870, he quit his job at the Kreuzzeitung, becoming a drama critic for the liberal Vossische Zeitung, a job he kept until retirement. He had already written about Prussia's war against Denmark in Der schleswig-holsteinische Krieg im Jahre 1864 (1866) and the Austro-Prussian War in Der deutsche Krieg von 1866 (1869). He proceeded to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and, taken prisoner at Vaucouleurs, he remained in French captivity for three months. His experiences there are set down in Kriegsgefangen Erlebtes 1870 (1871); subsequently he published his observations on the campaign in Der Krieg gegen Frankreich 1870-71 (1874-1876).
At the age of 57, Fontane finally took up working on what he would be remembered for, the novel. His fine historical romance Vor dem Sturm (1878) was followed by a series of novels of modern life, notably L'Adultera (1882), a book about adultery which was considered so risqué that it took Fontane two years to find a publisher. In his novels Frau Jenny Treibel, Irrungen, Wirrungen, and Effi Briest (1894), he found his voice, yielding insights into the lives of the nobility as well as the "common man;" his achievement in these works was later described as poetic realism. In Der Stechlin (1899), his last finished novel, Fontane adapted the realistic methods and social criticism of contemporary French fiction to the conditions of Prussian life.
Effi Briest (1894) is realist Theodor Fontane's masterpiece and one of the most famous German novels of all time. Thomas Mann praised the novel; its influence on Mann's early work, Buddenbrooks, is evident. Along with the more famous Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, the novel forms a trilogy on marriage in the nineteenth century from the female point of view. All three are adultery tragedies.
Effi Briest is the daughter of a nobleman in northern Germany. At seventeen, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten, a man twice her age who years ago had courted her mother and been turned down because of his insufficient social position, which he has in the meantime improved.
Effi, still practically a child, but attracted by notions of social honor, consents to living in the small Baltic town of Kessin, where she is miserably unhappy. Her husband is away for weeks at a time. Snubbed by the local aristocracy, she finds but one companion in the whole town. Her suspicions that their house may be haunted have been, perhaps on purpose, not completely laid to rest by Innstetten.
The genial and somewhat crass Major Crampas arrives in town, and although he is married and known as a womanizer, Effi cannot help but enjoy his attentions. As the reader is only delicately told, a full relationship is consummated.
Years later as Effi's daughter Annie is growing up, the family moves to Berlin as Innstetten moves up in the ranks, and all in all things have turned out well for Effi. However, by chance her ancient correspondence with Crampas sees the light of day, and Innstetten decides immediately to divorce her. He is given custody of their daughter.
Now miserable again, Effi lives alone. Covered by scandal, her parents will not take her back. Crampas is challenged to a duel and killed by Innstetten, who afterwards has second thoughts about his action. His life, too, is ruined: He is never happy, though his social position improves.
Effi is finally taken in by her parents, and dies serenely at the estate of Hohen-Cremmen, in a very symmetrical ending that matches the beginning of the novel. Her parents vaguely realize their responsibility for her unhappiness, but ultimately they do not dare question the social constructs which caused the tragedy.
Manfred von Ardenne's grandmother, Elisabeth von Plotho, is thought to be the inspiration for Effi Briest.
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