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Imprisoned by convention

07 December 2012

John Arnold reflects on the delicate Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Happier times: from a 2009 film version of Effi Briest, which starred Julia Jentsch and Sebastian Koch as Effi and Instetten

Happier times: from a 2009 film version of Effi Briest, which starred Julia Jentsch and Sebastian Koch as Effi and Instetten

EFFI BRIEST is often bracketed with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as one of the three great late-19th-century novels of adultery. This is misleading. First, it is not so much a novel in the Russian, French, or indeed English sense of the word, as a German Novelle, comparatively short, tightly constructed around one theme without sub-plots or other distractions, but with subtle gradations of atmosphere (Stimmung) and of foreboding (Ahnung).

Second, it is not really about adultery or individual morality at all. The authorial voice is neither judgemental nor cynical, but it is implicitly critical of the fatal power of obsolete social customs, and is thus closer in tone to Jane Austen than to Tolstoy or Flaubert. Here is no grand passion. The trivial affair is not even recounted: it is merely hinted at. It takes place off-stage, and comes to light only by chance, years after the event.

Third, the work deserves to be better known in its own right as the masterpiece of Theodor Fontane, the best German novelist between Goethe and Thomas Mann.

A qualified pharmacist of Huguenot descent, Fontane served a long apprenticeship, like Chekhov, in journalism, moulding his style on Times leaders, with their gentle irony and lightness of touch, so unlike the biting wit and heavy-handed humour of the German press. His worlds were those of bureaucratic and careerist Berlin, and of the aristocratic estates of the North German Plain, with their social proprieties, Lutheran pieties, and endless possibilities for boredom - both worlds being dominated by the personality and politics of Prince Bismarck.

Here we meet the spirited but biddable 17-year-old Effi, playing in the garden with the daughters of the pastor and the village schoolmaster, and married off, in a trice, to the much older Baron von Instetten, a good and honourable former suitor of her mother, but pedantic ("a born pedagogue") and austere, as a result of long years of self-denial in public service.

Her childlikeness and charm, her liveliness and love of life run, in contrast, like golden threads through the story from start to finish. She is as much a child of nature, of emotion and instinct, as he is of nurture, duty and dull conformity.

Well before Freud's theories about sex and symbolism, Fontane shows her moving from the Dionysian Eden of girlhood into the Paradise Lost of married life, through a curtain of Virginia creeper (Parthenoissus, in German wilde Wein, "wild vine" or Jungfernrebe, "virgin vine"). She is never at home in the married state, in the provincial ferry-port and summer resort of Kessin (Svinemünde) - in her creepy old house with its sinister stuffed shark and crocodile, and its exotic ghost, or in local society among people of her husband's age and attitudes.

Her frustration and anxiety, her loneliness and sense of dislocation are conveyed with the subtlest of touches. Although the equal, indeed the superior, of her husband in the complex gradations of the German nobility, she feels acutely her educational inferiority, academic learning playing the part in the German marriage stakes that money played in the English. No wonder she sought warmth and freedom elsewhere, we come to feel in retrospect. And it is in retrospect that much of the tale is told.

Seven years of uneventful, if unsatisfying, conventional married life pass in a sub-clause. Von Instetten is promoted; they move to a fashionable part of Berlin, and they have a daughter. We are three-quarters of the way through the book, when, through an absurd accident, relieved by a Shakespearian scene of futile point-scoring between servants, he discovers letters that attest a long-dead affair in Kessin.

The denouement is swift and completely disproportionate. Constrained, like Jephtha, by an outdated code of honour, which is described as "a form of idolatry", he takes his revenge, with tragic consequences for all concerned.

Broken in heart and health, Effi returns eventually to her loving but bewildered parents, who had also been imprisoned, against the grain of their natural feelings, in convention. She dies young, interred by old Pastor Niemeyer, who had baptised and confirmed her, and who had earlier laughed at the thought that he would live long enough to take her funeral, too.

Typically, neither her death nor her burial is described, only the simple headstone in the garden (Paradise Regained), where it had all begun, with its plain inscription - "Effi Briest". At her own insistence, she had renounced in death what she had never wanted in life, a married name, the title "Baroness", even her own noble "von", which so many of her contemporaries coveted.

The tone is gentle and elegiac, light and delicate throughout. This is a book to be read with sympathy and enjoyment, and, even better, to be re-read, savouring the many subtle hints, symbols, and allusions that we missed the first time round

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is published by Penguin Classics at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-14-044766-8.




Have you read anything else that reminded you of this book?

Was Effi and the Baron's marriage destined to be unhappy from the start? What difference did the age gap make in their relationship?

Was Effi's mother right to support her marriage to one of her own former suitors? What might have been her motivation?

Why is the ghost significant in this story? What does it represent?

How far can Major Crampas be held responsible for leading Effi astray? How much do you feel Effi was responsible for her actions?

Which parts of the book raised emotions in you? What were they?

Why did Effi's parents initially reject her after her adultery was discovered, but then change their minds?

How would you describe Effi's relationship with the Church?

Was Annie's rejection of her mother inevitable, after the Baron had been granted custody?

In 1968, the German author Thomas Mann said that if he had to reduce his library to only six books, Effi Briest would be one of them. Which six books would you save?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 January, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It is published by Virago at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84408-668-9).

Author notes
Paula McLain was born in Fresno, in Cali- fornia. She had a troubled childhood, after her parents abandoned her and her two sisters. She spent the next 14 years in care, in a number of foster homes. In 1996, she was awarded a Master's degree for poetry from the University of Michigan. She has previously written two volumes of poetry; a memoir, Like Family (2004); and a novel, A Ticket to Ride (2009).

Book notes
McLain has turned the story of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage into a novel, told from the wife's point of view. Hadley Richardson is swept off her feet by Hemingway, despite the warnings of her friends. The couple move to glamorous 1920s Paris. This is the world of many later-to-be-famous writers, such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford. These people become their social circle. Hemingway is forging ahead with his career, but Hadley finds life harder. Although still in love with each other, the birth of their son causes a deepening rift, and Ernest's public affair with another woman leads to Hadley's moving aside graciously.

Books for the next two months:
February: Christ in the Wilderness by Stephen Cottrell
March: Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the conquest of Everest by Wade Davis

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