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
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
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
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is published by Penguin
Classics at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10);
EFFI BRIEST - SOME QUESTIONS
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
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
How far can Major Crampas be held responsible for leading Effi
astray? How much do you feel Effi was responsible for her
Which parts of the book raised emotions in you? What were
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).
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).
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
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