Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane

[This journal in three sections. I write about each section before reading the next, so I never know what is going to happen until I have read the final one.]

20 June 2016
Chapters 1-12 (of 36)
It’s interesting to pick up a novel you know absolutely nothing about. Except that it arrives covered in praise: Thomas Mann declared that if six indispensable novels were to be selected, according to whatever criteria, this would have to be one of them. And yet, in this first one-third of the novel, what do we have? A young bride – the first chapter or two focus on her girlish games and habits before any thoughts of marriage – finds herself in the inconvenient residence of her new husband, in the fictitious town of Kessin on the north coast of Germany. He is a clever, handsome older man who would have proposed to her mother if he’d had the chance maybe twenty years previously. He is a hardworking, dutiful civil servant whose star appears to be rising. Effi has talked, among other things, about how ambitious she is, but she knows nothing of the world. Only weeks into their new life, she has to muster all the energy and spirit that seemed to make her so attractive to Baron von Innstetten in order to disguise her loneliness and sense of alienation.

The novel is mostly told from Effi’s point of view, and she is the key character in almost every scene so far. Fontane makes sure that the reader is left in no doubt not only about her first impressions, but about the way she processes these and presents her thoughts to others. In the early chapters she talks things over with her friends and mother. Later she talks to her husband – or her maid Johanna if her thoughts don’t seem suitable for discussion with him. Or, in a long letter presented verbatim in Chapter 12, she confesses a lot of her misgivings to her mother. (I’ll come back to this self-censorship of hers with regard to what is or isn’t suitable for Innstetten to hear.)

I wonder – although I suppose I’m jumping the gun – if this focus on the individual consciousness is what attracted Thomas Mann to this particular novel. Whatever, Effi’s journey is presented in the context of the class she was born into – in England her parents would be pillars of the local gentry, at about the level of a typical Jane Austen milieu almost a century earlier: the house is ‘the country seat of the von Briest family’. But this is a Germany only a few years after unification, and there’s a far greater sense than in England of the Land of one’s birth. For Effi it’s Havelland to the west of Berlin. Now she’s having to become familiar with Pomeranian ways, and her husband has warned her that they are different. Not only that, the little port where she now lives is full of people who started off elsewhere. When she shows a little too much glee at the prospect of a new cosmopolitan experience, he tells her not to get her hopes up.

He’s right. As the local Landrat – a post of some importance, if only locally – he is expected to make the rounds of the neighbouring gentry and minor aristocracy with his new wife. It’s almost all pretty deadly, so it’s no wonder that Effi is soon thinking back to the innocent pleasures and freedoms of her previous life. Her girlish friendships are recent enough for her to miss them now so, in her letter to her mother, she seems to be genuinely looking forward to a certain ‘event’ that will take place in early July. She’s writing on New Year’s Eve, having married in early October. I’m sure every other reader has done the arithmetic: Innstetten wasted no time at all in making sure his new wife would very soon start bearing his children.

A lot of other small-scale things have happened in the novel, both before and after the wedding. In the first chapter we see how the marriage is arranged between Innstetten and Effi’s parents. His family is of a good stock – that baronetcy counts for a good deal with Effi’s affable, snobbish father – and Effi is perfectly happy to go along with it. This, she assures her friends, is how it’s done – and she is proud that she will be the first of them to be married. (Are alarm bells ringing this early? Definitely, although not loudly yet.) She and her indulgent mother – her occasional strictness seems really only for form’s sake – go to Berlin to buy the trousseau, and they are shown around by dashing young cousin Dagobert, an officer in a fashionable regiment. Later, when her father wonders aloud whether Effi found him attractive, she seems dismissive. He’s much too young for her, she says. (Are those alarm bells getting louder?)

There’s the traditional wedding-eve feast, at which Dagobert makes himself noticed, although only in a kind of offstage flashback: Effi’s friends had been too tearful to perform their piece, and he had gallantly remarked that this was as it should be. I assume that there is a reason for Fontane to give the reader occasional reminders of this young man’s existence…. And then there is a six-week honeymoon tour to Italy. This is reported to us mainly through Effi’s patient postcards, mainly about the large number of galleries and churches they visit. At the end of it they arrive at Kessin following a ‘pleasant journey’ that includes a brief stop in Berlin in the company of ‘cousin Briest’ – it’s Dagobert again – and the summer holidaymakers have long departed. It’s mid-November.

At least two main threads are opened up in the chapters set between then and the end of the year – both relating, at least indirectly, to Effi’s relationship with her husband. The first is a supernatural element that comes as a surprise in a novel which is otherwise so conventionally literal. From the beginning, she receives snatches of a story about a ‘Chinaman’, now dead, and Innstettin’s house seems to be haunted by his ghostly presence. On the very first night, Effi hears sounds from the unoccupied rooms above – she later writes in her letter to her mother that they would be lumber-rooms if there were any lumber in them – and Johanna’s explanations for these are evasive. Later, on her first night alone, she is woken by something that brushes her face as she sleeps and causes the dog to bark and bound into her room. (Or did her piercing scream bring him in? Fontane leaves it vague.)

Innstetten had been the first to mention the Chinaman, later accidentally calling his reference a ‘story’, a word that catches Effi’s attention this time. It’s the first suspicion we have that he hides things from her, and a hint that there might be other things. Six or seven weeks on, by the New Year, there isn’t exactly a distance between them, but she is beginning to realise that she mustn’t expect him to put her first. When she tries to insist that he never leave her alone again, he reminds her that someone in his position can’t possibly ignore the standing invitations of a royal prince to dine regularly at his country residence nearby. No, of course not, she says. Later, when she tries to insist that they move from a house that nobody denies is haunted, he refuses. It would make him look ridiculous, he says, and she has to agree. Yes, that’s how things are. (I’m reminded of how all Effi’s suggestions for improvements to the house have been met with a polite, firm dismissal. A Japanese screen? The idea of opening up the first-floor rooms? No.)

The supernatural thread finds its way into the other, which is Effi’s growing reliance on the only person in the town who shows real interest in her. This is the clever, cultured but slightly absurd local chemist Gieshubler, who welcomes them with unsolicited presents and an invitation to an unusual musical evening. Fontane makes much of this, an impromptu recital for Effi, her husband and only one other couple. The contralto ‘Trippelli’ – really the daughter of Trippel, a local man – seems to offer a vision of a different world. That name of hers shows how she has almost literally reinvented herself, and now she is breaking a journey from Italy to St Petersburg. Her life seems to throw into relief the dullness of Effi’s.

After dinner the conversation Trippelli has with Effi turns to the subject of hauntings – Effi asks her outright if she believes in ghosts – and spiritualism. This subject isn’t going away, and people seem to dividing into opposing camps. We might expect Innstetten to have entirely conventional rationalist views… except that he has no explanation for the apparent haunting of his own house, even welcoming the cachet it offers. Has it something to do with the fact that the Chinaman, a servant of the previous owner, died two weeks after the disappearance of a bride on her wedding-day in their own house? And he had to be buried outside the churchyard in a little plot surrounded by a railing, a spot that Effi finds terribly moving and sad. But, of course, the orthodox religious principles of the pastor wouldn’t allow anything else.

I have no idea where Fontane is going to go with this. I’ve just read Effi’s letter to her mother, which contains not only a fairly detailed description of her homesickness but also warnings to her mother that she must be careful how she replies. There is no privacy in her life – the convention has quickly grown up that she lets her husband read all her letters – but there seem to be secrets.

22 June
Chapters 13-22
Did I really have no idea where this was going? Bored young wife, polite but dull older husband…. Maybe I was fooled by the way Fontane seemed to have closed down the possibility of an extra-marital affair by having the town peopled with such unsuitable candidates. Maybe. So what does he do? He brings in Major Crampas and the wife who embarrasses him and, after an appropriate delay, creates opportunities for private little conversations between Effi and him. They might not be in particularly private places, but that’s no obstacle to a particular kind of intimacy. Despite his reputation as a womaniser, she seems unable to avoid the pitfalls she knows are there. It’s a slow burn. It’s only in Chapter 22, after it becomes known that Effi and her husband are soon to leave Kessin forever, that Fontane makes her affair explicit to the reader.

Before this, he has chosen to leave highly visible gaps in the narrative – too blatant, I feel, to be merely a result of the genteel conventions of the time. Effi has been disappearing for long walks, supposedly on the advice of her doctor, and pretends it is her new maid who keeps missing the rendezvous on her return. Fontane assiduously leaves it to the reader to decide what is really going on – but in Chapter 19, just before this, we’ve witnessed what must have been the beginning of the affair. It comes about when Effi is left to ride home in a sleigh with the major following a New Year’s party. Despite her earlier efforts to keep him at a distance, she doesn’t stop him clasping her hand and covering it with kisses as the sleigh enters a narrow track through the woods. ‘She felt as if she were about to faint…’ and that’s all we know about it until ‘she opened her eyes again’ and they are out of the woods. We’re never told when she closed them or what has happened in between…

…but, for at least a paragraph before she feels herself fainting, Fontane has been telling us every last detail of the efforts she makes not to fall into temptation. She whispers prayers, even thinks back to a superstitious old poem, ‘God’s Wall’, about a woman who is saved from marauding soldiers when God arranges a miraculous fall of snow to hide her cottage. But – and this is the crucial point – she knows her prayers are insincere. ‘These words were lifeless. She was afraid, but at the same time she felt as if she were under a spell from which she had no wish to escape.’ Ah. Like Anna Karenina in the novel published twenty years earlier, she had thought she could see through this man’s schemes and had been doing her best (she believed) to keep herself away from him. But her efforts, were bound to come to nothing because, deep down, she wants to give into the ‘spell’. Is she to blame? Fontane doesn’t make a big thing of it – he draws a veil over whatever it is that she and the major get up to – but yes, she is. And she knows it’s wrong, that she should put a stop to it. When her husband tells her that a promotion will take them to Berlin, she says ‘Thank God!’ so vehemently he is almost taken aback. She has to cover it up by pretending she merely meant that she’ll be glad to get away from the dullness of Kessin.

That New Year’s party marks the passing of a year since Effi’s quietly desperate-sounding letter to her mother, and plenty has happened in the intervening half-dozen chapters. Things start badly, as when she greets the rare invitations they receive during the winter with, ‘if it really has to be, but I shall die of boredom.’ Her mother’s teasing little reference to her being ‘in love with an alchemist’ – she means the extravagantly gallant Gieshubler – only brings home to her how clueless her husband is about the little attentions she might have expected from him: ‘he was no lover. He felt he loved Effi, and knowing in good conscience that this was so absolved him from making any special effort.’ This is just a few months into their marriage, and those alarm bells are ringing more loudly than ever.

Fontane fast-forwards through the tedium of winter in a couple of pages, but not before Effi has written to her mother wishing for a return of the ghost just to relieve the boredom. And on the third page of Chapter 13 – we’ve reached May by now – the arrival of Crampas is introduced. Fontane does it by way of another of Effi’s letters home to mother but, despite his seeming to promise some variety – a word that comes up more than once in Effi’s conversations – his jealous, unappealing wife makes any invitations impossible. Effi, thinking she’s being worldly-wise and presumably, therefore, safe, mentions his affairs in her letter. Ring-ring go the bells.

But Crampas arrives only in order to be pushed into the background for the time being. Effi is due to give birth in early July, and does so on the 3rd – nine months to the day after her wedding. (And nine months and a day after the wedding eve party, attended by Dagobert. I mention it because if Innstetten does eventually fall into the role of jealous husband, he might suspect that an affair with Dagobert might mean that the child is his. Would there be enough suspicion in him to create such a doubt?) Luckily – and I haven’t quite worked out why Fontane does it this way – just before her due date Effi happens upon a woman who seems to be just right to be a nurse for the new baby. Earlier in the season an ancient widow had arrived for her usual stay in the town but – Effi finds it a very ominous sign, naturally – she dies not long after. There’s a whole scene describing the showy expense of the women’s mourning dresses and funeral arrangements. It becomes part of the local gossip, as they are seen to be showing this backwater how the Berliners do things. And someone notes how, despite her showy tears, the landlady of the holiday let must be relishing the fact that she’ll be able to get more rent on top of what the old woman had paid…. The new nursemaid is the dead woman’s old servant, now (she says) cast aside by the family with hardly enough money for the fare home. Effi believes the story, and perhaps she’s right.

Roswitha, as she is called, loves to tell stories. One of them, when Effi first happens upon her as she sits by the grave of her former mistress, is how she was made pregnant by her first master and had her baby taken away shortly after it was born. I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to take Effi’s acceptance of this as her tolerance or naivety…. She’s certainly ok about Roswitha’s Catholic faith, and Fontane makes sure we realise that this is superstition more than tolerance: despite her own conventional Protestantism, she thinks the Catholics have got the spirit world more fully sewn up. She’ll be safe from ghosts with a praying ‘papist’ in the house. (The ‘God’s Wall’ poem was one of Roswitha’s, now I think of it. I can’t think of that being significant, just Fontane’s plausible way of introducing such a piece of nonsense to Effi’s mind.)

After the birth of their child, a daughter – nothing much. Roswitha is the one who chooses a name for her – Annie, or ‘Wee Annie’ in my edition – and neither Effi nor Innstetten have strong views on the matter. Fontane seems to abandon any of the possible plot developments – Roswitha really is as tender and loyal as she first seemed, and the ‘Chinaman’ is only an occasional memory – and we see middle class marriage at its most conventional. I guess that’s the point. There are no stories in Effi’s life, only the prospect of years and years of the same. I’ve mentioned Anna Karenina already, and it’s as though we are seeing the first months of Anna’s married life – except at least she had the society and culture of Petersburg to save her from the tedium living with a dull husband only really interested in making a name for himself. Innstetten, like Karenin, always thinks of his duties before anything else, so…

…it’s no accident that when Fontane reintroduces Crampas, and there’s suddenly a possibility that all three of them could go riding on Innstetten’s rest day, suddenly a work emergency forces him to cry off. It’s ok, Effi thinks, there’s no hint of impropriety – grooms and other servants are always close by on this first ride, and all subsequent ones right through the autumn. So she’s safe, yes? Well, maybe… but Crampas is happy to play a long game. They speak openly about things, and not many weeks have gone by before he is making remarks about her marriage that are calculated to show his concern. In one, he refers to Innstetten as a ‘pedagogue’, and is dismissive of the haunted house story. The ghost is, he says, what the reader got a hint of in the early chapters, something to make his small house a little more distinguished. Effi is partly affronted, but also begins to think Crampas is right.

Is it around now that Innstetten starts to become uneasy, and to drop little warning hints to her that she needs to beware of a man with a reputation like the major’s? Effi, of course, feels affronted all over again. She thinks she’s safe, despite her own warnings to herself that she needs to be very careful indeed. It’s definitely around this time that Fontane reminds us how young she is – she was only seventeen when she married. (Had we known previously that she was quite this young? I’d imagined that she was about eighteen, despite her girlish manner and the reputation for charming, youthful impetuosity that Fontane always keeps in the foreground. I suppose her youth, and the fact that it was deemed acceptable for a man old enough to be her father to marry such a child, is a part of Fontane’s social critique.) Now she becomes more reserved – she isn’t quite certain of the propriety of her openness with Crampas, and this is how it shows. Innstetten is fine with this, considering it makes her seem more ‘womanly’. Oh, the irony. By the time the winter is setting in she is feeling relieved: she will no longer have to be on her guard because there will be no more rides.

Then comes New Year and that fateful sleigh-ride. After realising she had been alone with Crampas, Innstetten remonstrates with her, albeit politely. She is able to remind him that it wasn’t her intention to have been left alone with him. There had been another passenger in the sleigh, a woman who has come to represent the self-congratulatory (and serially condemnatory) attitudes of the more pious-minded neighbours. But she is met by her own sleigh and – as Effi has already considered even before it happens – what is she supposed to do? She can’t simply eject Crampas to make his way home on foot. This consideration, that it would have looked bad to leave him, is enough to convince Innstetten. His own sense of good form overrides his perfectly correct suspicions…. Fontane doesn’t do a great job of making Innstetten an interesting character, but he always makes his behaviour seem plausible. And as for Effi, pulling the wool over his eyes seems to open up a new world for her. Offstage, as it were, she is clearly discovering the arts of deception. Those long walks, for the sake of her health – she is, or pretends to be, rather sickly – open up a world of possibilities we are left to guess at.

Some months pass, and one day Innstetten returns from a trip to Berlin to tell her of his promotion. After covering up her ‘Thank God!’ she decides to expedite things. She manoeuvres her husband into agreeing to her leaving at the end of that week – she has learned the skills of manipulation by now – and she intends never to return. She writes an unaddressed letter – apparently to be delivered by their usual go-between, although we have to piece this together from circumstantial details – to a lover whose name we have to guess. When she leaves on the steamer to the station, Crampas on the landing-stage, looking ‘visibly moved’. I assume they never see one another again, although I might be wrong.

27 June
Chapters 23-36 – to the end
I’m disappointed. I attended a book group meeting to talk about the novel, and I wasn’t the only one to think that comparisons with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are wide of the mark. As we talked, I was trying to suggest reasons why it’s so well regarded, and decided it must be to do with Fontane’s critique of German society rather than with the way he deals with the plight of his heroine. We care about Anna, we care about Emma Bovary… we don’t care about Effi. It’s what I was saying about Innstetten last time, to do with how Fontane makes him plausible rather than interesting. With Effi it’s the same. Fontane convinces me that if an upper class woman marries too young in Germany – a practice he demonstrates to be fraught with danger, however conventionally acceptable – she might well behave in this way. But…

…we don’t follow her journey in the way that we do with a character in Tolstoy, or any of the other great 19th Century novelists. Where is the torture that goes on in the mind of a young woman like Natasha in War and Peace as she believes in the love Kuragin declares for her? Where is the regret of a Dorothea in the weeks after her marriage to Casaubon in Middlemarch? With Effi, it’s kind of there, by implication – but not really. Her affair makes her uncomfortable, but if it’s any more than that, we never see it. And if she hadn’t been stupid enough to keep Crampas’s letters – give me strength – she would no doubt have lived conventionally in Berlin until the end of her life. Her story has been described as one of the great 19th Century tragic novels. No. Her flaw is too understated, her heartbreak only presented in the most oblique terms. Her biggest difficulty is the boredom she feels, and it’s hard for Fontane to portray this as the trigger for great tragic events. In fact, the key events in these final chapters aren’t tragic, but absurd. Fontane lets us know that in a society run along sensible lines, it couldn’t have happened like this. But Germany at the end of the 19th Century isn’t, so they do. It feels like social commentary, not tragedy.

After the arrival in Berlin, Effi is prepared to play the medical card again. In order not to have to return to Kessin, she pretends – with the collusion of a tame doctor her mother sends for – to be suffering from some unidentifiable pains. It works, because Innstettin is either convinced or prepared to go along with the game. And I’ve just found myself wondering what’s happening to little Annie. I’ve forgotten – is she there in Berlin, or has she stayed behind with Roswitha while Effi goes flat-hunting? It doesn’t seem to matter. Unlike the gut-wrenching pain Anna Karenina feels for her son when she’s forced to leave him, there’s none of that with Effi. In the summer, she goes for a long tour to the Baltic coast with Innstetten, and the one-year-old is left with Roswitha for weeks. If it’s part of Fontane’s critique of his society, it doesn’t work for me because Effi seems to suffer no pangs about it. It’s another reason why it’s hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for her and her plight later when Innstetten wins custody of the child.

Whatever. Effi and her mother tie up the business of getting a flat – which turns out to be the first one they saw, set aside so they can spend time supposedly looking at others. (It’s hardly the most biting satirical commentary, but it’s another of the petty deceptions this marriage is based on, I guess.) They move in, go for that long trip to the Baltic… and so on. And suddenly, seven years pass in a sentence or two as Fontane decides to cut to the chase. Annie falls over and cuts her forehead, so Johanna and Roswitha need to find a bandage, quick. They can’t, but one of them thinks there’s an old piece in Effi’s writing-desk, which they break into. There, mentioned in passing in that understated way Fontane likes so much, is a little bundle of letters tied with a red silk thread. (Are you believing any of this?) When replacing the contents, Innstetten finds the letters. Effi can’t do this for herself because she’s away at a spa – which, in hindsight, feels like a careful little reminder to the reader that her health really isn’t all that good and that we shouldn’t be surprised when she dies before she’s thirty. Fontane likes to make his coups plausible, as we know.

This was my ‘Oh, I get it now’ moment. So that’s the novel I’m reading, one in which the sins of the past come back to bite our hapless heroine. Fontane does his best to make Innstetten’s plight seem urgent, whilst at the same time using one of his favourite techniques: clearly distressed, the betrayed husband disappears into his room. But once he emerges, there’s something machine-like about the working through of the rest of the novel. It isn’t Innstetten who is the machine, but the society he lives in. In the first desperate hours after the discovery, after he has read every last letter and note as though picking at an open sore, he writes to his best friend in Berlin, asking him to be his second in a duel. After that, A leads to B leads to C leads to… the inevitable dying fall of the last page or so of the novel.

But I’m jumping the gun. Which is more than Crampas does when Innstetten fires at him. Innstetten’s friend had tried to persuade him that a duel will not be necessary – but Fontane puts into his anti-hero’s mouth a pitch-perfect explanation of why, in that society at that time, a duel is the only possible outcome. He did have the choice to pretend that he had never seen the letters, but now he has told somebody else of the adultery, and being the man always to do the right thing, he is completely certain that the Prussian code of honour must be satisfied. So he does it, and sends a letter to Effi that their marriage is over. He throws her out knowing that, owing to other rules operating in their society, she will be an outcast for the rest of her days. (This despite his having told the friend that he still loves her.)

So this is how she lives for the next three years, in what she thinks of as poverty, in a small apartment paid for by her parents. Roswitha is with her, and… she’s bored, again. She tries to take up a hobby – painting, as it happens – but it doesn’t work for her. Ah me. She sees Annie by accident, on the tram, and sends the wife of a man Instetten works with and trusts to plead for her daughter to be allowed to make a visit. When this happens, it seems that Fontane wants to make it seem unbearably poignant and sad, especially when the girl keeps replying to Effi’s plans for future visits with a parrot-like ‘If I’m allowed.’ In fact, Effi finds herself laughing at the absurdity of the situation…. She can do what she likes as far as I care. She never seemed to have had any particularly overwhelming maternal thoughts before seeing Annie on the tram, so this just seems like another opportunity for Fontane’s ever more heavy-handed social commentary.

I’ve had enough now and, it seems, so has Fontane. I discovered at my book group meeting that this is based on a real cause celebre in Germany, in which a woman was ostracised for exactly the reason we see here. It doesn’t make it more interesting. I’ve been making comparisons with earlier novels about women trapped by society’s hypocritical codes, and by the time Effi is struggling with the dullness of her life as an outsider I thought of one published a decade later (1905). Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth is pushed into a truly desperate situation, one that makes Effi’s seem only mildly unfortunate by comparison. Fontane decides it’s time to kill her off.

So he does. A page from the end, after she has spent the last few months of her life failing to recover from her final mystery illness in the safety of her parents’ beloved home, we get this: ‘A feeling of liberation came over her. “Peace, peace.”’ But it isn’t as though there had ever been a war raging inside her soul, just the discomfiture of having made some bad choices, not helped by indulgent parents. In fact, it’s the parents who get the final page to pick ruefully through the mess of their unfortunate daughter’s life. It becomes the final confirmation that this novel, more than anything else, is a warning to society. Effi’s mother wonders whether ‘perhaps it was our fault after all?’ When her husband dismisses this as nonsense, she goes on: ‘Whether we should perhaps have brought her up more strictly. … I wonder perhaps if she wasn’t too young.’

Effi’s beloved old dog stirs and shakes his head, and Effi’s father dismisses his wife’s worries. He tells her ‘that’s enough. That’s too vast a subject.’ Of course it is. In this universe, asking questions like that just isn’t done. The end.


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