Review: Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane

Effie BriestI’ve linked to the Penguin edition of Effi Briest although the book is freely available in electronic format on Manybooks in what to me seems a perfectly good translation.

I’m not the only one reading Effi Briest at the moment – you will be able to read more about the book as part of the German Literature month being hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life.  You might even be able to win a paper copy of the Penguin edition on Lizzie’s Literary Life so long as you leave a comment on or before 9 October.

Effi Briest concerns a young woman who’s parents marry her off to a man 20 years her senior, when she is only 17.  The book opens with scenes depicting Effi a mere year before she marries, playing with her girl-friends, pushing herself higher and higher on a swing and running around her parent’s estate.  She is a cheerful and care-free girl who seems suitably flattered when Baron Geert von Innstetten asks her father for her hand in marriage, but she really has no idea of what is involved in moving to the Baltic Port of Kessin, where her new husband is a prominent official.

Instetten is kind to Effi although not the most affectionate of men due to his age and social position.  He makes every effort to make her happy but compels her to do the social round of visits to influential (and often elderly) members of the community and also leaves her for periods in his gloomy house which he goes off on official business.

Although Instetten is a kindly man, something is missing in the relationship, a lack of intimacy,  which creates a  sense of isolation in the young Effi.  Her servants provide consolation to a degree, and also, a friendship with a disabled male friend of her husband who is plainly enamoured of her.  Instetten’s house is old with closed-off rooms from which strange noises come.  Effi starts to believe that the house is haunted – a fear which her husband mocks, leaving her uncomforted and unhappy.

Before long, Instatten’s friend Major Crampas arrives on the scene and begins to take an interest in the young and beautiful Effi.  In typical writing of the late 19th century, we read of a developing affair, with the physical side of the relationship only being hinted at, but very real for those who can read between the lines.  Effi by this time has a baby girl, Annie, who is looked after largely by her nursemaid, which gives her plenty of time for secret assignations with Crampas.   They indulge in a passionate exchange of written notes, which Effi foolishly keeps tied with a red ribbon in a locked drawer of her bureau.

I always feel with classics that the usual rule about publishing spoilers doesn’t apply, as the stories told are summarised all over the Internet, not least on Wikipedia.  However, it seems a shame in this review to reveal the whole story so I will stop here, other than to say that things do not work out well for poor Effi although redemption of a kind does occur later in her life, although she is not permitted to enjoy it for long.

I found this to be a very readable classic with an involving story which rapidly drew me in to the unfolding drama of Effi’s life.  As an admirer of Thomas Mann’s writings, I was not surprised to read that Mann was influenced by Theodor Fontane, for there are many synergies with Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. Effi’s fate seemed very similar to Thomas Buddenbrook’s sister Antonie whose marriage proved to be equally disastrous.  In the same way that Antonie’s father ends up admitting his culpability for daughter’s failed marriage, so Effi’s mother considers Effi’s youthful marriage to a much older man and asks her husband, “I wonder if she was not too young perhaps?”  The novel seems to inhabit the same physical world as Buddenbrooks with both the Lubeck of Buddenbrooks and the Kessin of Effi Briest being Hanseatic ports with commercial links with Britain and Scandinavia.

Its interesting to read on Wikipedia that Effi Briest makes a late 19th century trilogy dealing with adultery from the female perspective – with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina completing the set.  The whole topic was obviously very sensitive to readers of the period for none of the three novels deal directly with the physical side of the relationships which their female protagonist’s enter.  However, none of the three books hold back from describing the shame and ignominy waiting for the female offenders.  Effi Briest at least allows its female lead to experience a sense of redemption and reconciliation with God so that she can leave this world with a sense of peace.  No doubt even this was scandalous to readers of the time who would have preferred her to be cast into the outermost reaches of hell.

Modern readers accustomed to a more understanding viewpoint would have no problem in seeing that the fault was with a social system which could allow a young woman of seventeen to be married off to a man 20 years her senior before she had a chance to grow up and make decisions for herself.  Theodor Fontane goes as far as he can in suggesting this in a mere couple of sentences towards the end of the book leaving readers today pleased that they live in a world in which most people have a right to choose their own marriage partners.

I enjoyed this book immensely and read it in a couple of days.  I was not surprised to read on Wikipedia that the the novel is widely discussed and taught at German high schools and is also taught as part of the German Prelim course at Oxford University.

23 comments to Review: Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane

  • Hi Tom,

    I think you got mixed up with the names. Caroline (Beauty is a sleeping cat) co-hosts the month of German literature. I just posted about my selection, which includes Effi Briest.
    Anyway, I’m saving your review for later, when I have read it too.

  • Thanks, Tom, for promoting Lizzy and my German Literature Month in November.
    Effi Briest is one of our two readalong titles.
    Hopefully your enthusiastic review will make people want to join us.
    It is a wonderful novel and not know enough that’s why we chose it.

  • Thanks for this interesting introduction to Effi Briest. I kept seeing this book in my local bookshop but somehow never felt inclined to look it up. Now I think I will buy it! :)

  • Tom

    Emma – Oops – thanks for pointing out my error! I was well and truly mixed up and hope I’ve corrected it now.

  • I’m so glad people are reading this – I loved it when I studied it, oh so many years ago. I remember the scene in which Effi claws at the tightly-laced bodice of her dress in a gesture that reveals the extent of her frustration. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

  • Tom

    Caroline – I got a mixed up with my references and have now amended my post to link to your post and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

  • Tom

    Birdy – its a great read and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. Thanks for visiting

  • No worries Tom, I’m glad you liked the book. I think it is sadly overshadowed by the other two tragic heroines Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary

  • My second thought was Effie Ruskin. I’m going to look for a copy, though I don’t really like tragic novels.

  • I hope to get this ready for the read along ,like that you say it is a bit like buddenbrooks I liked that when I read it so think I will like this one as well ,all the best stu

  • Tom

    Hi Stu – thanks for visiting. Its nice to enjoy free books also!

  • Tom

    Hi Arianne – thanks for visiting. I’d stay off this one if you don’t like tragedy!

  • Thanks for the review, Tom! Am planning to join in with German literature month so hope to read this soon.

  • Tom

    Hi Andrew – I’m sure you’ll like this one – its also quite an easy read which you get through quickly

  • Loved your post on Effie Briest! I’d never even heard of this story before, but after reading your post I’m glad I finally have. This sounds like such a great read – I’m adding it to my TBR ASAP! Cheers!

  • Tom

    Nadia – thanks for visiting – yes, Effi Briest was a very readable book and I got through it quite quickly – unusual for a classic!

  • […] reviews: Tom, from A Common Reader and participants following the rules of the […]

  • […] and I would certainly recommend posts on this novel in the blogs Book Around the Corner, A Common Reader, Iris on Books, and, of course, by the participants of the “readalong”.) […]

  • I just came here from Emma’s, and like her you do interest me in this. I’ll check out samples of the Penguin and the free translation (though samples often don’t work with Penguin Classics, all too often one gets the introductory essay and none of the text).

    The link to Mann, a superlative writer (second time I’ve used that phrase today, Szerb was the other one), is interesting. It’s good too to know this is a relatively quick read, given I’m a bit swamped at the moment.

  • Tom

    Hi Max – I think Penguin have a bit of a problem with their pricing model for ebooks – but whether they think its worth addressing it is another matter. Samples are really annoying when you don’t even get to the first chapter aren’t they. Poetry books are particularly bad at this where you end up with just one or two poems – I can see why poetry publishers feel a bit threatened though.

  • Yes, I understand that once you take tax into account ebooks are actually if anything slightly more expensive than print to produce, but that doesn’t help the fundamental fact that they have less utility in some regards (more in convenience, but less in ability to resell, lend, stuff like that). Paying as much or more than print isn’t really a price point that appeals to me, and that’s where Penguin Classics are.

    Especially tricky there where all they’re really selling is the notes and the particular translation. The particular text in some form is after all generally out of copyright and so available entirely for free.

    Samples are clearly automatically generated, but that’s not really an excuse. They’re a key selling tool after all.

  • Tom

    Max – I agree – they should pay more attention to their samples. I don’t think Penguin are bothered at the moment, but as ebooks pick up perhaps they’ll get their act together.

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