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.