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Cover of the original edition
|Translator||Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers|
|Publisher||Philipp Reclam jun. Stuttgart & (Eng. trans. reissue Penguin Classics)|
|1894-95; 1896 (book)|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
ISBN 0-14-044766-0 (reissue)
Effi Briest is a realist novel by Theodor Fontane. Thomas Mann said that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them. Published in book form in 1896, Effi Briest marks both a watershed and a climax in the poetic realism of literature and forms a thematic trilogy on 19th century marriage from a female perspective along with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. All three are adultery tragedies.
Seventeen-year-old Effi Briest, the daughter of a German aristocrat, is married off to 38-year-old Baron Geert von Innstetten, who courted her mother Luise and was spurned for his status, which he has now improved.
Effi Briest, who is attracted by social status, moves to the fictional Pomeranian port of Kessin (loosely modeled on Swinemünde). Her husband is away for weeks at a time, and Effi, who is shunned by local nobles, finds but one friend. Her suspicions that their house may be haunted are not entirely laid to rest by Innstetten. When she says there may be a ghost, he derides her fears. The scorn he would bear if people knew of her terror would stall his career; hence his angry reply.
When Major Crampas arrives, Effi cannot help but relish his attentions despite his being a married womaniser, and their love is consummated. Her husband looks down on Crampas, whom he finds a lewd philanderer with cavalier views of law. Crampas views Innstetten as a patronising prig.
Years later, Effi’s daughter Annie is growing up, and the family moves to Berlin due to Innstetten’s ascent. All seems well, but when Effi’s letters to Crampas are found by her husband, he decides to divorce her. He gets custody of Annie and influences her to disdain Effi. When Effi and Annie meet briefly some years later, it is clear the two are estranged, and Effi stops trying to establish a good relationship with Annie.
The Briests disown Effi, thinking it ill behooves them to deal with someone who tarnished their name. Innstetten tells Crampas he wants to duel; he agrees and is killed by Innstetten. But the halcyon days of Innstetten's past life are over, and career success fails to delight him.
Effi's parents take her back when she becomes the victim of nervous disorder, depression. Facing death, she asks Luise to tell Innstetten about her regrets and willingness to forgive him. Her death forms a rather symmetrical ending that matches the novel’s start. In the end scene, her parents vaguely concede guilt for her fate without daring to question the social canons that sparked the tragedy, citing the German maxim, "That would be too wide a field" (ein weites Feld).
The youngest of five children, Elisabeth was born in Zerben (currently known as Elbe-Parey) in 1853. Her easeful life was cut short by her meeting Armand Léon von Ardenne (1848-1919). She is said to have shown little interest in Ardenne; having rejected his first proposal, she changed her mind during the Franco-Prussian War, which left Ardenne injured. They became engaged on 7 February 1871 and wed in 1873.
His ascent made them move to Düsseldorf in the summer of 1881, where they met the famed and unhappily married judge Emil Hartwich (1843-1886). Elisabeth and Hartwich had much in common including their love of theatre. Despite risk of discovery, they did not cease corresponding when the Ardennes went back to Berlin on 1 October 1884.
Hartwich would come irregularly. During the summer of 1886, which Hartwich spent in Berlin, he and Elisabeth chose to marry each other. But Ardenne saw his secret suspicions confirmed when he found Elisabeth’s and Hartwich’s year-long correspondence. He filed for divorce and dueled Hartwich on 27 November 1886, drawing strong coverage. Hartwich died from his injuries on 1 December. Ardenne was sentenced to two years in prison but his term was reduced to 18 days.
His divorce on 15 March 1887 gave him full custody of his children, and his ex-wife set about caring for the deprived and disabled. Her name was temporarily removed from the family chronicles. In 1904, her daughter Margot was the first to try to find her; her son Egmont saw her in 1909. She died in Lindau on 4 February 1952 and was interred in a Berlin Ehrengrab.
Fiction and truth
Fontane changed myriad details so as not to imperil privacy of those involved. He also made changes for the sake of drama. Elisabeth married at age 19 instead of 17, with Ardenne being five, not twenty, years her senior. She fell in love with Hartwich after twelve years—not twelve months—of marriage, and Ardenne did not kill her paramour years after the dalliance, but when they were still courting. Fontane knew that Elisabeth did not retreat as Effi did; instead, she began to work and devote herself to the needy. Elisabeth died at 98; Effi dies at 29 in the novel.
Some dates were altered, too. Effi marries on 3 October; Elisabeth wed on 1 January. Effi bears Annie on 3 July, while Margot’s birthday was 5 November; Egmont’s was 4 January. Elisabeth was born on 26 October; Effi has an August birthday.
- First published as a serial novel in Deutsche Rundschau, 1894 – 1895.
- Penguin Books, 1967 ISBN 0-14-044190-5
- English translation by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers, Angel Books 1996 ISBN 0-946162-44-1, reissued by Penguin (in Penguin Classics) 2001 ISBN 0-14-044766-0
Film and television adaptations
- The False Step, Germany, 1939
- Rosen im Herbst, West Germany, 1955
- Effi Briest, East Germany 1968, West Germany 1971
- Fontane Effi Briest, West Germany 1974
- Effi Briest, Germany 2009
- Mann, Thomas (1968). Das essayistische Werk.
- http://www.dieterwunderlich.de/Fassbinder_Briest.htm dieterwunderlich.de – Fontane Effi Briest] (German)
- Genealogie-Daten Seite 274 (Seiten Familien) (German)
- Bibliography Fontane on zeno.org