Theodor Fontane

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Theodor Fontane
Fontane (1883) by Carl Breitbach
Fontane (1883) by Carl Breitbach
Born(1819-12-30)30 December 1819
Neuruppin, Brandenburg, Prussia
Died20 September 1898(1898-09-20) (aged 78)
Berlin, German Empire
Period19th century
Notable worksEffi Briest

Theodor Fontane (German: [ˈtʰeːodoɐ̯ fɔnˈtaːnə]; 30 December 1819 – 20 September 1898) was a German novelist and poet, regarded by many as the most important 19th-century German-language realist writer. His well-known novel Effi Briest is still widely read in English-speaking countries.


Fontane was born in Neuruppin, a town 30 miles northwest of Berlin, into a Huguenot family. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to an apothecary, his father's profession. He became an apothecary himself, and in 1839, at the age of 20, wrote his first work (Heinrichs IV. erste Liebe, now lost). His further education was in Leipzig, where he came into contact with the progressives of the Vormärz.

Fontane's first published work, the novella Geschwisterliebe (Sibling Love), appeared in the Berlin Figaro in December 1839. His biographer Gordon A. Craig observes that this gave few indications of his promise as a gifted writer: "Although the theme of incest, which was to occupy Fontane on later occasions, is touched upon here, the mawkishness of the tale... is equalled by the lameness of its plot and the inertness of the style in which it is told, and [the characters] Clärchen and her brother are both so colorless that no one could have guessed that their creator had a future as a writer."[1]

Fontane's first job as apothecary was in Dresden, after which he returned to his father's shop in the provincial town of Letschin in the Oderbruch region. Fleeing its provincial atmosphere, Fontane published articles in the Leipzig newspaper Die Eisenbahn and translated Shakespeare. In 1843, he joined a literary club in Berlin called Tunnel über der Spree (Tunnel over the River Spree) where he came into contact with many of the most renowned German writers, including Theodor Storm, Joseph von Eichendorff and Gottfried Keller.

Newspaper writer and critic[edit]

"Modern Book Printing" from the Walk of Ideas in Berlin, Germany – built in 2006 to commemorate Johannes Gutenberg's invention, c. 1445, of movable printing type.

In 1844 Fontane enlisted in the Prussian army and set out on the first of numerous journeys to England, which fostered his interest in Old English ballads, a form he began to imitate. He became engaged to his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer, whom he had met when still at school.

He briefly participated in the revolutionary events of 1848. In 1849 he quit his job as an apothecary and became a full-time journalist and writer. In order to support his family, he took a job as a writer for the Prussian intelligence agency Zentralstelle für Presseangelegenheiten, which was intended to influence the press towards the German nationalist cause. There he specialized in British affairs, and the agency made him for several years its correspondent in London, where he was later joined by his wife and two sons. While still in London, he quit his government job, and on his return to Berlin became editor of the conservative paper Neue Preussische Zeitung. As a man of liberal sympathies, Fontane ruefully wrote to a friend about his job with the Zeitung: "I sold myself to the reaction for thirty pieces of silver a month...These days one cannot survive as an honest man."[2]


Fontane's books about Britain include Ein Sommer in London (A Summer in London, 1854), Aus England, Studien und Briefe (From England: Studies and Letters, 1860) and Jenseit des Tweed, Bilder und Briefe aus Schottland (Beside the Tweed, Pictures and Letters from Scotland, 1860). The success of the historical novels of Walter Scott had helped to make British themes much in vogue on the Continent. Fontane's Gedichte (Poems, 1851) and ballads Männer und Helden (Men and Heroes, 1860) tell of Britain's former glories.

Fontane, ca. 1860

Back in Germany, Fontane became particularly interested in his home province, the March of Brandenburg. He enjoyed rambling through its rural landscapes and small towns and delighted in the growth of its capital city, Berlin. His fascination with the countryside surrounding Berlin may be seen in his picturesque Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (Walks through the Province of Brandenburg, 1862–82, 5 vols.), in which he transposed his former fascination with British historical matters to his native soil.

Wars of German Unification[edit]

In 1870, he quit his job at the Kreuzzeitung and became drama critic for the liberal Vossische Zeitung, a position he held until retirement. He had already written about Prussia's war against Denmark in Der schleswig-holsteinische Krieg im Jahre 1864 (1866) and the Austro-Prussian War in Der deutsche Krieg von 1866 (1869). He went to the front to observe the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and after being taken prisoner at Vaucouleurs, remained in French captivity for three months. He set down his experiences in Kriegsgefangen Erlebtes 1870 (Experiences as a Prisoner of War, 1871) and published his observations on the campaign in Der Krieg gegen Frankreich 1870–71 (The War against France, 1870–71, published 1874–76). In his observations, he vociferously critiqued Prussian militarism: "The mere glorification of the military, without moral content and elevated aim, is nauseating."[3]

Later years[edit]

At the age of 57 Fontane finally set to work in the genre for which he is remembered: the novel. A fine historical romance, Vor dem Sturm (Before the Storm, 1878) was followed by a series of novels of modern life, notably L'Adultera (Woman Taken in Adultery, 1882), which was considered so risqué that it took Fontane two years to find it a publisher.

Graves of Theodor and Emilie Fontane in the Französische Friedhof, Liesenstraße, Berlin.

In his novels Irrungen, Wirrungen (Trials and Tribulations, 1888), Frau Jenny Treibel (1892) and Effi Briest (1894–95), he found his own tone, yielding insights into the lives of the nobility and of the common man. His achievement there was later described as poetic realism. In Der Stechlin (written 1895–97), his last completed novel, Fontane adapted the realistic methods and social criticism of contemporary French fiction to the conditions of Prussian life.


Fontane died on September 20, 1898, in Berlin. As a member of the French Protestant Church of Berlin, he was buried in the congregation's cemetery on the Liesenstraße. His wife, Emilie, was buried beside him four years later. Their graves were damaged in World War II but later restored.

Prose works[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich (Oxford University Press, 1999), Theodor Fontane
  2. ^ Craig, Gordon Alexander (1999). Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich. Oxford University Press. pp. 15–16.
  3. ^ Craig, Gordon A. (1999). Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich. Oxford University Press. p. 92.


External links[edit]