Today, after our brief trip down to Switzerland, we’re back up to the north of Germany to become acquainted with another wonderful classic writer, Herr Theodor Fontane. No, not Theodor Storm, he of Der Schimmelreiter fame, but another Theodor, from very much the same part of Germany. Let me clarify this a little…
Theodor Fontane is one of the most famous of Germany’s nineteenth-century writers, and he is probably the one I’d recommend most to those who have grown up with the English V-Lit canon. Unlike many of the works I’ve been reading recently, which can struggle to crack the hundred-page barrier (and, in some cases, are barely scraping into novella territory), Fontane’s back catalogue includes a few actual novels, books over the 200-page mark.
Another area where Fontane’s writing has more in common with English works than the German novellas is the amount of attention paid to characterisation and the internal workings of his protagonists. In some of the novellas I’ve read recently, I felt the lack of a real connection to the characters, the subtle painting of layer upon layer of humanity applied by writers like Eliot and Hardy. Happily, the two works I’ve read by Fontane have been much better in this regard, allowing the reader to become absorbed in the lives of those depicted within their pages.
Earlier this year, I read (and failed to review…) Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable), a novel about the disintegration of the marriage of a north-German aristocratic couple. Count Holk, a minor nobleman attached to the Danish court in Copenhagen, goes off on one of his occasional residences in the Danish capital, leaving his faithful wife behind in his majestic, but solitary, mansion on the Baltic coast. The jovial Holk is already starting to grow apart from his more serious wife, and when he meets a beautiful, fiery young courtier at the palace, sparks are bound to fly.
The story is not as predictable as you might think, and the ending, most definitely, is different to that which an English novelist would probably plump for. The effect of the whole, however, is to make you ponder about what you really want from life, and what you are prepared to risk to get it. Having read this a good few months back now, I’m not going to try to go into any more detail than that; however, the wonderful Lizzy Siddal of Lizzy’s Literary Life wrote a marvellous review of Irretrievable a while back (the review that induced me to read it in the first place), so why not give that a go instead?
And now, dear reader, our journey takes us to Berlin near the end of the nineteenth century, where we will meet the title lady of another Fontane novel, Frau Jenny Treibel. Jenny is a well-to-do middle-aged woman who has managed to elevate herself in the world (through an advantageous marriage) from humble beginnings, and now, with her home life secure and sumptuous, and one son safely married off, she is looking around for a bride for her younger son, the slightly colourless Leopold. While her daughter-in-law’s sister is only too eager to create another tie between the business-like Berlin Treibel family and the rigidly formal Hamburg Munks, Frau Treibel secretly believes that Leopold needs a partner with more fire and flair. Of course, when one actually appears, Jenny’s true colours will be exposed for all to see…
From his private letters, we know that Fontane had it in for the vulgar bourgeoisie with their false pretensions towards high culture and their desperate desire for increasing their wealth, but Frau Jenny Treibel is a more measured, and subtle, attack on the newly-moneyed classes. Corinna Schmidt, the lively, intelligent young woman in question, is clever enough to know that Leopold is far below her in terms of intelligence and character, but shrewd enough to realise that the financial and social gains from such an alliance would probably make up for her husband’s shortcomings. The writer cleverly develops a comparison between Jenny and Corinna, allowing the reader to see the similarities and differences in their respective positions; in fact, it is when Corinna herself becomes aware of this that the crisis of the piece is reached.
The book is, unusually for the time, a fairly humorous one, Fontane’s tongue-in-cheek handling of the bourgeois troubles reminding one of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In fact, the story can at times seem almost more suited to being a play than a novel, with long conversations between the principal characters and switches of scene between the two prominent settings: the luxurious (albeit located next door to a factory) mansion of the Treibels; and the run-down, but comfortable, Schmidt abode.