German author Theodor Fontane was in his 50’s when he began writing novels and in his 70’s when “Effi Briest” was published in 1895. Another German author, Thomas Mann, considered “Effi Briest” to be one of the 6 best novels ever written, yet I believe the book is relatively unknown to American readers. It can be considered a “fallen woman” story like other famous books such as “Madame Bovary,” “Sister Carrie,” and “Anna Karenina.” The story was based on the real-life story of Elisabeth von Ardenne, including the discovery of billets-doux and a duel. In the novel, Effi, a fun-loving girl of just 17, is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten who is 38 years old and once a suitor of Effi’s mother, Luise. After the marriage, Effi moves from her home in Hohen-Cremmen to the remote town of Kessin, where von Innstetten ambitiously pursues his career and neglects his young wife. She is attended by a somewhat aloof servant named Johanna and befriended by a kindly old chemist named Gieshübler, but otherwise finds herself without much to do. While in Kessin, her daughter Annie is born, and Effi acquires the faithful housekeeper Roswitha, literally rescuing her as she weeps at the grave of her recently deceased previous employer. The debonair but unhappily married Major Crampas is assigned to Kessin and predictable events unfold when he and Effi find themselves alone together on a sleigh ride home from a social event. The liaison continues for some time as Effi goes out on long walks and secretly meets Crampas in an abandoned house. Effi has deep regrets about the affair and is relieved when von Innstetten is transferred to Berlin. She leaves early to do some house hunting with her mother and makes excuses not to return to Kessin. Von Instetten later joins her in Berlin and their life goes on as usual. One day, Annie falls running up the stairs and cuts her forehead. Johanna and Roswitha are frantically looking for something to stop the bleeding, when Roswitha recalls a bandage being kept in a sewing table. They break open the flimsy lock on the drawer and pull out the bandage, but several other items fall out onto the floor, including a bundle of letters. Von Innstetten comes home and, after reassuring Annie, starts putting things away, and comes across the letters, which he takes into his study to read. Shortly thereafter, he summons his friend Wüllersdorf for advice. Although the affair occurred more than 6 years ago and Wüllersdorf tries to dissuade him, von Innstetten concludes he must challenge Crampas to a duel: “… we’re not just individuals, we’re part of a larger whole and we must constantly have regard for that larger whole …” After the duel, Effi is sent away, and the faithful Roswitha ultimately comes to live with her.
The novel has several likable features. First, it is realistic. There are no glorified heroes or monstrous villains – we just have victims of life’s circumstances. Effi is a victim of her youthful marriage, Crampas of an unhappy marriage, and von Innstetten of his own ambition. Unfortunately, all of the characters lives are ruined by this unfortunate affair. As Van Innstetten says at the end of the book, “… nothing gives me satisfaction any more; the more distinctions they give me, the more I feel it all means nothing. I’ve made a mess of my life …” Second, Rollo, the Newfoundland, is a great dog – he embodies the unfeigned affection and loyalty so characteristic of his species. He becomes Effi’s faithful companion in desolate Kessin, and near the end of the book, Roswitha petitions von Innstetten to allow the now aged Rollo to come live with Effi for companionship. As Effi has said, and Roswitha relates in a letter to von Innstetten: “Rollo would be fine, he bears me no grudge. That’s what’s good about animals, they don’t mind about things so much.” Finally, the playful banter between old von Briest and his wife Luise that runs through the book made me smile. She is a domineering woman who always has a strong opinion of things. Old von Briest humorously mocks her “black and white” approach to life, but she’s oblivious to the subtlety of his sarcasm. I wouldn’t rank “Effi Briest” in my “top 6 books of all time” (or even in my “top 10”), but it certainly was an enjoyable novel that presented the difficulties of its characters in a realistic manner.