Image of Theodor Fontane


Lifetime: 1819 - 1898 Passed: ≈ 125 years ago





Theodor Fontane

Theodor Fontane was a German novelist and poet, regarded by many as the most important 19th-century German-language realist author. He published the first of his novels, for which he is best known today, only at age 58 after a career as a journalist.

Fontane's novels are known for their complex, often sceptical view of society in the German empire; he shows different social and political parts of society meeting and sometimes clashing. Other trademarks of Fontane's work are their strongly drawn female characters (such as Effi Briest and Frau Jenny Treibel), tender irony and vivid conversations between characters.

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 became acquainted with the progressives of the Vormärz.

In 1844 Fontane enlisted in the Prussian army and began the first of numerous journeys to England, which fostered his interest in Old English ballads, which he – a lifelong anglophile – began to imitate. In 1845 became engaged to his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer, whom he had met when still at school.

Fontane's travel 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 (Beyond the Tweed, Pictures and Letters from Scotland, 1860). In the books Fontane reflects both nature and the mood in Britain at that time. The success of the historical novels of Walter Scott had helped to make British themes much in vogue on the Continent.

At the age of 57, Fontane finally began work on his novels, for which he is remembered best today. Fontane's lifelong wish to be able to live from his literary works was finally fulfilled. A fine historical romance, Vor dem Sturm (Before the Storm, 1878), was followed by a series exploring modern life, notably L'Adultera (Woman Taken in Adultery, 1882), which was the first of his society novels and deemed risky for its theme of adultery.

Fontane was plagued by health problems during his last years but continued to work until a few hours before his death. He died in the evening of 20 September 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 during World War II but later restored.

Books by Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest Cover image

Effi Briest

Fiction Novel Tragedy

Effi Briest is a realist novel by Theodor Fontane. Published in book form in 1895, Effi Briest marks both a watershed and a climax in the poetic realism of literature. It can be thematically compared to other novels on 19th century marriage from a fe...