Rereading: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

In real life Effi Briest would have suffered less, argues Giles MacDonogh, as he rereads Theodor Fontane's masterpiece

Effi Briest (1895) is the greatest work of Prussian realism and certainly one of the best tragic novels of the 19th century. The story is simple enough and hardly unique: Geert von Innstetten, an ambitious nobleman and civil servant on the brink of middle age, makes an uncontroversial marriage to Effi von Briest, the 17-year-old daughter of a former flame. Innstetten takes her back to the town in Pomerania from which he runs the local administration. A daughter, Annie, is born, but Innstetten is keen to get on, and leaves his young wife on her own where she falls prey to a womaniser, Major von Crampas.

Effi never loves Crampas, and Innstetten is none the wiser. He is transferred to Berlin and the affair is forgotten until he discovers a packet of Crampas's letters to his wife. He challenges Crampas to a duel and kills him. Innstetten takes charge of his daughter and banishes his wife. Effi's health declines in her despair. Reconciled to her parents, she dies.

Theodor Fontane based the story on a case he had read about in the newspapers: Armand Léon von Ardenne had killed Emil Hartwich, a local magistrate who had been sleeping with the former's wife, Elisabeth von Plotho, whose family had been Slavic princes even before the Christians came to Brandenburg.

When I first picked up Effi Briest more than a dozen years ago I was interested in its description of Prussian manners at a time when the local nobles or Junkers were coming to terms with the new German Reich. Fontane was the supreme apologist for Prussian values and his heroes - and villains - are often drawn from the ranks of its modest but warlike squirearchy. Innstetten is another Prussian type: the altruistic bureaucrat. As an old lady from Hamburg once told me: "We hated the Prussians, but such a thing as a corrupt official would have been unthinkable then."

It is not just the nobility that Fontane portrays. Kessin is Swinemünde, where Fontane himself grew up, and the novelist presents an affectionate tableau of provincial life in a Prussian seaside town. The old apothecary, Gieshübler, is a portrait of Fontane's father.

Of course I was struck then - indeed moved to tears - by Effi's fate. Effi is simply too young, while Innstetten is too old, too busy ("I have no choice, I am in government service") and too trusting. Once he learns of the affair he is also too unbending. When Effi succeeds in seeing her daughter she is heartbroken to find she has become her father's girl. For the first and last time Effi curses them all, but in the end she is too much a part of the system herself: his code of honour is also hers, and it was she who broke the rules.

Rereading the novel I was even more struck by how cleverly Fontane presents this view. There is really no way out for Innstetten or Effi. Both blindly follow their destinies. Innstetten finds the letters through an unfortunate accident. Had he kept quiet he might have been able to forget the affair, which had ended six years before. He confesses that he loves his wife, and had no cause to suspect her. However, by confiding in his colleague Wüllersdorf he has started the process of making her infidelity public and laying himself open to ridicule. Wüllersdorf argues vainly for a statute of limitations: surely there is a time after which a duel is no longer necessary? Innstetten disagrees: "A tyrannical social something or other" dictates his course of action. "One is not just a solitary person but part of a whole." Innstetten has only one path - "Es muss sein". He must kill the seducer or die himself.

Effi herself had not wanted to yield to the cynical Crampas. A ghost, a Chinese servant who may or may not have died as a result of an illicit affair, appears at her moments of fear, egging her on to seek solace in the other; a metaphor for lust?

Innstetten is sympathetic. He is not a hypocrite. Fontane says he is "kind and good, but certainly no lover". In his final conversation with Wüllersdorf he is shown to be a man who can see no way out. He is a slave to his career; but the honours he receives bring him no happiness at all in a life of utter loneliness.

Prussian noble society also decides Effi's fate: she is not fit to bring up a child. She comes to accept the verdict as she prepares for death. At her side she has a faithful servant and fellow sinner, Roswitha - significantly a Thuringian Catholic - and a dog, Rollo, who is destined to pine away on her grave. Her parents have softened. They have begun to blame themselves: was she not just too young?

Fontane has been called the Prussian Zola, but the comparison is unhelpful. There is no thesis to his novels, such as that which imbues Zola's history of the Rougon-Macquart family, and almost all the figures are notable for their humanity. Even Crampas is not a stock villain: he reads Heine, produces plays and accepts his death with equanimity.

It is a measure of Fontane's artistry that he convinces us that neither Innstetten nor Effi has any choice. A real Effi Briest would have suffered less. Effi is offered the chance to go to Menton, but refuses. The French riviera must have been full of fallen society ladies in exile, whiling away their time with lovers and whist parties.

A few years ago I spent a night at Kyritz in Brandenburg and accidentally ran into a gathering of Plothos that included Elisabeth von Plotho's great nephew. He had known her well. She died in 1952 on Lake Constance, having outlived the creator of Effi Briest by more than half a century. After her disgrace she had become a nurse. The old man was rather proud of her.

· Giles MacDonogh's most recent book is The Last Kaiser.

Giles MacDonogh

The GuardianTramp

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