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Effi Briest

by Theodor Fontane
Persephone book no:

120 121 122

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263112

In some ways an ‘untypical’ Persephone Book, Effi Briest is a late-nineteenth century novel; by a man; translated from the German, by a man, 55 years ago. This is how Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (Fon-tah-nuh, no silent vowels in German) came about. We were asked to give a small lecture tour in Germany, talking of course about Persephone Books. ‘Have you read Effi Briest?’ someone asked. Read it? We had not even heard of it. And we had a degree in English Literature, had specialised in the novel, and for years had worked on Twentieth Century women writers and the tradition in which they wrote. Yet Effi Briest – which is about a 16-year-old girl married to a man 20 years older than her because it is socially advantageous – is part of that tradition and in some ways anticipates all our books: it castigates parents for simply marrying off their daughters rather than ensuring they have a future; it castigates male coldness and complacency: the men are weak and ineffectual and nothing gives them backbone but a ridiculous and disastrous code of honour; it castigates women’s timidity; it castigates Effi’s irresponsibility; it castigates society’s constraints: it is, in essence, about the socially unforgivable. But this plea for modern values is written in the most delicate, subtle and un-haranguing language with lightness of touch and great empathy for its characters. So how can it be that Effi Briest remains so little known in Britain?

This is its history: it was published in 1895 by the 75 year-old Theodor Fontane, whose ancestors were French but fled to Germany because of religious persecution (what’s new?). During the 1850s he lived in London, reading Walter Scott and Thackeray and George Eliot’s first (1859) novel. His own first novel appeared in 1878 when he was nearly 60, and sixteen more would be published over the next twenty years; thus Fontane was like Penelope Fitzgerald (who was clearly influenced by him) in being a late-flowering novelist.

The first English translation came out in 1914. The second, which we are using, was published in 1962 by the émigré German academic Walter Wallich, whose day job was working at the BBC; it is an excellent translation, sensitive to the original rather than being scrupulous (indeed, Wallich cut passages in order to make the book more accessible to English readers, and we have respected these cuts). Since then there have been three more translations in 1967, 1995 and 2015. Thus another untypical aspect of Persephone Book No. 121 is that it is already available in other editions. But does one ever see it in bookshops? No. Have most people read it? No.

But now it will be seen in our bookshop and Persephone readers will have the chance to read ‘a very modern and outward-looking European novelist. It seems that our expectations of the C19th European novel have been guided by an assumption that it should be Tolstoy-esque in length or Hugo-esque in complexity. Effi Briest is neither long nor labyrinthine but it is a masterpiece all the same. Its effect is mesmerising' (Charlie Lee-Potter).

But it is also subtle. There is not much in the way of plot (because you imagine things won’t end well) but from the very first page you are deeply moved by the unravelling of Effi’s fate. Superficially it is an adultery novel but no novel about adultery says less about sex than this one: which is why the most modern, 2009 film version of Effi Briest – there have been four previous ones, in 1939, 1956, 1969 and Fassbinder’s famous 1974 version – is absurdly ‘up to date’: it emphasises the erotic in a way Fontane never did.

Not long after Fontane’s death the great German novelist Thomas Mann unveiled a memorial to ‘unser Vater’ Fontane and said that if a library had to be shrunk to only six novels Effi Briest should be one of them. We are pleased and proud that this ‘quietly political and subversive novel, which tugs at life’s restraints without ever questioning them directly’ (Charlie Lee-Potter again) is now a Persephone book.


Endpapers taken from an 1895 wallpaper by Henry van de Velde

Picture Caption

Reading the Letter (1887) by the German painter Peter Kraemer

Read What Readers Say


What makes up daily life, and therefore life, are the small things, the banalities, the furniture, the clothing, the coffee. And even though this is not what life is really about, Fontane seems to say, you better make the best of it here and there and enjoy what you can when you can, otherwise your life will be completely miserable. This is the trap he has laid out for us: ‘Effi Briest’ is one huge trap, where nothing is really what it is about, where every word is double speak or a metaphor that fits or feeds the self-contradictory life-style of a highly civilised and decadent society. The book is full of funny platitudes and banal, beautiful, little details, enchanting pleasures and pains. What it describes, in the most lovely ways, is the absence of love. What Fontane talks about in the most thoughtful manner, is the absence of original thoughts that come out of the brains and hearts of his characters. The timeless genius of ‘Effi Briest’ was being an utterly contemporary and generous response to the gutless, clueless, fearful members of an utterly perverted society. There is a lot of humour in this and no sarcasm or irony. It spreads generous compassion for the lost and the confused, the rich, the poor, the weak, the young, the awkward, the mean, and the cruel, as long as they are occasionally trying to be better than themselves, and at least once in a while reflect on their wrong-doings.

Rebecca Wallersteiner, ‘The Lady’

Unsettling and tinged with sadness, Theodor Fontane’s nineteenth German masterpiece about the charming, vivacious and pretty Effi Briest who is married off to her mother’s old flame is one of the most wonderful novels I have ever read. This is a beautiful new edition of an enduring classic.

Ruth Scurr, ‘The Amorist’

‘Effi Briest’ is one of the greatest adultery novels of all time, up there on the shelf beside ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. All are nineteenth century realist fictions in which women are punished, first with social ostracism, then death, for extramarital sex. But unlike Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, there is something irrepressibly innocent and life-affirming about Effi. The end is still tragic, but as she brilliantly observes, for those who understand life as a glittering banquet, to be called away a little early does not matter.

Categories: Adultery Family Overseas Translations Victoriana

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