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With Effi Briest, Fontane brilliantly demonstrates the truth of his comment that 'women's stories are generally far more interesting'. His taut, ironic narrative depicts a world where sexuality and the will to enjoy life are stifled by narrow-mindedness and circumstance. And in his humane, unsentimental portrait of Effi, who refuses to bow to convention, he offers us a reading experience that is at once touching and unsettling.
To the front of Hohen-Cremmen, country seat of the von Briest family since the time of Elector Georg Wilhelm, bright sunshine fell on the midday silence in the village street, while on the side facing the park and gardens a wing built on at right angles cast its broad shadow first on a white and green flagstone path, then out over a large roundel of flowers with a sundial at its centre and a border of canna lilies and rhubarb round the edge. Some twenty paces further on, corresponding exactly in line and length to the new wing and broken only by a single white-painted iron gate, was a churchyard wall entirely covered in small-leaved ivy, behind which rose Hohen-Cremmen's shingled tower, its weather-cock glittering from recent regilding. Main house, wing and churchyard wall formed a horseshoe, enclosing a small ornamental garden at whose open end a pond and a jetty with a moored boat could be seen, and close by a swing, its horizontal seat-board hanging at head and foot on two ropes from posts that were slightly out of true. Between the roundel and the pond, partially concealing the swing, stood some mighty plane trees.
The front of the house too — a sloping terrace with aloes in tubs and some garden chairs — offered a place to linger and indulge in all manner of amusements if the sky was cloudy; but on days when the sun beat down there was a clear preference for the garden side, especially on the part of the lady of the house and her daughter, who on this particular day were sitting out in the full shade on the flagstone path, with windows wreathed in Virginia creeper at their backs, and beside them a short projecting flight of steps whose four stone treads led up from the garden to the upper ground floor of the wing. Both mother and daughter were busily at work on an altar-cloth that was to be made out of several squares; countless strands of wool and skeins of silk lay jumbled on a large round table, and between them, left over from lunch, were some dessert plates and a large majolica bowl filled with fine large gooseberries. The ladies' wool-needles went back and forth, swift and sure, but while the mother never took her eye off her work, the daughter, Effi as everybody called her, laid down her needle from time to time and stood up to stretch and bend her way stylishly through a full sequence of health-promoting home gymnastics. It was obvious that these exercises were a labour of quite special love, even if she deliberately added a comic touch, and as she stood there slowly raising her arms and bringing her palms together high above her head, her mother too would raise her eyes from her work, but only for a surreptitious, fleeting glance, for she had no wish to show what delight she took in her own child, fully justified though such a stirring of maternal pride was. Effi was wearing a blue and white striped linen dress that would have been a straight tunic had it not been drawn in at the waist by a tight, bronze-coloured leather belt; the neck was open and a broad sailor's collar went over her shoulders and down her back. Grace and careless abandon were combined in everything she did, while her laughing brown eyes revealed much good sense, a great zest for life and kindness of heart. They called her 'the little one', but she tolerated that only because her beautiful, slender mamma was a hand's breadth taller.
Effi had just stood up again to do a few gymnastic turns to right and left when her mother, looking up from her embroidery again, called to her, 'Effi, maybe you should have been a bareback-rider after all. Always on the trapeze, a daughter of the air. You know I almost think that's what you would like to be.'
'Perhaps Mamma, but supposing I would, whose fault would that be? Who do I get it from? It can only be you. Or do you think from Papa? There, you can't help laughing. And then, why have you got me in this shift — this boy's overall? Sometimes I think I'm going to go back into short dresses. And once that happens I'll curtsy like some sweet young thing, and when the officers come over from Rathenow I'll get on Colonel Goetze's lap and ride, gee-up, gee-up, and why not? He's three quarters uncle and only one quarter admirer anyway. It's your fault. Why haven't I got any proper dresses? Why don't you make a lady of me?'
'Would you like that?'
'No.' Saying which, she ran up to her mother, threw her arms round her impetuously and kissed her.
'Not so wild Effi, not so passionate. It always worries me when I see you like this ...' And her mother seemed seriously intent on giving further expression to her cares and anxieties. But she didn't get so far, because just at that moment three young girls came in at the iron gate in the churchyard wall and walked up the gravel path towards the roundel and the sundial. All three waved to Effi with their parasols and hurried up to Frau von Briest to kiss her hand. She asked a few quick questions and then invited the girls to keep them, or at least Effi, company for half an hour, 'I have things to see to, and young people are happiest left to themselves. So, I'll take my leave.' And so saying she climbed the stone steps leading from the garden to the wing.
And with that the young people were on their own.
Two of the young girls — plump little persons whose curly golden red hair admirably matched their freckles and equable temper — were the daughters of Jahnke, the assistant schoolmaster whose sole interests were the Hanseatic League, Scandinavia and Fritz Reuter, a fellow Mecklenburger and his favourite writer, in emulation of whom, with Mining and Lining in mind, he had given his twins the names Bertha and Hertha. The third young lady was Hulda Niemeyer, Pastor Niemeyer's only child; while more ladylike than the other two, she was also boring and conceited, a lymphatic blonde with somewhat protuberant, stupid eyes that somehow always seemed to be searching for something, which was why Klitzing of the Hussars had said of her, 'Doesn't she look as if she were expecting the Archangel Gabriel at any moment?' Effi felt that the somewhat critical Klitzing was only too accurate, but refrained nonetheless from making any distinction between her three friends. That was the last thing she had in mind at the moment. 'This boring old embroidery. Thank goodness you're here,' and she put her elbows on the table.
'But we've driven your mamma away,' said Hulda.
'Not really. You heard her, she was going anyhow, she's expecting a visitor you see, some old friend from when she was a girl, I'm going to tell you about that later, a love-story complete with hero and heroine, and ending in renunciation. You'll be amazed, you won't believe your ears. I've seen him too, Mamma's old friend, over in Schwantikow. He's a Landrat, and very handsome and manly.'
'That's the main thing,' said Hertha.
'Of course it's the main thing, "women should be womanly, men should be manly" — that's one of Papa's favourite sayings, as you know. Now help me tidy this table, otherwise I'll be in trouble again.'
In a trice all the skeins were packed into the basket, and when they were all seated again, Hulda said, 'Well then Effi, it's time now, let's have this tale of love and renunciation. Or is it not really that bad?'
'A tale of renunciation is never bad. But unless Hertha takes some of these gooseberries I can't start, she can't keep her eyes off them. Help yourself, as many as you like, we can pick more later, only don't throw the skins away, or better still, put them on this newspaper supplement here, then we'll make it into a paper bag and get rid of the whole lot. Mamma can't stand it if she sees skins lying everywhere, she always says you could slip on them and break a leg.'
'Don't believe it,' said Hertha, addressing herself to the gooseberries with a will.
'Nor do I,' Effi agreed. 'Just think, I fall at least two or three times every day, and I've never broken anything. Proper legs don't break so easily, mine certainly don't, nor yours, Hertha. What do you think, Hulda?'
'One shouldn't tempt Providence. Pride comes before a fall.'
'There's the governess again, you're a real old maid.'
'Well, it won't stop me getting married, perhaps sooner than you.'
'Think I care. Do you imagine that's what I'm waiting for? That's all I need. Anyway, I'm going to have someone, maybe quite soon. I'm not worried. Only the other day little Ventivegni from across the way said, "What do you bet we'll be getting together this year for somebody's Wedding Eve!"'
'And what did you say to that?'
'"It's possible of course," I said, "quite possible; Hulda is the oldest and might get married any day." But he wouldn't have any of that and said, "No, it will be quite another young lady — who is as dark as Hulda is blond." And he gave me a very serious look as he said it ... But how did I get on to all this, I'm forgetting the story.'
'Yes, you do keep going off at a tangent; maybe you don't want to tell us after all.'
'Oh I want to all right, but it's true of course, I do keep getting off the subject, because it's all rather strange, in fact, it's almost romantic.'
'But didn't you say he was a Landrat?'
'That's right, a Landrat. And his name is Geert von Innstetten, Baron von Innstetten.'
All three burst out laughing.
'What are you laughing at?' said Effi, put out, 'What's that supposed to mean?'
'Oh Effi, we didn't mean any offence, not to you and not to the Baron. Did you say Innstetten? And Geert? Nobody around here is called anything like that. These old aristocratic names can be so funny.'
'Yes indeed, my dear. But that's the aristocracy. They don't have to care, and the further back they go the less they have to care. You mustn't mind if I say you don't understand these things. We'll still be friends. So it's Geert von Innstetten, and a baron. He's exactly the same age as Mamma, to the day.'
And how old is your Mamma then?'
'A nice age to be.'
'Yes, it is, especially if you still have Mamma's looks. She's a beautiful woman, really, don't you think? And the way she has everything just so, and is always so poised and refined, never puts her foot in it like Papa. If I were a young lieutenant, I would fall in love with Mamma.'
'But Effi, how can you say such a thing?' said Hulda, 'That's against the fourth commandment.'
'Nonsense. How can that be against the fourth commandment? I think Mamma would be pleased if she knew I'd said something like that.'
'That may well be,' Hertha interjected, 'but let's get on with the story.'
'All right, be patient, I'm just going to start ... So, Baron Innstetten. He wasn't quite twenty and he was stationed in Rathenow and was a regular guest on all the estates here, though his favourite was grandfather Belling's place in Schwantikow. It wasn't of course because of Grandfather that he called so often, and when Mamma talks about it, anybody can see who the real attraction was. And I think it was mutual.'
'So what happened then?'
'What happened was what was bound to happen, what always happens. He was still far too young, and when Papa came on the scene he was already a Ritterschaftsrat and had Hohen-Cremmen, so there wasn't really much to think about and she accepted him and became Frau von Briest ... And the rest, what came after that, you know ... The rest is me.'
'Yes, the rest is you, Effi,' said Bertha. 'Thank goodness for that, we wouldn't have had you if things had been otherwise. So you must tell us, what did Innstetten do, what became of him? He didn't take his own life, otherwise you wouldn't be expecting him today.'
'No, he didn't take his own life. But it was a bit like it.'
'Did he try?'
'No, he didn't. But he wasn't inclined to stay in the neighbourhood any longer, and it must have put him off army life in general. It was peacetime after all. To cut a long story short he resigned his commission and went off to study law, "really made a meal of it" as Papa puts it; but when the war of 1870 came along he joined up again, with the Perlebergers, mark you, not with his old regiment, and he got the Iron Cross. As you would expect, because he's very dashing. And immediately after the war he went back to his files, and they say Bismarck thinks highly of him, and the Kaiser too, and that's how he came to be a Landrat, for the district of Kessin.'
'Kessin? I don't know any Kessin near here.'
'No, it isn't in our part of the country, it's a fair way from here, in Pomerania, Eastern Pomerania in fact, not that that means anything, because it's a coastal resort (everywhere's a coastal resort up there) and this holiday trip Baron Innstetten is making is a kind of tour of his cousins or something. He wants to see old acquaintances and relatives.'
'He's got relatives here?'
'Yes and no, depends how you look at it. There are no Innstettens here, in fact there are no Instettens left at all, I don't think. But he has some distant cousins on his mother's side here, and mainly I think he wanted to see Schwantikow and the Bellings' house again, which hold so many memories for him. He was over there yesterday, and today he's coming to Hohen-Cremmen.'
'And what does your father say to that?'
'Nothing. He's not like that. And he knows Mamma. He just teases her.'
At that moment it struck noon, and before the chimes had stopped, Wilke, the Briests' old butler and general factotum, appeared with a message for Effi: 'Her ladyship would like Miss Effi to make herself presentable in good time. The Baron will arrive at one o'clock sharp.' And as he announced this Wilke began to clear the ladies' work-table, reaching first for the sheet of newspaper the gooseberry skins were lying on.
'No Wilke, don't do that, we're going to see to the skins ... Hertha, it's time to make the paper bag; and put in a stone so it all sinks. Then we'll have a long funeral procession and bury the bag at sea.'
Wilke smiled. 'A real caution, our young lady' he must have been thinking; but Effi, placing the bag in the middle of the swiftly tidied tablecloth, said: 'Now each of the four of us takes a corner and we sing something sad.'
'Yes, well, you say that, Effi. But what exactly are we supposed to sing?'
'Anything; it doesn't matter, except that it must have a rhyme with "ee"; "ee" is the vowel for keening. So we'll sing:
"In the deepest deep,
Let it peacefully sleep."'
And as Effi solemnly intoned this litany, all four began to move towards the jetty, climbed into the boat that was moored there, and from that slowly lowered the bag and its stone weight into the pond.
'Hertha, your guilt is now consigned to the deep,' said Effi, 'oh and that reminds me, this is how they used to drown poor unfortunate women, from boats like this, for infidelity of course.'
'But not here.'
'No, not here,' Effi laughed, 'that kind of thing doesn't happen here. But in Constantinople it does, now I come to think of it, you must know that just as well as I do, you were there when ordinand Holzapfel told us about it in geography.'
'Yes,' said Hulda, 'Holzapfel was always talking about that kind of thing. But then that's the kind of thing you forget.'
'Not me. I remember that kind of thing.'
Excerpted from Effi Briest by THEODOR FONTANE. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Chambers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted December 24, 2009
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