Theodor Fontane

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Theodor Fontane
Kurzbio fontane05.jpg
Born (1819-12-30)30 December 1819
Neuruppin, Brandenburg, Prussia
Died 20 September 1898(1898-09-20) (aged 78)
Berlin, Germany
Occupation Writer
Nationality German
Period 19th century
Genre Novel
Notable works Effi Briest

Theodor Fontane (German: [ˈtʰeːodoɐ̯ fɔnˈtaːnə]; 30 December 1819 – 20 September 1898) was a German novelist and poet, regarded by many as the most important 19th-century German-language realist writer.


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 came into contact with the progressives of the Vormärz. Fontane's first published work, the novella Geschwisterliebe ("Sibling Love"), appeared in the Berlin Figaro in December 1839.

His biographer Gordon A. Craig observes that this work gave few indications of his promise as a gifted writer: "Although the theme of incest, which was to occupy Fontane on later occasions, is touched upon here, the mawkishness of the tale... is equaled by the lameness of its plot and the inertness of the style in which it is told, and [the characters] Clärchen and her brother are both so colorless that no one could have guessed that their creator had a future as a writer."[1]

His first job as apothecary was in Dresden after which he returned to his father's shop in the provincial town of Letschin in the Oderbruch region. Fleeing its provincial atmosphere, Fontane published articles in the Leipzig newspaper Die Eisenbahn and translated Shakespeare. In 1843, he joined a literary club in Berlin called Tunnel über der Spree (Tunnel over the river Spree) where he came into contact with many of the most renowned German writers including Theodor Storm, Joseph von Eichendorff and Gottfried Keller.

Newspaper writer and critic

"Modern Book Printing" from the Walk of Ideas in Berlin, Germany – built in 2006 to commemorate Johannes Gutenberg's invention, c. 1445, of movable printing type.

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

He briefly participated in the revolutionary events of 1848. In 1849 he quit his job as an apothecary and became a full-time journalist and writer. In order to support his family he took a job as a writer for the Prussian intelligence agency Zentralstelle für Presseangelegenheiten which was meant to influence the press towards the German nationalist cause.

He specialised in British affairs, and the agency made him for several years its correspondent in London where he was later joined by his wife and two sons. While still in London he quit his government job and, on his return to Berlin, became editor of the conservative Neue Preussische Zeitung.


Fontane's books about Britain include Ein Sommer in London (1854), Aus England, Studien und Briefe (1860) and Jenseit des Tweed, Bilder und Briefe aus Schottland (1860). The success of the historical novels of Walter Scott had helped to make British themes much en vogue on the continent. Fontane's Gedichte (1851) and ballads Männer und Helden (1860) tell of Britain's former glories.

Fontane, ca. 1860

Back in Germany, Fontane became particularly interested in his home province, the March of Brandenburg. He enjoyed rambling through its rural landscapes and small towns and delighted in the growth of its capital city, Berlin. His fascination with the countryside surrounding Berlin may be seen in his picturesque Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (1862–1882, 5 vols.) in which he transposed his former fascination with British historical matters to his native soil.

Wars of German Unification

In 1870, he quit his job at the Kreuzzeitung and became drama critic for the liberal Vossische Zeitung, a position he held until retirement. He had already written about Prussia's war against Denmark in Der schleswig-holsteinische Krieg im Jahre 1864 (1866) and the Austro-Prussian War in Der deutsche Krieg von 1866 (1869). He went to the front to observe the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and, after being taken prisoner at Vaucouleurs, remained in French captivity for three months. He set down his experiences in Kriegsgefangen Erlebtes 1870 (1871) and published his observations on the campaign in Der Krieg gegen Frankreich 1870–71 (1874–1876).

Later years

At the age of 57 Fontane finally worked in the genre for which he is remembered, the novel. His fine historical romance Vor dem Sturm (Before the Storm) (1878) was followed by a series of novels of modern life, notably L'Adultera (1882), a book about adultery which was considered so risqué that it took Fontane two years to find a publisher.

Graves of Theodor and Emilie Fontane in the Französische Friedhof, Liesenstraße, Berlin.

In his novels Irrungen, Wirrungen (Trials and Tribulations, 1888), Frau Jenny Treibel (1892) and Effi Briest (1894–95) he found his own tone, yielding insights into the lives of the nobility as well as the "common man". His achievement there was later described as poetic realism. In Der Stechlin (written 1895–97), his last completed novel, Fontane adapted the realistic methods and social criticism of contemporary French fiction to the conditions of Prussian life.


Fontane died on 20 September 1898, in Berlin. As a member of the French Protestant Church of Berlin, he was buried in the congregation's cemetery in on the Liesenstraße. His wife, Emilie, was buried beside him four years later. Their graves were damaged in World War II but restored thereafter.




  1. Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich (Oxford University Press, 1999), Theodor Fontane


  • Craig, Gordon Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999 ISBN 0-19-512837-0.
  • Thomas Mann, "The Old Fontane," in Essays of Three Decades (Knopf, 1947), 1910 essay.

External links