Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803
Henri Theodor Fontane was born on December 30, 1819, in Neuruppin, Prussia (now in Germany). Both of his parents were of French descent, part of the French Huguenot colony that had existed in Prussia since the Edict of Potsdam of 1685. Fontane’s father was a pharmacist. During the first year...
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Henri Theodor Fontane was born on December 30, 1819, in Neuruppin, Prussia (now in Germany). Both of his parents were of French descent, part of the French Huguenot colony that had existed in Prussia since the Edict of Potsdam of 1685. Fontane’s father was a pharmacist. During the first year of his marriage, he acquired a well-established pharmacy in Neuruppin. He was not, however, a good businessman, and he lost considerable amounts of money at the gambling table. In 1827, the elder Fontane sold his pharmacy in Neuruppin and purchased another in Swinemünde.
The Fontane family then moved to Swinemünde, a port town that was much livelier than Neuruppin. For Fontane, Swinemünde was always imbued with a certain poetic quality, and he transmuted it into the setting of a few of his works. He attended the Gymnasium (academic high school) in Neuruppin for a few years, but eventually he switched to a vocational school in Berlin and, in 1836, was apprenticed to a pharmacy there. During those years, his father’s fortunes went from bad to worse, and his parents eventually separated.
Fontane’s father’s financial failures meant that, from a very young age, Fontane had to rely almost exclusively on his own resources in order to make a living. While still an apprentice in the pharmacy in Berlin, he wrote poems and novellas, a few of which were published. In April, 1844, he began his one-year military service. During the summer of the same year, he was given leave in order to accompany a friend on a trip to England. He was fascinated by that country and particularly by the city of London. He resolved to find a way to live in England for several years.
In 1847, Fontane received his license as a first-class pharmacist, but he never practiced his profession in any consistent manner. He became active in a few literary societies in Berlin and received several assignments as a journalist. In 1850, he married Emilie Rouanet-Kummer, to whom he had been engaged for five years. In 1851, their first son was born, and the struggle for day-to-day survival intensified.
In 1852, Fontane was sent to London for several months, as a correspondent for the Preussische Zeitung. After his return, he published Ein Sommer in London (1854; a summer in London), a collection of essays that are full of his admiration for British history and society and for the country’s wealth. Fontane did not, however, hesitate to criticize the prevailing materialism and social injustice. His summer in London in 1852 and his knowledge of the English language and of British institutions were important factors when the Prussian government chose a press agent to be sent to London to present its views on world affairs to the British press.
In 1855, Fontane was posted to London for more than three years and, for the first time in his life, had a comfortable income. These years in England were very important to his development: They were a fruitful period of learning, of absorbing a foreign culture, and of contrasting it to his own. Toward the end of his assignment in England, Fontane went on a journey to Scotland, treading in the footsteps of Ossian and Sir Walter Scott. Shortly after his return to Berlin, he published a very personal account of his journey to Scotland: Jenseits des Tweed (1860; Across the Tweed, 1965), which received favorable critical reviews. More important, Fontane’s work on Across the Tweed led to a number of insights, comparisons, and transmutations that were to find their way into Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg, in which his monumental depiction of the landscape, the towns, the people, and the history of Mark Brandenburg was to set the stage for his novels and novellas.
In 1860, Fontane joined the editorial staff of the conservative Kreuzzeitung, not out of political conviction but to have a regular income. Ten years later, he was finally able to break “the chain on which my daily bread dangles.” In 1870, he was appointed theater critic of the prestigious (and liberal) Vossische Zeitung, with which he remained associated until 1890.
Except for a brief internment by the French during the Franco-Prussian War (Fontane had served as a war correspondent), the last third of his life was relatively free of anxiety. Most of his time was devoted to writing, and he was increasingly recognized as a major literary voice. In 1894, when most of his major works (but not his two greatest novels) had been published, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Berlin. He was held in esteem by the adherents of naturalism, though their emerging literary form was quite unlike his own. Fontane died on September 20, 1898, apparently from a stroke. One of the papers found on his desk was a list of those people who were to receive copies of his just-published masterpiece, The Stechlin.