THE German novelist Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) had the good fortune to practice fiction at a time when Germany was a newborn empire, fresh from victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarckian Prussia had indeed been the driving force in the amalgamation of numerous German-speaking states into an imperial power, with the Prussian King as Emperor and the booming city of Berlin as his capital. But the Prussian ethos -- with its militarism and authoritarianism, its web of aristocratic connections and lingering remnants of feudalism, its fierce code of honor and passion for order -- made an awkward fit with the rumbustious materialism of the rising Berlin bourgeoisie. This strain is one of Fontane's recurrent themes. In his novel the title character is summed up by an academic friend as "the perfect bourgeoise type ... she has a heart only for what has weight, for everything that counts and bears interest."
Fontane turned out novels at an enviable clip, averaging almost a book a year for the last two decades of his life. By the end of this run he had become the finest German novelist of his era, an exemplar for the young Thomas Mann and a keen observer of city life whose composite portrait of Berlin ranks with Dickens's portrait of London, Balzac's of Paris, and Dostoevski's of St. Petersburg.
The historian Gordon Craig's critical study of Fontane is of a piece with the typical Fontane novel: brief, piquant, urbane, chatty. Author and subject also share an affection for Scotland -- which Fontane got to know as a traveler and about which he wrote a book, and where Craig was born (he emigrated to the United States in 1925). Despite these affinities, Craig admits in his introduction to having "neither heard [Fontane's] name nor read a page of his work until 1938, when I was twenty-five years old." It took even longer for readers without German to make the novelist's acquaintance: the first of his major works to appear in English, Unwiederbringlich (Beyond Recall), did so in 1964. Even now only roughly a third of his eighteen novels and novellas are in print in English, and only Effi Briest is well known, largely because Rainer Fassbinder made a film of it, in 1974.