Frau Jenny Treibel

[This page by Patricia Howe]

Frau Jenny Treibel oder ‘Wo sich Herz zum Herzen find’t’; Mrs Jenny Treibel or ‘Where one heart finds another’ (1892; dated 1893)

Frau Jenny Treibel was written between winter 1887/88 and October l891, serialised in the periodical Deutsche Rundschau in 1892, and published in book form in 1892 (dated 1893), when the dust jacket describes it as a novel of Berlin society.

The novel is based on an account of the family of a Berlin Kommerzienrat (financial counsellor), provided by Fontane’s elder sister, Jenny Sommerfeldt. It is also thought to be influenced by Jenny Sommerfeldt herself, as well as by Fontane’s sentimental attachment to another Kommerzienrätin (financial counsellor’s wife) and her daughter. The novel’s sub-title, ‘Wo sich Herz zum Herzen find’t’ (Where one heart finds another), refers to a song, written for Frau Jenny Treibel by Wilibald Schmidt in her youth, which she still sings at her dinner parties.

According to a letter written to his son Theo in 1881, Fontane’s aim was to expose the hollow rhetoric, deceit, arrogance and hard-heartedness of the hypocritical bourgeoisie, a social group that had grown and prospered particularly in the years since 1870. In fact, the plot deals with the public and private ambitions of the different groups which comprise the middle classes: the self-made bourgoisie and upper middle classes (Großbürger) who have risen to prosperity through manufacture and trade; and the educated, more traditional but less prosperous, professional middle class (Bildungsbürger). The former are represented by the Treibels, with their tile factory, luxurious house, social and political ambitions, the latter by Wilibald Schmidt and his daughter Corinna, his nephew Marcell Wedderkopp, and Schmidt’s intellectual circle of friends and fellow teachers.

Frau Jenny Treibel, born Jenny Bürstenbinder, daughter of a greengrocer and wife of a prosperous, politically ambitious businessman, is characterised by hard-headed social ambition and sentimentality. While she views her youthful attachment to Schmidt through rose-tinted spectacles, she is keen for her sons to make socially beneficial marriages. As the novel begins she is determined to find a suitable bride for Leopold, her ineffectual younger son, but anxious to prevent him from marrying Hildegard Munk, whose elder sister, Helene, is married to Jenny’s elder son. Jenny resents Helene’s snobbish airs and refusal to accept her mother-in-law’s authority, which she attributes to Helene’s upbringing in Hamburg. Frau Jenny changes her mind about Hildegard, however, when Corinna Schmidt, tired of the material limitations of her own background, decides that the weak Leopold Treibel would make a suitable husband and manoeuvres him into an unofficial engagement. Knowing Leopold’s weak will, Frau Jenny decides that even marriage to Hildegard would be preferable. Ultimately the ill-advised engagement comes to nothing, less because of Frau Jenny’s intervention than because Corinna is persuaded of its folly through the good sense of her father’s housekeeper, Frau Schmolke.

The bourgeois sphere of the Treibels’ world is connected with political life in Wilhelmine Germany. Kommerzienrat Treibel is less snobbish than his wife and more accustomed to the prosperity that his family has acquired over three generations. But his grasp of politics is inadequate. As in Effi Briest and Der Stechlin there is a forthcoming election, in which he stands as a candidate, hoping thereby to confirm his financial success by advancing his social status. One of his aristocratic guests points out to him that each social group has its corresponding political stance: ‘Aristocratic estate-owners are agricultural-conservative, professors are national middle party, and industrialists are progressive. Do be a progressive.’ The remark might be read as an attempt to keep him in his place, but he disregards it because his assiduous imitation of the aristocratic way of life has persuaded him that conservative will be more beneficial than progressive. His failure to understand the growing connections between the economy, nationalism and politics, together with his use of a farcically incompetent agent, leads to his defeat. Both his bid for political power and Jenny’s plans for her younger son go awry because they attempt to imitate the aristocracy without having its traditional basis or an understanding of its precepts, and because they misunderstand the extent and nature of social change.

While both the marriage plot and the political campaign end in defeat or compromise, the novel concludes with a flurry of engagements and marriages. The satirical critique of bourgeois society is modified by this conciliatory ending, which remains, however, ironic rather than romantic. It may be read as a comic ending that brings together public and private concerns, but it is also a series of pragmatic compromises that do nothing to close the gap between the social groups or generations: Jenny decides that another snobbish daughter-in-law from Hamburg would be preferable to a poor one with a mind of her own, while Schmidt accepts, apparently without question, that one can gain entry to the family of a duke but not to that of a bourgeois. Marriage is a retreat to the familiar and the end of romance: Corinna marries her cousin, Leopold marries his sister-in-law’s sister, Corinna’s honeymoon takes her to Padua, where Juliet is buried, and her future lies among the ruins of old burial grounds as Marcell is engaged to work with the archaeologist, Schliemann. Marcell claims that Corinna has given up modernity forever, together with the sick emphasis on external things, and has returned to her upbringing.

The marriage plot mimics that of novels such as Jane Austen’s Emma. As in Emma, Corinna pursues a foolish young man destined for someone else, but finally marries a man who is already part of her family. The narrative is likewise propelled by the small, social events that relieve uneventful lives: dinner parties, excursions and other social gatherings from which individual and shared attitudes, allegiances and ambitions emerge. Attitudes emerge through description and narratorial comment, through notes, letters, and, most directly, through dialogue, at its most dramatic in the confrontation between Frau Jenny and Corinna, more restrained in discussions between Schmidt and his friends, and in the mild interventions and reminiscences of Schmidt’s housekeeper, Widow Schmolke. Frau Schmolke is the voice of common sense and steady experience who stands apart from the competitive element of the middle classes.

While comedy and the conciliatory ending soften the conflicts in which the central characters are both antagonists and victims, Fontane also creates a broader sense of the unresolved differences between generations, classes and attitudes, between the progressive and the traditional, as they are enacted in private and public, political and social spheres. In Frau Jenny Treibel he foregrounds the egoism of the bourgeois and the passivity of the educated middle class, the empty pursuits of over-privileged young men and young unmarried women, but he also offers brief glimpses of the petit bourgeois and the working class. He touches on the plight of those disadvantaged by society because of their gender or class: on the boredom of married middle class women with nothing to occupy their minds, but also on the desperate quest for a husband that keeps a young girl writing to her former tutor, just to maintain a connection; on the humiliations of unmarried women obliged to take positions as governesses or companions, where they are treated only as superior servants; on the struggles of the petit bourgeois to maintain their respectability and on the restricted lives of servants and the misery of those who live in poverty or social disgrace. In Frau Jenny Treibel these topics are treated as secondary to his concern with the middle classes, but in his last, unfinished novel, Mathilde Möhring, they will move to the foreground, Corinna’s half-hearted manipulation of Leopold Treibel will become Mathilde’s calculated pursuit of a husband, and the comedy will largely disappear.

English Translations

[An excerpt entitled ‘From Mrs Jenny Treibel’ was translated into English in B. Q. Morgan, The German Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928), pp. 445-51]

Jenny Treibel, trans. by Ulf Zimmermann (New York: Ungar, 1976), reprinted in Theodor Fontane, Short Novels and Other Writings, ed. by Peter Demetz (New York: Continuum, 1982)

Further Reading

Alan Bance, Theodor Fontane: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), Chapter 6 on Frau Jenny Treibel

W. H. Bruford, ‘Frau Jenny Treibel’, in Bruford, The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: ‘Bildung’ from Humboldt to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 190-205

Glenn A. Guidry, ‘Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel and “Having a Conversation”, Germanic Review 64 (1989), 2-9

David S. Johnson, ‘The Ironies of Degeneration: The Dilemmas of Bourgeois Masculinity in Theodor Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel and Mathilde Möhring’, Monatshefte 102:2 (2010), 147-61

Julia Kühn, ‘Vanity Fair in Frau Jenny Treibel: A comparative analysis of Fontane’s and Thackeray’s realist novels’, Oxford German Studies 48:4 (2019), 453-71

John B. Lyon, ‘Disjunctive Transnationalisms in Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel’, in Fontane in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by John B. Lyon and Brian Tucker (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2019), pp. 103-20

David Turner, ‘Coffee or milk? – that is the question: on an incident from Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel’, German Life and Letters 21 (1967-68), 330-35

David Turner, ‘Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel: A Study in Ironic Discrepancy’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 8:2 (1972), 132-47