Mathilde Möhring

[This page by Patricia Howe]

Mathilde Möhring (1906, unfinished)

Mathilde Möhring is Fontane’s last novel and remained incomplete at his death. The novel was conceived and written over a period of five years, beginning in January 1891. Chapter 10 was sketched some time after 8 February 1891, and the first rough draft of the novel was written in August and September of that year. It seems that Fontane revised his draft during the winter of 1895 and the spring of 1896, but the work was delayed by illness, and when he recovered he gave precedence to Effi Briest and Der Stechlin, whose subjects seemed more likely to find a sympathetic reading public. After his death Mathilde Möhring was serialised, from November 1st to December 13th 1906 in the periodical Die Gartenlaube, in a version completed and ‘improved’ by Josef Ettlinger. The first edition in book form appeared in 1914. In 1969 a new edition by Gotthard Erler, based on the original manuscript, was published as volume 7 of the Ausbau-Aufgabe of Fontane’s novels and stories. In 2008 the novel was published as volume 20 of the Große Brandenburger Ausgabe, with an extensive commentary, that includes variants and indicates where passages are incomplete. Despite the variants and gaps, the basic plot is essentially complete and provides the general sense of a coherent narrative. As yet there is no English translation.

The novel tells the story of Mathilde Möhring, referred to throughout as ‘Thilde’, an ambitious, intelligent and ruthlessly pragmatic young woman from the petty bourgeoisie. The novel opens with Thilde’s history, a description of the house in Berlin where she lives with her mother, of its prosperous landlord and his other tenants. Prevented by her father’s death from pursuing her ambition to become a teacher, Thilde is determined to avoid letting herself and her mother slip into poverty. She advertises for a lodger and in Hugo Grossmann, the student from the provinces who takes the room, she recognises an amiable but aimless pleasure seeker, intelligent, malleable and from a background that is socially superior to her own. With efficiency and determination she carries out a plan to marry him, to find him a suitable position in the world and so to improve her own social standing and to secure her mother’s financial needs. She nurses him through measles, guides him through his examinations, and persuades him to apply for the post of mayor in a small provincial town in West Prussia. Under her guidance, he becomes popular and successful, and their life is increasingly pleasant and comfortable, until a harsh winter and exhausting public duties lead to his death from pneumonia. The widowed Thilde returns to Berlin and her mother. Refusing offers of employment as a housekeeper and rejecting the idea of re-marriage, she pursues her original ambition to become a teacher.

Unlike many of Fontane’s novels, Mathilde Möhring is not based on a specific life story, but the characters draw on real-life models known to him. Thilde is a complex figure, a heroine not much loved by her creator; she has none of the self-doubt, the grace or beauty that characterises Fontane’s suffering heroines. She is astute, hard-working and generally far-sighted, although she cannot anticipate Hugo’s death, but she is shown in an unsympathetic light, as relentlessly ambitious to improve her status by manipulating a young man – even with his tacit consent – and as unattractive. But marriage to Hugo changes Thilde: there are hints that the couple grow closer in their new life, and after his death she comes to understand that, while he needed her drive and energy, she needs to acquire something of his gentler, more humane nature. Although Fontane seems to have had further changes to his novel in mind, he comments:

‘Im Wesentlichen ist alles in Ordnung, auch das ist gut, daß Thilde schließlich – namentlich unmittelbar nach dem Tode Hugos – etwas von ihrer Prosa verliert und … unter einen stillen Einfluß des Todten und seines milden Wesens kommt.’ (Mathilde Möhring, Große Brandenburger Ausgabe, ed. by Ganriele Radecke, Berlin: Aufbau, 2008, vol. 20, p. 157)

‘Essentially everything is in order, and it’s good too, that in the end — particularly immediately after Hugo’s death — Thilde loses something of her prosaic quality and comes under the silent influence of the dead man and his gentle nature.’

Thilde and Hugo belong to different social worlds. The Möhrings’ world is populated by the Schultzes, their landlord, who has made a fortune from speculation, their servant, the disfigured Runtschen, and her more presentable but vulgar daughter, and the other inhabitants of the house and acquaintances from their life before Mathilde’s father died. As a student Hugo spends more time in cafés and with women than in studying; he toys with the idea of joining the theatre like his friend, Hans von Rybinski, whose friendship connects him with the theatre, the demi-monde of Rybinski’s succession of so-called fiancées and the minor aristocracy. Into the Möhrings’ limited circle Hugo introduces, first, his Bohemian friends and later a slightly disreputable uncle and other members of his family. Even after Hugo’s decision to marry Thilde, however, the differences in their backgrounds and social connections mean that he and his bride make carefully calculated decisions to include or exclude their relatives, neighbours and friends from outings, ceremonies or festivities, according to whether these people enhance or detract from their social status.

These other characters are depicted primarily as representatives of the different classes, confessions and social groups who inhabit Berlin and the fictitious Woldenstein. Against the background of Berlin’s public buildings, monuments, places of entertainment, education and employment, and a population that includes aristocrats, artists, the traditional middle class, the nouveaux riches, the workers and those on the fringes of society – the poor, those maimed by war or disfigured by poverty, Fontane focuses on the petty bourgeoisie: on its overwhelming desire for respectability, achieved by hard work, careful management and frugal living, and manifested in cleanliness and godliness, and its fear of eccentricity, immorality and poverty. He conveys the limitations of the petty bourgeois both in descriptions of the Möhrings’ home, its rooms and furnishings, in their careful calculation of the social value placed on appearances, and, by contrast, in the comments and attitudes of characters from other backgrounds on all these things. Thilde’s mother most obviously exemplifies the petty bourgeoisie. In the earlier part of the novel she is more charitable and less snobbish than her daughter, but when Thilde returns as a widow, her mother’s disappointment makes itself felt as an obsession with money and a view of the marriage to Hugo as a failed investment; hence she encourages Thilde to accept one of the problematic offers of employment or re-marriage she has received.

Thilde emerges as a product of the Bismarck era. As she says herself:

‘je mehr ich die kleinen Verhältnisse fühlte, die mich umgaben, je mehr empfand ich eine Sehnsucht der Aufwerthung … Ich darf sagen, daß die Reden des Fürsten erst das aus mir gemacht haben was ich bin. Es ist so oft von Blut und Eisen gesprochen worden.’ (Mathilde Möhring, p.102)

‘The more I felt the limitations of my surroundings, the more I longed to go up in the world … I may say that it was the Chancellor’s speeches that first made me what I am. There was so much in them about blood and iron.’

Her temporary rise in the world takes place against the background of a provincial town where her strong will, social and managerial skills make Hugo popular and successful. She shows him how to flatter others by delegating difficult decisions, proposes improvements to the town, and so he gains the respect of influential figures as different in their views and backgrounds as the Landrath (head of an administrative district), the Jewish firm of Silberstein and Isenthal, the Polish Count and the Catholic schoolteacher. For, in this provincial town, social hierarchy co-exists with confessional difference. At the Christmas ball Thilde and the Landrath discuss the Falk Laws, under which children of all faiths were obliged to attend the same school. Although these laws were abolished in 1879, they continued to be enforced in West Prussia, which may be implied when the children of Woldenstein of all confessions are gathered together and given presents from the Christmas tree by Thilde and Rebecca Silberstein. Confessional issues resurface at the end of the novel when Thilde returns to Berlin. Her mother assumes that Thilde could never have married the count because he was a Catholic, but the incomplete nature of the text makes it unclear whether Thilde agrees with her or not. Thilde, however, rejects outright her mother’s suggestion that she should return to her maiden name, one of several hints that, like Rubehn in L’Adultera, Hugo may be from a Jewish family, some of whom have been baptised to permit them to enter professions restricted to Christians. Ultimately the novel dismisses any hint of prejudice: Thilde keeps Hugo’s name and the novel ends with the lapidary comment that, contrary to the expectations of people in Woldenstein, Rebecca Silberstein has married.

Among the many ways in which the novel reflects the close of Bismarck’s era — the changes in technology and the new occupations it creates, the effects of war and speculation, the conflicts of class and confession — the most significant may be those that affect women. There are references to public reading rooms for women, to women travellers and to Thilde’s training as a teacher. Yet, in a century in which writers are taking plain, ugly, disfigured and sometimes poor women as their heroines, — in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in Stifter’s Brigitta, and in Fontane’s own Schach von Wuthenow — Fontane creates a satirical, sometimes harsh portrait of a young woman whose appearance is mocked and whose intelligence and resourcefulness seem scarcely to be rewarded. The text echoes with modified motifs from his earlier novels and from those of other nineteenth-century writers. The plot echoes the calculated pursuit by Corinna in Frau Jenny Treibel of a husband who can provide greater prosperity. The marriage begins, not with the fashionable honeymoon in Dresden, to which Hugo refers and which in Irrungen, Wirrungen presages compromise and resignation, but with a fleeting trip through Frankfurt an der Oder and Küstrin, scene of the Katte tragedy, because this is a less expensive route to Woldenstein. Later Thilde escapes unscathed from a sleigh-ride with the amorous Count that seems to parody Effi Briest’s fateful sleigh-ride with Crampas; and like Luise Briest condemning her dying daughter, Thilde sits ‘on a small black chair with three gold spars’ (Effi Briest, trans. by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers, Angel Classics, London 1995, p. 219; Mathilde Möhring, p. 108) to pass judgement on the opinions expressed in a letter from her mother. The episodes in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which long-suffering heroines nurse weak or wicked men through fatal alcoholism and temporary blindness, have an echo in Mathilde’s care of Hugo. But Mathilde’s view that she could never have thought up anything as good as measles and Hugo’s provocative request that during his convalescence she should read him the most erotic passage from Emile Zola’s La faute de l’abbé Mouret, suggest self-interested manipulation rather than acts of redemption. In his final illness she nurses him conscientiously but without confidence in his recovery. Yet she is never cynical. Mathilde Möhring is neither a novel that ends in a romantic marriage where ‘the bells rang and every body (sic) smiled’ (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey), nor one that begins with marriage and ends in disaster. It is a novel that brings together satire, criticism and pragmatism, one in which the heroine’s marriage only takes her back to her beginnings. Yet Thilde herself is never cynical, but learns from her insights into her husband’s gentler nature and refuses to let events defeat her.

Despite its unfinished state Mathilde Möhring may be seen as a novel that reviews and revises themes and images familiar from Fontane’s own and other novels, while also venturing, with his glimpses of an uglier social reality, into the territory of naturalism.

German Editions

Mathilde Möhring, Theodor Fontane, Romane und Erzählungen, Bd.7., Hrsg. Peter Goldammer, Gotthard Erler, Anita Golz, Jürgen Jahn (Berlin: Aufbau, 1969), 8 Bde. =Aufbau-Ausgabe

Mathilde Möhring, Theodor Fontane, Das erzählerische Werk, Grosse Brandenburger Ausgabe, Bd. 20, Hrsg. Gabriele Radecke (Berlin: Aufbau, 2008)

Further Reading

A. F. Bance, ‘Fontane’s Mathilde Möhring’, Modern Language Review 69 (1974), 121-33

Peter Demetz, ‘On Stifter’s and Fontane’s realism: Turmalin and Mathilde Möhring’, in Literary Theory and Criticism: Festschrift for René Wellek, ed. by Joseph P. Strelka (Bern: Peter Lang, 1984), Part 2: Criticism, pp. 767-82

Renny Harrigan, ‘The Limits of Female Emancipation. A Study of Fontane’s Lower Class Women’, Monatshefte 70 (1978), 117-28