Theodor Fontane, chronicler of post-1871 Berlin in its new role as capital of a Germany unifed for the first time in modern history, lifted the German nineteenth-century novel from provincialism to the European mainstream, and is now regarded as one of the outstanding German novelists. English translations of several of his works have appeared, but none hitherto of Cécile (1887), first of a brilliant trio of female portraits culminating in Effi Briest (1895).
The Baroness von St Arnaud, a delicate beauty married to a retired army officer who neglects her, is a tantalising mystery to the much-travelled civil engineer von Gordon who makes her acquaintance at the fashionable spa of Thale in the Harz Mountains. The reader’s curiosity, too, is more and more strongly aroused as a story of mutual sexual attraction unfolds. When the scene shifts to the bustling world of the capital and the sharply caricatured reactionary high society in which the St Arnauds move, Cécile’s admirer’s discovery of her past precipitates a grim climax.
Fontane was in love with his female characters ‘for their human qualities, that is, for their weaknesses and sins’, as he put it. His commitment to female values in a changing but still starkly male-dominated society is conveyed in virtuoso handling of conversation and endlessly subtle and ironic depiction of Prussian attitudes.
‘Written with the concision and directness of a short story, this novel nonetheless conveys an astonishingly full picture of German society in rapid and often costly change.’ – The Times
‘Cécile is a spa novel, a tragedy of passionate trivia, foolish neglect and nervous disorders on a scale of one to 10 … It is composed like a social comedy, but gradually darkens as the fated trio is recalled to the city, their mysteries are stripped away from them and the end comes like a sudden fall of night. Cécile is written with wit and a controlled fury and Radcliffe’s elegant translation does it superb justice.’ – Michael Ratcliffe, Observer