“She’s got a bit of Geneva chic. But what does it all add up to? Everything from Geneva is secondhand for a start.”
Back to German Literature Month and this time it’s a novella from Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Fontane’s most famous work is arguably Effi Briest, and The Woman Taken in Adultery, an earlier work, is another tale on the same theme: an unhappy marriage and infidelity. The book’s back cover states that the book is “remarkable” for its portrayal of adultery with a “happy ending.” Compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, well yes, the book has a “happy ending,” and yet somehow the conclusion wasn’t as ‘happy’ as I expected.
Under scrutiny here is the marriage between financier van der Straaten and his much younger, charming wife, Melanie. It’s Berlin in the 1880s and the van der Straatens, parents of two girls, have been married now for ten years. Before marriage, Melanie was a Caparoux or de Caparoux (depending on who you’re talking to), the daughter of French-Swiss nobility, and although her childhood was wrapped in privilege, her father, a consul-general died young and left only debts behind. As a penniless 17-year-old, she married 42 year-old van der Straaten. Very early in the story, we get a sense of van der Straatan’s temperament; he “oscillated between the earthy and the sentimental, between one extreme and another.” Melanie ‘manages’ her husband, flattering him, and she “played with the man whose plaything she appeared and pretended to be.” She loves spending time alone in the country villa as “her supremacy depended on self-control, and to be free of this restraint was her constant secret desire.”
Van der Straaten is an extremely wealthy man but he’s a problem when it comes to society: “he had been too little in the world and had failed to acquire a generally acceptable degree of polish or even a bearing suitable to his position.” In chapter one, we’re told that van der Straaten is frequently asked if he’s related to a famous actor who has a similar name. These days, there’s a good implication to being asked if you’re related to an actor–but in 19th century Germany…. the question is loaded with social snobbery. This theme, that van der Straaten, although good-natured, doesn’t quite ‘fit’ into society, continues, and as the story develops, we see that the financier’s behaviour pains his wife, Melanie. Trouble appears in the marriage when van der Straatan insists that Rubehn, a former cavalry officer, soon-to-be apprentice, take up residence in his home.
There’s a dinner party scene in which van der Straaten dominates his guests and while the scene itself was rather tedious, it’s the after-dinner conversations that spark interest as the departing guests share their opinions of the van der Straatans’ marriage. Some of the guests have sympathy for Melanie van der Straaten and consider that she, an elegant woman of refined sensibilities, is wasted on her husband. Others don’t share that opinion and consider that Melanie’s impoverished family have no bragging rights. Melanie’s brother-in-law, Major Gryczinski, married to Melanie’s younger sister, Jacobine de Caparoux, has his own opinion:
When they were in the middle of the brightly lit square, the lovely young woman nestled fondly against her husband and said, “what a day that was, Otto, I did admire you.”
“It wasn’t as hard for me as you think. I just play with him. He’s just an old child.”
“And Melanie! She feels it, you know. And I’m sorry for her. You’re smiling? Aren’t you sorry for her?”
“Yes and no, ma chère. Nothing in the world comes free. She has her summer villa and her picture gallery.”
“Which she doesn’t care for. You know how little it means to her.”
“And she has two charming children…”
“For which I almost envy her.”
“There you are,” laughed the major. “We all have to learn the art of making do with what we have. If I were my brother-in-law, I should say…”
But she closed his mouth with a kiss, and the next moment the carriage drew to a halt.
It would seem that Jacobine and Major Gryczinski married for love, but another guest speculates that the Major selected his wife on the basis that he would acquire a useful, extremely wealthy brother-in-law. But regardless of speculation, Melanie’s marriage to van der Straaten had to be an advantageous move for her younger sister. Would the major have married Jacobine if she didn’t have this advantageous, powerful connection? Would Jacobine even have been in society if Melanie hadn’t made a great match? These questions linger, unspoken, underneath the Gryczinskis’ criticisms.
Fontane initially “rejected the title as too aggressively moralistic,” but the title (based on a real life incident) works rather interestingly with the plot’s argument against moral judgment. The title also highlights an early scene in the story when van der Straaten, fascinated by a Tintoretto painting, acquires a copy. Van der Straaten’s later behaviour, in the face of his wife’s affair, illustrates that he’s a decent, good-hearted man–not someone who passes moral judgment–even when he suffers. Looked down upon by the fussy, snobby society forced to accept him because of his financial standing, he’s a much better person than those who patronize him behind his back. The Woman Taken in Adultery, IMO, is not as good as Effi Briest. Melanie van der Straaten’s marriage isn’t miserable enough, and the love affair isn’t charismatic enough to rouse much emotional investment, but it is an unusual tale of adultery when compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. There’s very little moral judgment here–and most of the moral judgment within these pages comes from Melanie van der Straaten’s eldest daughter–a sensitive girl who sees that Rubehn is a threat immediately.
Translated by Gabriele Annan