Back to German Literature Month and another novella from Theodor Fontane. This time it’s The Poggenpuhl Family, the story of an aristocratic Berlin family fallen on hard times after Major von Poggenpuhl died an “honorable death” in battle. The family, the major’s widow and five children live in an “aura of expiring grandeur–expiring but nevertheless bearing witness to past glories.” Most of those ‘past glories’ linger in the military reputation of the dead Poggenpuhl males, so it’s no surprise that a huge portrait of an ancestor, a long-dead military hero takes pride of place in the parlour.
The widow Poggenpuhl and her three daughters lead a life of stringent poverty while any resources squeezed from their penury is directed towards the two sons, both military officers. A familiar story of course, since the hopes of a shift in the family’s fortunes reside in the males. The girls might marry (Melanie de Caparoux married well in The Woman Taken in Adultery,) but that seems unlikely–at least for the eldest, Therese, who is thirty years old. The two youngest girls, Sophie and Manon, have adjusted to their lowly status or as Fontane says they have “adapted themselves to their condition and to the modern world and they worked as a team.”
Therese, already thirty, might seem somewhat unpractical at first sight, and that is what she was often taken to be. The only art she appeared to have learned was that of reclining gracefully in a rocking chair. But she was really just as capable as her two younger sisters; it was only that she labored in a different vineyard. Because of her particular character, she was convinced that the task of upholding high the Poggenpuhl banner had fallen to her, and it was her duty to take her place more deliberately than her sisters cared to in the world to which they rightfully belonged. So she was at home in the families of generals and ministers of state in the Behren-and Wilhemstrasse; their tea tables never failed to resound with approval and applause when she gave one of her maliciously humorous accounts of her younger sisters and their adventures in the “would-be-aristocracy.”
Sophie, the middle sister, is immensely talented–as talented with art as she is in the kitchen. Manon, at seventeen, is popular and she has made a point of befriending the families of bankers. Manon always offers the services of Sophie for a range of tasks, and consequently the widow’s tiny pension is supplemented by the crumbs of the “would-be-aristocracy.” Fontane shows how the two younger sisters have adapted to their new social and financial reality. Manon was born after her father’s death, so she knows no other life than that of poverty. All three sisters reflect the phases of the family’s fortunes with Therese, who remembers better times, hanging onto that place in society while her two younger sisters navigate social roles Therese rejects.
The novella centres on the birthday of the widow Poggenpuhl; her eldest son, the eminently responsible Wendelin, sends his younger sibling, Leo, home to celebrate. Leo finds his lack of financial resources difficult to bear. He’s the type of young officer who wants to cut a dash but lacks the funds to do so. At several points in the story, the Poggenpuhls’ ancient servant offers food to Leo–it’s always meagre leftovers and Leo, a young man with a ravenous appetite, either never quite gets or chooses to ignore his mother’s situation. Yes, he’s told what food is available in an either-or way and he always polishes off the lot.
The family’s hopes, then, reside in the military careers of the two sons, but then there’s also an uncle who’s married a rich widow. Uncle Poggenpuhl is a good-hearted man who’d clearly like to do more for his brother’s family, but his wife holds the purse strings. Plus then there’s no love lost between Uncle Poggenpuhl’s wife and her in-laws. She may have money but she’s middle-class.
Class plays a huge role in this novella with the widow Poggenpuhl desperately hanging onto the grandeur of the family name while covering her poverty in a way that fools no one. Uncle Poggenpuhl married out of his class, and that has created an awkward situation even though at the same time this alliance proves to be fortuitous.
The Poggenpuhl Family, IMO, is a better novella than The Woman Taken in Adultery. Although the scenario of the family living in poverty while keeping their pride is familiar, Fontane added some very nice touches here–especially in the way he showed how the youngest two girls adapted while the eldest did not.
Translated by Gabriele Annan.