Widely regarded as Germany’s most important nineteenth-century Realist writer, Huguenot novelist and poet Theodor Fontane (1819–98) pioneered the German social novel, most famously writing Effi Briest (1894), which became a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1974. Fontane’s work offered insights into the lives of people across different social classes in an original style later dubbed Poetic Realism and often compared to Thomas Hardy. But he’s far less well known for his contribution to travel writing, which was well ahead of its time for its fusion of literary style, historical insight and narrative adventure. It also challenged the notion that exploring the exotic reaps the greatest rewards, suggesting instead that with the right approach your immediate surroundings can prove as bountiful. This notion came to him during a stint in Britain, which, as an Anglophile in the service of the Prussian intelligence agency, he knew well. While rowing on a Scottish loch it occurred to him that corners of his native Prussia were every bit as beautiful – he came from near Rheinsberg – yet uncelebrated and generally considered among Germany’s least appealing regions.
So between 1862 and 1889 he set out to champion his homeland, compiling the five-tome Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (Wanderings through the Mark of Brandenburg), based on his whimsical walks around the state: “I travelled through the Mark and found it richer than I dared to hope. The earth beneath every footfall was alive and produced ghosts … wherever the eye rested, everything bore a broad historic stamp.” His project would marry Prussian national identity with Romanticism in ways that often mirrored the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose style was in vogue at the time.
Fontane’s wanderings are certainly worth dipping into, despite their off-putting length – at least they didn’t end up as the twenty tomes he once planned – and as you travel around the region you’ll certainly find enough quotes from his work on tourist office literature. Last respects can be paid at Fontane’s grave in Berlin’s Französischer Friedhof.