My childhood years

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First book edition (publisher's cover and title page)

My Childhood is the title of an autobiographical novel by Theodor Fontane , which was first published in 1893.


Fontane suffered from phased depression. In April 1892, while working on Effi Briest , he fell ill again. The disease dragged on until the end of September. The advice of his family doctor to deal with lighter work, for example with his life memories, is said to have initiated the turnaround for improvement. "I chose my childhood (until 1832) and can say that I have written myself well again with this book," he noted in retrospect in the diary. Work should begin in October 1892. On November 1, 1892, he informed his long-time friend and correspondent Georg Friedländer: “[…] that I have been writing for 8 or 10 days, something I would not have expected from a totally broken man. I have already written four chapters of my biography (section: Childhood). Since this endeavor makes me very happy, all correspondence has stalled. "

“I continued with the work I started in November [or in October?]; Around April I finished with it, also with the correction, and the copy that Emilie [his wife] and Martha [his daughter] made together could begin ” (memory recorded in the diary). On June 22, 1893, the manuscript was sent to the literary magazine Deutsche Rundschau . However, the editor Julius Rodenberg called for extensive cuts. Only chapters 13 and 16 appeared as a preprint. The book edition was published by his son Friedrich's publishing house at Christmas 1893, predated to 1894: Theodor Fontane. My childhood years. Autobiographical novel. Berlin: F. Fontane & Co. 1894, 321 pp.


The memories begin with the description of the parents. They could hardly be more different. The father, a stately man, full of bonhomie, at the same time a fantastic and humorist, chat-maker and storyteller - the mother slender, delicate, with black hair and eyes like coal , energetic, dry objectivity, but with a tendency to violent outbursts of temper. She was very relentless about upbringing. At the smallest mistake she showed the ´fast hand´ . The parents themselves lived more or less seriously in a kind of permanent feud.

The father was a pharmacist, at that time still an apprenticeship with a final state examination and had his own pharmacy, initially in Neuruppin, later in Swinoujscie. The father's gambling debts had made it necessary to sell the Neuruppin pharmacy. In Świnoujście it was possible to buy a pharmacy again on favorable terms. Fontane was 8 years old when the family moved to Swinoujscie, a town with unpaved streets.

Fontane describes the grotesque house with humor . On the first floor, a paved hallway separated the pharmacy (including the laboratory) and the living rooms. Immediately above it rose a roof five times as high, with five floors on top of each other, full of herb boxes and junk, including a wheel on which - but that [was] a long time ago, the year before, before the French entered the country came [1805] - the executioner had brought a murderer from life to death . A few chapters later, in his childhood memories, Fontane will describe the execution of another Swinoujscie murderer in which the wheeling procedure was still used, albeit shortened by strangling.

The large yard behind the house and the adjoining, overgrown garden were the most beautiful playgrounds and adventure areas.

The small town with about 3500 inhabitants [Fontane speaks of 4000] looked sparse, but was very attractive as a trading and shipping center. At the bank reinforcement of the Swine, the main estuary of the Oder, ships lay side by side in three and four rows in winter. From spring, when the river was free of ice again, coming merchant ships docked across the Baltic Sea. The society house was just outside the city . Bathers, the city's notables, frequented here, concerts were given, theatrical performances were held and balls were held. A casino was set up in the small pavilion next to it. This [s] was all too often my father's hiking destination.

The upper class of Swinoujscie - actually only twenty families - was more open-minded than in the small towns in the interior, especially in comparison with the Margraviate of Brandenburg. The northern Europeans, Swedes, Danes, Dutch and Scots who settled here gave the city an international character . On gentlemen's evenings it happened that reference was made to the Times . There was no trace of the stake bourgeoisie, of narrow or small things in general .

The prominent families are described. This is followed by descriptions of seasonal events, such as the bathing season in summer and goose slaughter in winter, slaughter of a pig and the baking week before Christmas. During the cold season, men's dinners took place in turn, also in the Fontane house. There was soup, fish, then regularly Teltower turnips and chickweed goose, followed by an enormous roast and finally a sweet dish with fruit, gingerbread and Königsberg marzipan. Nothing else. The diet was simple and stable . After the soup sherry was served, later red wine of moderate price was drank and, towards the end, coffee. At the table, Fontane's father shone with his talents and historical anecdotes. His hobbies were Napoleon and his marshals. As an entertainer, his choice of topics was more geared towards his needs than those of his guests, which he was glad to get away with.

The penultimate chapter describes the undertakings and scuffles of the twelve-year-old Fontane among the Swinoujscie street boys. The final chapter is devoted to the last six months in Swinoujscie. It is portrayed as joyless and depressing because of all sorts of small annoyances. At the beginning of 1832 Theodor Fontane and his mother traveled to Neuruppin by stagecoach. The journey takes three days. He becomes a guest in a preacher's house and enters the Ruppin high school. Fontane's notes of his childhood end here.


A picture of the times and culture of the small Baltic town of Swinoujscie in the first third of the nineteenth century is conveyed. At the same time, Fontane describes the everyday life of a north German boy during this time. The generic term novel in the subtitle gave him poetic freedom. In Swinoujscie the book was an immediate success.


The peculiarity of these childhood memories is their wealth of anecdotes. In Fontane's epoch, this was unusual for an autobiography. “I deviate completely from the usual and only tell small things. My conviction that this is the right thing to do is unshakable ” [on December 26, 1892 to Georg Friedländer]. Fontane speaks of "small painting" and "time-pictorial [m]" in his self- comments . The Neuruppin picture sheets by the lithographer and publisher Gustav Kühn in Neuruppin were very popular at that time . In fairground booths, cut to size and illuminated as peep box pictures, they provided information about the latest events and thus replaced the newspaper for children and those not familiar with reading. In the twelfth chapter Fontane mentions these show booths. Their echo is likely to have strengthened his artistic instinct to compose his childhood memories as a series of episodes and literary images.

The father image

The portrayal of the father, in whom the now old Fontane recognizes himself, takes up a lot of space. He inherited from him the tendency to debate difficult things in a joking tone, “yes, this tendency even carried over into my writing, and when I read relevant scenes in my novels and short stories, I sometimes feel as if I have heard speak to my father. ” The artistic self-confidence also comes from the father. His knowledge of French was not consolidated. When he published a Napoleon anecdote in the original version and was criticized in terms of grammar and sentence structure, he is said to have answered with certainty: "My French feeling teaches me that it has to be called like this, like this and not otherwise." A justification for the reproach dissolved in merriment. The father had justified his choice of topics for discussion in front of his wife with: "I cultivate the historical". This also applies to Fontane's oeuvre.

Until a tutor was found, little Fontane practiced reading with his mother for an hour a day, and his father taught geography and history for an hour. His lessons consisted of humorous storytelling and queries about anecdotes. After a tutor was found, these conversational lessons - Fontane gives some examples of these strange dialogues - were retained.

“I owe this lesson, as well as the similar conversations that followed it, for everything that is best, at least for everything that is useful, that I know. […] Not only socially, in a long life, these stories have benefited me a hundredfold, even when I was writing they were always at hand like a treasure chest, and when I was asked which teacher I really owe my thanks feel, I would have to answer: my father, my father, who knew nothing, so to speak, but supported me infinitely more with the wealth of anecdotes picked up from newspapers and journals and spreading on all sorts of topics than all of my high school and junior high school teachers put together . "


The manuscript is in the Stadtmuseum Berlin and in the Theodor Fontane Archive in Potsdam.


  • [Theodor Fontane's comments on Meine Kinderjahre .] In: Richard Brinkmann, Waltraud Wiethölter (ed.): Theodor Fontane. Poets about their seals . Volume 2. Heimeran, Munich 1973 (also: dtv, Munich 1977, ISBN 3-7765-3038-3 ), pp. 117–129


  • First edition: Theodor Fontane: My childhood years. Autobiographical novel . Berlin: Friedrich Fontane & Co. 1893.

The text is available in numerous editions. A new edition with extensive commentary, which will present the text in its historical form for the first time, is being prepared by Heinrich Detering and Gabriele Radecke as part of the Great Brandenburg Edition at the Göttingen Theodor Fontane office .


  • Helmuth Nürnberger : Fontane's world. Siedler, Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-88680-582-4 , pp. 371-376.
  • Michael Masanetz: From the original jump of Pegasus. “My childhood years” or the difficult birth of genius. In: Fontane-Blätter 65-66 (1998), pp. 87-124.
  • Helmuth Nürnberger: My childhood years. In: Christian Grawe, Helmuth Nürnberger (ed.): Fontane manual. Kröner, Stuttgart 2000, ISBN 3-520-83201-1 , pp. 753–755 (ibid., Pp. 761–763: Bibliography for the entire range of autobiographical writings ).

Web links

Wikisource: My Childhood  - Sources and Full Texts