Manfred von Ardenne’s grandmother Baroness Elisabeth von Ardenne (née Baroness Elisabeth von Plotho) is said to have inspired Effi Briest.
The youngest of five children, Elisabeth was born in Zerben (currently known as Elbe-Parey) in 1853. Her easeful life was cut short by her meeting Armand Léon von Ardenne (1848-1919). She is said to have shown little interest in Ardenne; having rejected his first proposal, she changed her mind during the Franco-Prussian War, which left Ardenne injured. They became engaged on 7 February 1871 and wed in 1873.
His ascent made them move to Düsseldorf in the summer of 1881, where they met the famed and unhappily married judge Emil Hartwich (1843-1886). Elisabeth and Hartwich had much in common including their love of theatre. Despite risk of discovery, they did not cease corresponding when the Ardennes went back to Berlin on 1 October 1884.
Hartwich would come irregularly. During the summer of 1886, which Hartwich spent in Berlin, he and Elisabeth chose to marry each other. But Ardenne saw his secret suspicions confirmed when he found Elisabeth’s and Hartwich’s year-long correspondence. He filed for divorce and dueled Hartwich on 27 November 1886, drawing strong coverage. Hartwich died from his injuries on 1 December. Ardenne was sentenced to two years in prison but his term was reduced to 18 days.
His divorce on 15 March 1887 gave him full custody of his children, and his ex-wife set about caring for the deprived and disabled. Her name was temporarily removed from the family chronicles. In 1904, her daughter Margot was the first to try to find her; her son Egmont saw her in 1909. She died in Lindau on 4 February 1952 and was interred in a Berlin Ehrengrab.
Fiction and truth
Fontane changed myriad details so as not to imperil privacy of those involved. He also made changes for the sake of drama. Elisabeth married at age 19 instead of 17, with Ardenne being five, not twenty, years her senior. She fell in love with Hartwich after twelve years--not twelve months--of marriage, and Ardenne did not kill her paramour years after the dalliance, but when they were still courting. Fontane knew that Elisabeth did not retreat as Effi did; instead, she began to work and devote herself to the needy. Elisabeth died at 98; Effi dies at 29 in the novel.
Some dates were altered, too. Effi marries on 3 October; Elisabeth wed on 1 January. Effi bears Annie on 3 July, while Margot’s birthday was 5 November; Egmont’s was 4 January. Elisabeth was born on 26 October; Effi has an August birthday.