Professor Charlotte Jolles

Doyenne of Fontane studies
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The Independent Online

Charlotte Alice Bertha Eva Jolles, German scholar: born Berlin 5 October 1909; Junior Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, then Reader in German, Birkbeck College, London 1955-74, Professor of German 1974-77 (Emeritus); died London 31 December 2003.

Theodor Fontaine was Germany's greatest 19th-century novelist; he has been compared to Jane Austen for the humour of his dialogue, and to Trollope for his amiability. It is no accident that Charlotte Jolles (Emeritus Professor of German at London University and Honorary President of the Theodor Fontane Society in Germany), was the doyenne, or as the Germans also say, the Nestorin, of Fontane studies.

The fact that Fontane is one of Germany's most translated authors means that Jolles's name is one of the most widely known in German scholarship. But this Nestor, however wise (she would not have accepted the word) and respected, had no grey beard, but was a rather small figure whose face was regular, beautiful and pleasing, and who radiated good sense, practicality of mind and - above all - human sympathy. Well into her nineties she would be rather surprised and a little put out if a guest offered to carry the tea-tray from kitchen to living room.

Charlotte Jolles was born into a middle-class family in Berlin in 1909. Her father was Jewish. She was 19 when she went to the Humboldt University in Berlin to study German Literature, History and Philosophy, and where she soon took an active interest in the anti-nationalistic wing of the German youth movement, which had international and pacifist links. (Much later, she would discover and publish a letter from Thomas Mann written in 1931 to a leader of the movement, defending an author's right publicly to support the cause of a "humane rationality".)

With the youth movement she would hike in the countryside - known as the Mark - around Berlin, the environment of many of Fontane's novels. In her historical studies she focused on German constitutional history and the revolutionary year of 1848, another early preparation for her life-long work, for the events of that year and its permanent reminder of potential political instability were crucial to Fontane.

It was Jolles's tutor, Julius Petersen, who suggested that she turn to Fontane, who was only just beginning to be the object of study, for her thesis on Fontane's politics, which she completed by the end of 1935. (It was typical of her practicality that her first published work, in 1934, was actually a protest against the public sale of Fontane manuscripts.) Had it not been for the anti-Jewish legislation, Jolles's work should have been published in full, though her focus on his early radicalism may have disqualified it anyway. In the circumstances, the university authorities tried to humiliate their successful half-Jewish scholar, and she was warned by the registrar to stay away from the award ceremony.

Charlotte Jolles stayed in Germany to look after her ill father. She picked up editorial work where she could and was able to publish a few articles on Fontane. In 1938 her father died and Charlotte was advised and helped to move to England in January 1939. Of her doctoral thesis but one copy seems to have survived (in Berlin); it was eventually published 46 years later as Fontane und die Politik (1983), with her own foreword, in which she pointed out how lucky she was to have been able to use the resources of the Reichstag Library before the Nazis burned it down.

In England, Jolles was able to take up contacts she had made through her time in the internationalist youth movement. She was invited to work in a home in Watford for German, Austrian and Czech-German refugee children. For some of these children, who were unable to find homes in the UK, Jolles had to find placements elsewhere. Sixty years later she still received letters from her beneficiaries, from as far away as South America.

Beside her refugee work, Jolles taught German at Watford Grammar School; she devoted herself entirely to teaching in schools from 1949 to 1955 when she joined as a junior lecturer Birkbeck College in London, where she settled. In 1974 she became Professor of German at Birkbeck, retiring in 1977.

In the nature of things, Charlotte Jolles's ample, always rigorous, published work was overwhelmingly in the German language, although her English was characteristically immaculate. Like Thomas Mann, she never really accepted that Germany had been divided by the Cold War, and for research purposes she treated the two as if they were the same, spending long hours in the Potsdam Archive in the then GDR.

From 1960 she published continuously on Fontane. For the great Munich edition of Fontane's complete works, she edited volume 17 (on Politics and History) in 1969. For the Berlin edition she completed the four-volume edition of Fontane's correspondence in the early 1970s. Her compact critical survey and bibliography, Theodor Fontane (1982; several times revised) remains an essential work. She also worked on a further edition of Fontane's letters (1988) and - one of her most important achievements - coedited his diaries, in two volumes (1994). Her only published work on Fontane in English was her introduction to his book on Scotland, Beyond the Tweed (1998).

Charlotte Jolles was a great scholar, and even gained literary fame in Germany by featuring, as a "Miss Marple" on the tracks of Fontane's years as a journalist in London in the 1850s, in Günter Grass's novel Too Far Afield. Yet she was a person without pretension, a person whom it was a joy to be with because she was beautiful and fun, and a person whose sympathy was deep because it came from a well of experience.

Nicholas Jacobs