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Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von (1797-1848)

Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von (1797-1848) Annette von Droste-Hülshoff is the only woman writer whose works are traditionally included in anthologies and discussions of nineteenth-century German literature. Critics have generally stressed her conservative background and interpreted her writings as documents of her retreat to a private realm of religion, nature or the supernatural. More recently, however, they have examined more carefully what she called her "Zeitbilder" (vignettes of the times). These works, written during the 1840s, indicated an acute awareness of the social and political changes in the period leading up to the 1848 revolution and challenged traditional interpretations of her life and work.

Born into an aristocratic, Catholic family in Westphalia, she was raised in a society which believed that writing was acceptable for a woman only as an avocation. With the exception of several extended trips, she lived with her family, either in the family castle at Hülshoff or in Rüschhaus, the home where her mother lived after her father's death, or in Meersburg with her sister's family. She never married, had few friends who shared her interests, was often sick, and sometimes did not write for years at a time. Commentators correctly stress the narrow confines of her life and the dominant influence of her family; her writings, however, also reveal her struggle for a measure of independence. As the title of a recent biography stressed, her life was spent in the tension between obedience and resistance to the conservative traditions of her class.

She was educated by private tutors and began writing poetry as a child, developing quite early a sense of herself as a writer. When, in 1820, she was attracted to two men simultaneously, her relatives endeavored to "protect" the young men from a cousin whom they believed took herself too seriously. The ensuing trauma increased her isolation and fueled her ambition to write religious poems (Das geistliche Jahr); she did not publish the collection in her lifetime, presumably because she knew that their revelation of her own religious struggles would embarrass her family. Only after her fortieth birthday -- and then only with the help of friends and after having obtained her mother's approval -- did she begin to publish her writings.

In 1837 she met the twenty-three-year-old Levin Schücking. For the rest of her life she loved this much younger man, but tried to hide her love behind a self-described "maternal" concern about his life. He, in turn, supported her literary ambitions and helped her receive a degree of fame in her own lifetime. In 1841 she arranged for Schücking to work as a private secretary to her brother-in-law in Meersburg and spent the six happiest months of her life there in his company. Many of her best-known poems were written during this interlude. After his marriage to another woman in 1843 her health declined, and she wrote nothing during the last two years of her life.

In addition to her poetry, first published in 1838 and in a more complete collection in 1844, she also wrote the novella Die Judenbuche (1842), widely regarded as a masterpiece of German realism. In 1840 she authored a one-act comedy and in 1845 published anonymously, again to protect her family, sketches of Westphalia describing its people and landscape. The drama fragment Bertha, begun when she was 16 years old, and the unfinished prose work Ledwina, begun in 1824, both of which can be read as veiled autobiog raphies, remained uncompleted. These fragments, as well as some of her poems, have led recent critics to recognize that she identified herself as a woman writer and discerned the concomitant problems; gender was made the subject of much of her writing through prisoner motifs or through a vocabulary of restrictions and limitations.

Although she was never politically active and in fact seemed outwardly to have distanced herself from political and social events, a portion of her writings revealed the influence of her age. They prove that she had a public consciousness and saw her writing as a tool to reach people and help them improve their world. She did urge cautious change, always with an eye for what effect such change would have on society as a whole. These writings reveal her sense of being a part of a larger world and clearly distance her from the political and social goals of her class. In her few explicitly political poems, she warned against heedless action.

Sara Friedrichsmeyer


Berglar, Peter Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1967.

Brender, Irmela "Annette von Droste-Hülshoff" Frauen: Porträts aus zwei Jahrhunderten Hans Jürgen Schultz ed. Stuttgart: Kreuz, 1981, 60-71.

Gössmann, Wilhelm Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Ich und Spiegelbild Düsseldorf: Droste, 1985.

Heselhaus, Clemens Annette von Droste-Hulshöff: Werk und Leben Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1971.

Maurer, Doris Annette von Droste-Hulshöff: Ein Leben zwischen Auflehnung und Gehorsam Bonn: Keil, 1982.

Roebling, Irmgard "Heraldik des Unheimlichen" Deutsche Literature von Frauen: Zweiter Band. 19. und 20 Jahrhundert Gisela Brinker-Gabler ed. Munich: Beck, 1988, 41-68.

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