Annette von Droste-Hülshoff 1797-1848
(Full name Anna Elisabeth Franziska Adolfine Wilhelmina Luisa Maria, Freiin Droste-Hülshoff) German poet and novella writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Droste-Hülshoff from 1969 through 2001. For additional information on Droste-Hülshoff's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 3.
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff overcame frequent, debilitating illness and the restraints of a conservative family to become what many consider Germany's greatest woman poet. Droste-Hülshoff pursued her poetic calling throughout her life, beginning very early in childhood, and published one novella and two collections of poetry during her lifetime. She also left a substantial body of finished and unfinished works that were published in the decades after her death. Her works are characterized by her interests in religion and social justice, even as they are marked by a deep interiority. Though her travels led her to meet some of Germany's cultural elite, she was primarily homebound. Like Emily Dickinson, to whom she has been compared, Droste-Hülshoff was able to enlarge her world through extensive writing, producing a body of work that engaged Catholic religious traditions, German folklore, and Romantic literary ideas with independence and originality.
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born Anna Elisabeth Franziska Adolfine Wilhelmina Luisa Maria, Freiin Droste-Hülshoff on January 10, 1797. Her aristocratic parents were Clemens August and Therese Luise von Droste-Hülshoff; she had an older sister, called Jenny, and two younger brothers, Werner and Ferdinand. Hers was a distinguished and ancient family, living in the castle of Hülshoff in Westphalia (near Münster). She was born quite prematurely and was not expected to survive. Instead, she lived in varying degrees of poor health, often under the shadow of seemingly imminent death, for most of her life. The wet nurse who kept her alive, Maria Katharina Plettendorf, became her intimate friend and a mentor in care-giving, Droste-Hülshoff's vocation apart from her writing. Droste-Hülshoff began writing poetry by the time she was seven. Initially her family, especially her mother, was very encouraging, proud of the apparent talent and intelligence of the child. Therese Luise provided an extensive education for all her children, well beyond what even other aristocratic families typically arranged, and Annette and Jenny took the same course of study as their brothers. Annette also read widely in the classics and German poetry on her own. Droste-Hülshoff's talents and education, however, were not to be used beyond the home. By the age of 12, the young poet had an offer to publish, but her family turned it down. Within a few years, her mother moved from being Droste-Hülshoff's primary supporter to being one of the major hindrances to her development as an author. Still, she received some encouragement from the elite friends of her family. As a young girl she met Princess Gallitzin, a major patroness of the arts who brought some elements of contemporary German culture to Münster. In her teen years she met Anton Matthias Sprikmann, a lawyer who moved in literary circles; Sprikmann took on the role of Droste-Hülshoff's mentor. She penned one of her first major writings in 1813, the play Bertha, though she never completed it. That year she also came to Bokendorf, the home of her maternal Haxthausen family, who also encouraged her writing, especially her religious poetry. While there she met Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, who asked for her help in collecting the folktales that would later be known as Grimm's fairy tales. Droste-Hülshoff was willing, but it is unlikely that she ever did much work with them. Nonetheless the meeting was likely significant in stimulating her interest in Westphalian history. Despite serious illness, she also wrote the epic poem Walther (completed 1818), the novel fragment Ledwina, and part one of Das geistliche Jahr (The Spiritual Year; not published in full until 1851) in this early productive period. From 1820 to 1825, Droste-Hülshoff wrote very little, a self-imposed silence many biographers attribute to a difficult romantic entanglement at Bokendorf. She found herself drawn to the young poet Heinrich Straube as well as to his friend August von Arnswaldt. When the two men discovered her divided affections, they wrote jointly to her Bokendorf family, portraying her as a conceited flirt. The Haxthausen family cut off their relations with her, and Droste-Hülshoff was grief-stricken over the loss of family and her good friend Straube, and over the blow to her reputation and self-image. The event moved Droste-Hülshoff toward the deep introspection that characterizes most of her later works. After five years of solitude, she began visiting and writing again, traveling along the Rhine. In Bonn, her cousin Clemens von Droste-Hülshoff introduced her to August Wilhelm von Schlegel, a leading German Romantic. In Cologne she befriended Sibylla Mertens-Schaafhausen, a fellow female writer; when Mertens-Schaafhausen moved to Bonn she introduced Droste-Hülshoff to Adele Schopenhauer, the sister of the well-known philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Adele Schopenhauer and her mother, Johanna, both read and critiqued Droste-Hülshoff's work, advising and encouraging her through an extensive correspondence. The author's travels and her widening circle of acquaintance stand in contrast to the increasing isolation of her home life. The death of her father in 1826 led to her removal, along with her mother and sister, to Ruschhaus, a home in the country, as her brother took over the castle. She dealt with bouts of serious illness, and when she was well she fulfilled the role of caretaker for sick relatives. She continued writing poetry, having decided by 1834 to publish an edition of her epic poems, which would eventually include “Das Hospiz auf dem grossen Sankt Bernhard” (“The Hostel on the Great Mountain Saint Bernhard”), “Des Arztes Vermachtnis” (“The Legacy of the Physician”), and “Die Schlacht im Loener Bruch” (“The Battle in the Loener Marsh”). The 1838 publication Gedichte (Poems) included these and several other poems, as well as parts of Das geistliche Jahr. She completed Das geistliche Jahr in 1840, along with the one-act satiric comedy Perdu! oder Dichter, Verleger und Blaustrümpfe (Lost! or, Poets, Publishers and Bluestockings), a reflection on the Münster literary community. In the meantime she had been pursuing her interest in Westphalian history and folklore, encouraged by Levin Schucking, who was also working on the subject, leading to the completion of her first major prose work, Die Judenbuche (The Jew's Beech Tree) in 1841. The novella was published serially in the magazine Morgenblatt in 1842. Other works from this project include the unfinished “Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande” (“With Us at Home in the Country”) and the nonfiction work Westphälische Schilderungen aus einer Westphälischen Feder (Westphalian Descriptions from a Westphalian Pen). Some of her most polished and mature poems were published in her second collection of poetry, Gedichte, in 1844. This collection included the intruiging verse epic Der Spiritus familiaris des Roßtäuschers (The Familiar Spirit of the Horse Dealer), another foray into folk tales. Throughout this time Schucking was her most important literary supporter, encouraging her and offering useful critiques of her work, and assisting her in placing her work for publication. Schucking, however, was an impoverished liberal who was highly critical of the aristocracy from which Droste-Hülshoff had her origins. When he published a novel attacking the aristocratic upper classes (in English, the title was Of Noble Birth) in 1846, Droste-Hülshoff ended the friendship. By that time, she had nearly finished writing. Though she had published a few poems and started a new prose work, Joseph, after the second Gedichte, she became increasingly ill and weak. In 1847 she traveled to Meersburg, hoping the southern climate would better suit her. She also became increasingly agitated by the unrest in Westphalia, which erupted in revolution in March of 1848. She died May 24, 1848, in Meersburg and was buried there.
Though Droste-Hülshoff's greatest strengths and largest body of work lay in her poetry, she has become known primarily for the one novella she completed, Die Judenbuche. The novella tells the true story of a murder in Westphalia. The murderer, Friedrich Mergel, is in a sense the hero of the story, as Droste-Hülshoff promotes the readers' understanding of the social and psychological circumstances leading to his crime. She emphasizes the evils to which Mergel was subject as a young man and the bad influences within his own family, making the crime novel a work of social criticism as well. The novella is also a mystery that Droste-Hülshoff never clarifies: a second murder occurs, but though Mergel is a suspect the murder is not solved, and decades later when a man appears in Mergel's hometown and hangs himself on a beech tree, some believe he is Mergel, though he had identified himself as Mergel's friend. The engaging crime story, combined with serious questions about free will, justice, and society, became one of Droste-Hülshoff's greatest successes. More than a century following her death, several prose fragments have also become a central part of Droste-Hülshoff's corpus, most notably Ledwina. Though Droste-Hülshoff renewed her efforts on Ledwina after her writing break of the early 1820s, she was unable to bring herself to finish it. It is a largely autobiographical work, made up of several narrative threads that never quite come together. Nonetheless critics have seen the fragment as a significant indicator of Droste-Hülshoff's style, common motifs, and interests. Among her poetry, the lengthy cycle of poems that make up Das geistliche Jahr stand among her most coherent works. The poems reflect her deep Catholic faith, but they are also original reworkings of familiar forms and traditional themes, emphasizing the individual experience of faith. Her best poetry is generally considered to be the poems included in the second Gedichte of 1844. Among these are her “farewell” to Schucking on his marriage in 1843, “Lebt wohl,” and several innovative nature poems, such as “Am Thurme” (“On the Tower”), “Im Moose” (“On the Moss”), and “Das Spiegelbild” (“The Reflection in the Mirror”). The 1844 Gedichte is divided into five sections that reveal her interest in nature and folk themes—Zeitbilder (Pictures of the Times), Heidebilder (Pictures of the Heath), Fels, Wald und See (Rock, Forest, and Sea), Gedichte vermischten Inhalts (Miscellaneous Poems), and Scherz und Ernst (Fun and Seriousness).
Although some critics have called Droste-Hülshoff Germany's greatest woman writer, she was not always well-received. As the author's mother anticipated, reactions to a woman writer were mixed at best. Many women wrote under pseudonyms in her time, but Droste-Hülshoff published openly, fortunate to have well-placed supporters in the literary world. As Maruta Lietina-Ray has observed, early critics were generally positive about the quality of Droste-Hülshoff's work but tended to downplay the author's talent, suggesting that her best writing came about accidentally, independent of—even in spite of—Droste-Hülshoff's labors. For her part, Droste-Hülshoff was well aware of the limitations placed on women authors, making it a common theme in her writing. As a result, feminist critics have responded strongly to her work. Though contemporary critics have disagreed as to Droste-Hülshoff's own proto-feminist tendencies—she published despite her mother's objections, but she was strongly conservative throughout her life and took a traditional feminine role in her family—the significance of her work as a pioneer in women's authorship is a continuing object of study. Scholars have also found that Droste-Hülshoff's struggles to assert herself in a masculine profession are well documented in her work, both overtly and metaphorically. Many scholars have noted the motif of the double or mirror image in much of her work, a mark of the divided self Droste-Hülshoff had to create in order to be both a traditional woman and a writer. Others have suggested that the fragmentary, ambiguous nature of many Droste-Hülshoff texts is another reflection of her ambivalence about pursuing a vocation that was, in her time, so clearly marked as masculine. Some critics have argued that Droste-Hülshoff was hindered by her inability to get past this ambivalence, though others—notably the German scholar Gertrud Bauer Pickar—say that the author's mastery of ambiguity was one of the great achievements of her art.