Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von (1797–1848)

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Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von (1797–1848)

German poet and author whose works are highly regarded for their lyrical greatness, intricate narrative structures, and insights into the position of women in society. Name variations: Nette; Annette von Droste-Hulshoff. Pronunciation: DROS-te HUELShof. Born Anna Elisabeth Freiin (Baroness) von Droste zu Hülshoff on January 10, 1797, at Castle Hülshoff near Münster, Germany; died on May 24, 1848, in Meersburg, Germany; daughter of Clemens August, Baron von Droste zu Hülshoff (1760-1826) and Therese (von Haxthausen) von Droste zu Hülshoff (1772-1853); never married; no children.

Wrote first poem (1804); published first collection of poetry (1838); wrote 18-to-20 ballads (1840–41); achieved first literary success with the novella The Jew's Beech Tree (1842); published second collection of poetry (1844); first publication of collected works were released posthumously (1860).

Selected writings—prose:

(fragment) Ledwina (1819–26); (fragment) Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande (Out at Our Country Place, 1841); Bilder aus Westfalen (Pictures from Westphalia, 1842); Die Judenbuche (The Jew's Beech Tree, 1842).


Das geistliche Jahr (Spiritual Calendar, 1820/39–40); "Schlacht im Loener Bruch" ("Battle at the Quarry of Loenen," 1838); "Das Fräulein von Rodenschild" ("The Maiden from Rodenschild," 1840–41); "Der zu früh geborne Dichter" ("The Poet born too soon," c. 1841); "Am Turme" ("In the Tower," 1841–42); "Der Knabe im Moor" ("The Boy in the Moor," 1841–42); "Das Spiegelbild" ("The Reflection," 1842); "Lebt wohl," ("Farewell," 1844); "Im Grase" ("In the Grass," 1845)

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff is commonly considered one of the greatest poets of the German language. Her criminal novella, The Jew's Beech Tree, and many of her poems are required reading in German schools. When the Federal Republic of Germany issued new currency in the early 1990s, it came as no surprise when Annette von Droste-Hülshoff adorned the new 20DM bill. The image is striking: her hair pulled back in a bun with signature curls on the side, her intense eyes dominating her face (some believe due to Graves disease), the collar of the dress close around her neck. All known portraits of her are similar. They evoke such an air of mystery (her dark and fantastic ballads contributed much to this image) that "Droste" novels abounded at the beginning of the 20th century. Although much has been learned about her through letters, friends' memoirs, and her own works, much is still to be gained by studying this multitalented writer, who was also a painter, pianist, and composer.

Droste, as she is affectionately called by critics, was born into Catholic aristocracy on January 10, 1797, in the family's moated castle near Münster. She grew up on the moors and heaths of the Westphalian countryside in Northern Germany

as the second child of Baron Clemens August von Droste-Hülshoff (the original family name was Deckenbroeks) and his second wife Therese von Haxthausen (Therese von Droste-Hülshoff ). The two married in 1793 and already had one daughter, Maria Anna (1795–1859), nicknamed Jenny , by the time Droste was born. Their desire for a male heir was soon realized with Werner Konstantin's birth in 1798 (1798–1867). The youngest child, Ferdinand (Fente), was born in 1800 (1800–1829).

Born one month early, Droste was cared for by a wetnurse, Maria Katharina Plettendorf (1763–1845), who remained a loyal member of the household until her death. Droste fashioned much of her self-image in terms of her premature birth. Her poem "The Poet born too soon," originally written in the first person around 1841, clearly lamented being born too early into a society that does not appreciate art. If the poet is understood to be female, she is also bemoaning her early birth into a society that allows a woman even less artistic autonomy.

Droste's early childhood was marked by her social class, the landscape of Northern Germany, and her poor physical health. Privately tutored first by her mother and then by a tutor primarily hired to teach the boys, Droste quickly proved to be a gifted pupil, learning everything from natural sciences and mathematics to Latin, Greek, and French. She was an accomplished piano player and composer as well as a good artist. Devoted to her father, an avid naturalist, she often roamed the countryside and came to know the area surrounding the family estate intimately.

If I were a hunter on the open meadow just one bit of a soldier if only I were at least a man then the heavens would guide me; now I must sit so nice and polite like a well-behaved child and may only secretly loosen my hair and let it flutter in the breeze.

—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, from "In the Tower"

Although Droste's relationship with her father was very good, the relationship with her mother was by most accounts extremely problematic. Therese von Droste-Hülshoff was more practical, opportunistic, and energetic than her husband and was the one who ran the household with complete authority. While these were seen by many to be desirable traits, so much so that young girls were often sent to the castle to be tutored by Therese, they proved to color her relationship with her daughter. Therese believed that Droste might one day go insane due to her early maturity, especially in education, her musical and lyrical abilities as well as her excitability and rich fantasizing. She therefore greatly controlled her daughter's life, banning acting and the reading of Friedrich Schiller, while requiring walks, painting, and embroidery, occupations more appropriate for a proper young woman's development.

Droste's interest in literature and writing came very early. In fact, her first poem dates from 1804, and by 1814 she had written 50 poems that her mother bound together. Droste was drawn into the literary circle at Bökendorf, the Haxthausen family retreat. Through her mother's two older brothers, August and Werner, she was introduced to the study of the Romantics and had already met Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859), the well-known collector of fairy tales and folksongs, in 1813. These, however, were not pleasant times, as Droste revealed to her friend, Elise Rüdiger , in a letter from 1844:

We Haxthausen female cousins were forced to seek the approval of the lions the uncles brought from time to time to Bökendorf in order for them to adjust their judgement accordingly, whereby we afterward had a heaven or a hell in the house, depending upon how they [the lions] had judged us. Believe me, we were wretched animals who fought for our dear lives, and it was namely Wilhelm Grimm who, through his displeasure, scorned me so bitterly and neglected me completely for years so that I have wished death for myself a thousand times over.

Of all the different experiences and attitudes determining Droste's later life and literary production, nothing seems to have played a larger role than her Jugendkatastrophe (catastrophe of youth). It happened in the summer of 1820 in Bökendorf. Two of the summer guests were August von Arnswaldt (1798–1855), a noble from Hannover, and Heinrich Straube (179–1847), her uncle August von Haxthausen's collegemate in Göttingen. Droste grew very fond of Straube, and Arnswaldt attempted to test her loyalty to his friend. After Straube returned to Göttingen that summer, Arnswaldt actively courted Droste, who was certainly physically attracted to him. She quickly took back her confessions of affection for Arnswaldt and reasserted her love for Straube, but it was too late. Arnswaldt triumphantly went to Göttingen to tell Straube about this "indecisive" woman, and the two men wrote Droste a "Dear Jane" letter, ending any chance of reconciliation between Droste and Straube. Her outwardly calm acceptance of the situation confirmed her haughtiness to her family, but letters and following events illustrate the long-lasting effect the episode had on her. She did not return for 18 years to Bökendorf, which she had enjoyed so much as a second home. The estrangement between her and her uncle, who had delivered the fateful letter according to strict instructions by Arnswaldt, lasted almost 20 years. As for Straube and Arnswaldt, she never saw them again, not daring to travel to Kassel, where both men resided. Most important, she wrote very little during the years 1820–25—letters or completed works—and there are absolutely no surviving letters from 1822 to 1824. Droste has been traditionally viewed as the woman who could not decide between two suitors and tragically was left with none. Doris Maurer has reinterpreted this episode as a nasty trick perpetrated by Arnswaldt to expose this "haughty, unfeminine creature" and to put her in her place.

Writing took on greater importance for Droste, not just for the sake of producing but also as an avenue for self-understanding. One such example is her collection of poems for every holiday on the church calendar, Spiritual Calendar. Originally planned in 1819 as a book of edification for her grandmother (and long mistakenly considered merely the expression of Droste's inner religious conflict), it soon evolved into a book of self-confession. She focused to some extent on her inner desires which went against church doctrine, quite understandable after the experience at Bökendorf. Based on this new focus, she presented her mother with 25 poems (from New Year to Easter Monday) on October 8, 1820, to seek her mother's love and approval. Upon receiving the poems, her mother read them raptly, as Droste reported in a letter to her cousin Anna, but then laid the book in her wardrobe and said nothing, even when Droste removed the book from the wardrobe eight days later. In the same letter, Droste reclaimed the book, stating, "it is again my secret property." Even if one now understands the difficulty with which Droste's mother must have read the poems, completely unable to cope with her daughter's apparent rejection of Catholicism, the blow prevented Droste from working on the cycle for several years. She only took up the project again in 1834 after some urging by her good friend and sometime advisor, Christoph Bernhard Schlüter (1801–1884), and worked intermittently on them the rest of her life. Not surprisingly, she did not allow publication of Spiritual Calendar until after her death.

In the fall of 1825, Droste finally ventured on a trip to the Rhine to visit relatives, finding her way back to writing and socializing. She wrote home to ask for her manuscript of the novel Ledwina, which she had begun in 1819. Although never completed, Ledwina offers great insight into Droste's ability as a writer as well as her life—the autobiographical quality is undisputed. Like her real-life counterpart Droste, Ledwina sees herself outside the social norm, leaving the role of wife and mother to her sister Therese (whom many view as Droste's sister Jenny). Suffering from tuberculosis, Ledwina has nightmares and sees visions. Intertwined into this narrative are the family conversations, in which society and social class are questioned. The fragment breaks off when Ledwina's sister begins to see similar visions. Often viewed as an unsuccessful piece fraught with incompatible narrative strands, critics are just beginning to appreciate the intricate narrative weaving that is actually in place and how it presages the narrative greatness of Droste's masterpiece, The Jew's Beech Tree.

July 25, 1826, the day Droste's father died unexpectedly, marks a caesura in her life. She and her mother moved from Hülshoff to the smaller Rüschhaus, the residence acquired earlier for just this situation. Droste would receive a modest pension from her brother, the heir to the estate, land, and title. It afforded her a small amount of independence, and she lived simply and secluded at Rüschhaus, her Schneckenhäuschen (little snail house), with little interruption until 1846. It was in the comfort of the Rüschhaus that she began to write again. Though Droste had a "room of her own" in which to create, the solitude and space propounded later by Virginia Woolf , illness plagued her here too, and she suffered constantly with various maladies such as migraines, shortness of breath, sleeplessness, rheumatism, thyroid troubles, and agonizing eye problems. These difficulties seemed to increase in intensity and frequency after her younger (and favorite) brother Ferdinand's death in the summer of 1829. However, none of her illnesses stopped her friends and family from demanding much of her time as a nurse and governess whenever needed. She was, after all, an unmarried noble with time on her hands. They considered writing just another one of her pastimes.

Intellectually isolated at the Rüschhaus, Droste joined a small literary society in 1837. She had no female mentors and did not appreciate the efforts of other contemporary female writers, remaining critical of those women in the literary society who were "only passing time" and even the many revolutionary and emancipatory authors. The society brought her into contact with Levin Schücking (1814–1883), the person who would most influence her later life. Droste had met his mother Katharina Busch , a well-known Westphalian writer, in 1813 and again in 1829. When Schücking entered high school in 1831, he had a letter of introduction from his mother, who hoped Droste would look after her son. Droste eventually lost contact with Schücking until she joined the literary society. She was impressed with the man who could judge literature so critically and meticulously yet was such an average writer himself.

In 1839, Schücking was asked by Ferdinand Freiligrath, a well-known author, to take over writing duties on Picturesque and Romantic Westphalia (Das malerische und romantische Westfalen, 1842). Schücking hoped Droste would contribute to the collection, especially since Freiligrath was also an avid admirer of her first collection of poetry (1838). Droste contributed a great deal, for instance with detailed descriptions of the countryside and by providing poetic form to the sagas and historical material, but the finished product bore only the names of the two male co-authors. Despite Schücking's apparent lack of public gratitude, he was the one person who most motivated Droste's creative productivity. A frequent visitor at the Rüschhaus, Schücking became much closer to Droste. Her feelings for him evolved from motherly to intimate if not sexual, despite their 17-year age difference. During this intense relationship between 1840–41, she wrote a considerable number of ballads (18-to-20), which are considered among the very best of the genre and often revolve around the question of guilt and sin.

Everything seemed to fall into place when Droste helped arrange a position for Schücking as librarian in her brother-in-law's library. She had already spent one year (September 1835–September 1836) visiting her sister Jenny, who had married Joseph von Lassberg in 1834. After the couple moved to the castle at Meersburg, Droste was able to visit there, too. She went in October 1841, and Schücking followed soon after. Daily walks together and private conversations characterized their stay. Droste was shattered when Schücking left Meersburg in April 1842 to become a private tutor. She had difficulty writing after his departure but was happy to report to him that she was making progress on a new of edition of poetry and the serialized publication of The Jew's Beech Tree, which was to bring her the literary recognition she so deserved.

The Jew's Beech Tree was borne out of a larger Westphalian project Droste had begun in the late 1830s. The other two products of this project were the prose fragment Out at Our Country Place (1838–42) and Pictures from Westphalia (1845). Based on a true criminal story her uncle had written down, The Jew's Beech Tree novella chronicles the important moments in Friedrich Mergel's life: the death of his father, the appearance of his double Johannes Niemand (John Nobody), his involvement in the death of a forester, the murder of the Jew Aaron, and Friedrich's subsequent 28-year absence. After Aaron's body is found under the beech tree, the village Jews etch a prophecy into the tree: "If you draw nigh unto this spot, it will befall you as you did unto me" (Trans. by Ursula Prideaux ). Friedrich commits suicide by hanging himself from the beech tree, thus fulfilling the prophecy. As gripping as the criminal aspect may be, the magnificence of the novella lies in the intricate narrative structure. Events are told only through the limited perspective of various characters, leaving the reader to piece together information by comparing the different narrations. In addition, the novella masterfully weaves together the fantastic elements of Late Romanticism and the detailed descriptions of Realism.

Droste had returned to the Rüschhaus in September 1842 and the six months following proved to be one of her most fruitful periods. In fact, her tremendous productivity centers around her time with Schücking and shortly thereafter. When she was with Schücking, Droste was free of the myriad of physical maladies that plagued her most of her life. By contrast, 1843 began with a six-week illness. This fact has led many critics to conclude that her physical problems were, to some degree, psychosomatic. Needless to say, she was devastated when Schücking announced his engagement and eventually married Louise von Gall , also a writer, on October 7, 1843. Ironically, Droste learned of the marriage while in Meersburg, Schücking having reported it among several other "events" of the day.

Droste's moderate literary success allowed her to buy a villa in Meersburg, which she visited only a couple of times due to her poor health. She did, however, meet Schücking and his wife in Meersburg in February 1844. The visit was not as Droste had hoped, but the poem she wrote upon their departure, "Farewell," reveals more than her resignation, it shows a true determination and acknowledgement of her own talents:

Leave me on the shore of my lake
as it rocks me with the lapping of its waves
leave me alone with my magic word
the spirit of the Alps and my Self.

Abandoned but not lonely
shattered but not crushed
as long as the sacred light
shines down on me with loving eyes
(Trans. by U. Prideaux).

Droste finally broke off contact with Schücking in 1846 after the publication of one of his novels, in which he had indiscreetly used confidential information about Westphalian aristocracy she had provided over the years.

Droste's last years were spent very much alone at the Rüschhaus, even trips to her brother at nearby Hülshoff were seldom. She yearned to return to Meersburg and was allowed to go only after repeated pleadings to her brother, still the patriarch of the family. The revolution in Germany during the first half of 1848 unnerved Droste; she and her sister packed away valuables and important papers in case of emergency. Although Droste was fully expected to recover from her latest illness, she suddenly died of a heart attack (some say embolism) on May 24, 1848. Her remains rest not in her Westphalian home but in Meersburg, where her creative genius had had free reign.

The daguerreotype of Droste from around 1845, taken three years before her death, shows a woman remarkably unchanged in comparison to previous portraits. Once again, her hair is tightly pulled back and her clothing is restrictive. As the excerpt from the poem "In the Tower" graphically illustrates, her hairstyle symbolizes the constraints under which women lived. Just as the woman in the poem can only let down her hair in secret, so too is the woman writer limited in the public forum. Droste also seems to fit the accepted definition of a Biedermeier author, a category into which she is often placed. Originally used to explain a purely Austrian way of life in the early 1820s and 1830s, the term Biedermeier was expanded to include a type of writing that exuded the ideals of resignation, close affinity to nature and homeland, and a certain apoliticalness. This definition does not adequately describe Droste the writer. Two stanzas of her quintessential poem, "The Reflection," poignantly depict how confused Droste was by the contrast between her public image and her artistic persona seeking release:

When you gaze at me out of the crystal, the misty circles of your eyes like dying comets, with features in which two souls strangely creep round each other like spies, then I whisper, "Phantom, you are not such as I." … It is certain, you are not I but a strange Being whom I approach, like, Moses, unshod; you are full of powers of which I am unaware, full of strange sorrow, strange desire; God have mercy on me if your soul slumbers in my breast! (Trans. by U. Prideaux)

These words are evocative of the Doppelgänger motif, pervasive throughout her works. She often used this motif to fictionalize the ever-present struggle between a woman defined by the patriarchal society into which she was born and the creative writer too defiant to take the literary tastes of society seriously.


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

Mare, Margaret. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. With translations by Ursula Prideaux. London: Methuen, 1965.

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

Schneider, Ronald. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Sammlung Metzler 153. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1977.

works in translation:

An Anthology of German Poetry from Hölderlin to Rilke in English Translation, with German Originals. Edited by Angel Flores. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960 (includes eight Droste poems).

Bitter Healing: German Women Writers 1700–1830: An Anthology. Edited by Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 (includes Ledwina).

Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von. Poems. Clarendon German Series. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Three Eerie Tales from 19th-Century German. Intro. by Edward Mornin. NY: F. Ungar, 1975 (includes The Jew's Beech Tree).

suggested reading:

Morgan, Mary. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: A Biography. European University Studies Series I, German Language and Literature 701. Berne: P. Lang, 1984.

Schleimer, Gloria. Protected Self-Revelation: A Study of Four Nineteenth-Century Women Poets, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Bronte. Diss. University of California, Irvine, 1981.

Toegel, Edith. Emily Dickinson and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Poets as Women. Potomac, MD: Studia Humanitatis, 1982.

Whitinger, Raleigh. "From Confusion to Clarity: Further Reflections on the Revelatory Function of Narrative Technique and Symbolism in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche," in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte. Vol. 54, 1980, pp. 259–283.


Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in Castle Hülshoff, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin, Universitätsbibliothek/Landesmuseum Münster, and in private ownership.

The critical edition of Droste's works and correspondence: Annette von DrosteHülshoff. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe: Werke, Briefwechsel. Edited by Winfried Woesler. 14 vols. to date. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1978—.

Kristina R. Sazaki , Assistant Professor of German, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts

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Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von (1797–1848)

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