Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born January 12, 1797 at the moated castle of Hülshof near Münster as the second of four children of a respected family. Both parents, Clemens August von Droste-Hülshoff and Therese Luise, neé von Haxthausen, were of long established Westphalian noble lineages. The nobility was decisively involved in the country’s politico-ecclesiastical governing for many generations and occupied a position no less influential than privileged. In the wake of the "French Revolution", however, the political order of affairs of the ecclesiastical principalities in Germany towards the end of the century had long begun to crumble. The "old empire" was facing disintegration. The period into which Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born became an era of great political and social changes which were to bring serious implications for all walks of life.
In the year of Droste's birth - 1797 - the old order still held sway. The "Bishopric of Münster" as ecclesiastical territory, was subject to the Prince-Bishop who was at once Elector and Archbishop of Cologne. Nevertheless, ecclesiastical principalities had long been regarded by their critics as backward and in need of reform and changes were inevitable. In the 1790s French revolutionary struggles and, later, the Napoleonic wars, spread across Europe and French supremacy led to a new order of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1802 in the course of this process, dissolution of the ecclesiastical principalities followed. The Münster Prince-Bishopric was secularised in 1802 and large parts of Westphalia were ceded to Prussia whose sovereignty, however, lasted only four years. After Prussia's military collapse in 1806, the French assumed power over the Prussian provinces lying to the west of the Elbe, under the Treaty of Tilsit of 1807. These provinces, together with Electoral Hesse, Hanover and Brunswick formed the French kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by King Jérome. Six years later the Wars of Liberation put an end to the kingdom and in 1814/15 a extensive new order for Europe arose through the Congress of Vienna, with the restoration of Prussia as a great power. Prussia was thus able to reassert its power over Westphalia again. The phase between 1815 and 1848 was marked by a rigid Prussian restoration policy. The aims of ensuring the restored pre-revolution political and social order and in the fight against all national, liberal and revolutionary aspirations, accorded entirely with the intention of Metternich, the reactionary Austrian State Chancellor. Instead of a promised collective parliament, only provincial estates met together, under the law of 1823 in which the land-owning nobility predominated. Despite this background of restoration, far reaching reforms changed the social framework lastingly. Among others, the Prussian army reform with the introduction of general conscription and the reform on self administrative bodies, the Stein municipal reform and reform of the education system, may be mentioned here. In particular, a liberal line was taken in the field of economics. The domestic market was opened up by the customs law of 1818 and German unification under Prussia's leadership in the economic field was prepared by the establishment of the German Customs Union (1828-1834). Yet the more Prussia refused to have anything to do with liberal and national tendencies and sought to impede them through press censorship and "persecution of demagogues", the greater became the tensions between the middle classes and the monarchy. As concession Friedrich Wilhelm IV called all provincial estates to a United Provincial Diet in 1847. Finally, the hope that the strong antagonism of the forces of those supporting the politics with a world-outlook would give way to conversion to political and social relationships in the sense of middleclass-liberal politics, combined with the March Revolution of 1848 - a hope that, of course, remained largely unfulfilled. Political developments in the first half of the 19th century had grave consequences for the Westphalian nobility. Where, within the old order they had been the socially and politically dominant force until 1802, under secularisation they now lost not only church offices, incomes and opportunities of subsistence, but also political importance and the exercise of influence in a drastic manner. Even after 1815 as pre-Napoleonic conditions of sovereignty were restored, the nobility could not recover its old position. Dynamic processes of upheaval and the change had seized wide areas of society and could no longer be made reversible. The nobility indeed stayed as a privileged ruling class, but because of the economic and social rise of middleclass groups and as a consequence of the reform of the agrarian constitution (liberation of peasant farmers) came und more and more pressure. Incisive changes also affected economic-political relations and as a consequence those of society, too. While trade and manufacturing were drawn into lasting crisis because of the introduction of free trade, the industrial revolution that was setting in the 1830s led to further strengthening of the economically successful middle class. Social contrasts increased at the same time. Poverty and hunger increased among the lower classes and cases of pauperisation were brought. The first half of the 19th century was an era of great upheaval. Society lived through many layered and fundamental transformation processes. Battles of opinion came to a head especially in the Vormärz period which preceded the 1848 revolution. Ideological, attitudinal changes took place parallel to those of a social nature. Guardians of time honoured practice clashed with moderate liberal and increasingly democratic positions according to which constitutional monarchy and German unity were to be aspired to. Thus the old thought-structures were increasingly losing their strength of conviction and becoming fragile. It is true that one was spared these developments for longer in Münsterland than elsewhere. Westphalia counted as backward and certainly was. It was only after delay that many innovations bore fruit here. Annette von Droste repeatedly claimed that this backwardness in development was a fortunate state of affairs, compared with other regions. As a convinced advocate of restoration, she held Westphalia to be "a strange, slumbering land" which was "on the way to ruin" and "a hundred years behind the times". The authoress in no way lived that much withdrawn and detached from the world as is often claimed.
Because of her extensive reading, her daily interest in political affairs, her journeys and contacts, she faced her times in lively discourse and the ever wider far reaching social changes as an accurate observe and critical mind. Taken all round, her attitude is marked by great insecurity which, in many ways, became written into her work. Her conservative-restorative view of the world is an own deep seated scepticism towards the processes of upheaval and modernisation.
Münster and Westphalia at the Time of the Restoration
Talk is of an agreed backwardness in particular also in relation to the development of art and culture in Westphalia. Here, too, the region enjoyed no good reputation; rather was it described as backwoodsman-like. Away from cultural centres and literary strongholds, Westphalians had become the target for mockery and (literary) disparagement.
As examples, Voltaire's Candide (1759) or Justus Gruner's Meine Wallfahrt zur Ruhe und Hoffnung, oder Schilderung des sittlichen und bürgerlichen Zustands Westfalens, am Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts (1802/03) may be mentioned, writings which took Westphalian backwardness severely to task. To be sure, the intellectual-cultural climate in the city of Münster had improved significantly since the times of the enlightened minister, Franz von Fürstenberg. He had founded the first Westphalian university in 1773 and endowed a chair for "German style and German language". Lawyer and author Anton Mathias Sprickmann was commissioned to promote theatre life and in 1775 the Münstersche Bühne opened. The so-called "familia sacra", a circle of scholars, philosophers and clerics, formed around Princess Gallitzin from 1779 onwards, which strove for religious revival in the sense of sensitiveness. Münster became increasingly recognised in Germany’s intellectual world, such that poets like Hamann or Goethe paid their visits to the city. Münster was now no longer a white patch on Germany's cultural map.
During Münster's time as a provincial capital, the large number of Prussian officials also ensured increasing animation. Besides, the nobility stayed in the city courts and dwellings during the winter months, so that a lively social and cultural life developed. People met in clubs or at visits to concerts. Münster had long been an important musical centre. It seems that the von Droste-Hülshoff family did not participate all too often in social life in Münster, although they a first possessed their own town-house on the Krummen Timpen. Here, and in various town dwellings that man later rented, they stayed in the summer months at longer intervals, in order to keep up contacts and take part in the cultural life of the city. This included visits to theatres and concerts and also using a lending library or - in the case of die Droste herself - participation in literary private parties.
Droste in the Context of the Era
Attempts to assign a particular designation of an era to the work of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff again and again shown themselves to be problematic. The most varied catchwords have been named; talk is of Biedermeier, Restoration, Romanticism, also of Vormärz, Realism or even Naturalism. The difficulty of resolving upon any unequivocal assignment results, on the one hand, from the stratification of the Droste work, on the other, from the dubiousness of definitions of eras. Where Biedermeier, Romanticism and Realism refer primarily to literary history, the term Restoration is understood in the context of historical-political assignment. The case with "Vormärz" is rather more ambivalent. This designation stands both for a literature historical phase and for a political-historical phase. The historical phase between 1815 and 1848 is, generally speaking, designated as the time of Restoration. It does not consist only of restoration aspirations, but is equally marked by liberal and revolutionary tendencies. The structures of the eras will be appropriately worked out only from the convergence and the divergence of all the various forces and schools of thought. The term era is characterised by the dialectics of revolution and restoration. The term "Biedermeier" stands for the cultural historical development which corresponds to the process of restoration. In the literary context, Biedermeier, as a designation for an era between the Classical period and Realism comprises the years from 1815 to 1848. However, it is also seen by some as a development phase of Romanticism. After 1830, the time of the French June Revolution, a pause in the continuum of the era is revealed. The ever more robustly emergent pre-revolutionary tendencies of the subsequent years are designated as "Vormärz" both in the political and also the literary context. During this period, firmly politically articulate literature with liberal and revolutionary conten t was gaining greater influence (Heine, Börne, Gutzkow, Freiligrath, Grabbe, et al) for the writers’ group established in 1830, commonly named "Junges Deutschland".
As ever, uncritical assigning of die Droste to the Biedermeier era is widespread even today, and it also used to be applied to other domains of life, such as dress, furnishing and arts and crafts. The notions of frankness, restfulness and bourgeois narrow-mindeness – apart from that, a tendency towards sentimentality and effusiveness as well as a love of the idyllic are associated with the Biedermeier period.
After the chaos of the Napoleonic wars, people were glad of the restitution of the old conditions into which, tired of fighting, one looked forward to settling. As a slogan for a literature movement during the period 1815 to 1848, Biedermeier stands for poetical works of an a-political, sooner private, closely-bound-to-the-soil, melancholic-contemplative style which leaned towards Nature and the everyday world and turned away from social reality. Like die Droste, who has often been (mis)interpreted as a sentimental vernacular poet, others, such as Eduard Mörike, Adalbert Stifter and Franz Grillparzer have been ranked among this movement, too. However, in the case of die Droste, such a one-sided assignment is more than ever questionable. Today, the "modern" aspects of her work are increasingly being emphasised and intensely realistic, indeed, even naturalistic and expressionistic features in her style of writing pointed out. Not only do backgrounds full of conflict hide behind harmonic surfaces in the foreground, but deep insecurity and threat, breaks and fissures, decay and the morbid in her texts often confront the reader. In many of her texts, often arising from a regional context, die Droste breaks with the literature of her time. Her writing is scarcely that of the one-day-or-another affirmative, Biedermeier-idyllic type that enjoyed a boom in thode days. She is not concerned with glorifying the homeland, or for popular representations of morals and customs – she thematises the endangerment of, the threat to and loss of the homeland. In her portrayals of Nature she brings into view the ambiguous, the immanently evil, the threat to the idyll, the destruction and decomposition. We find no clichés and ready-made judgements, rather, individual observations and experiences which are fed from her poetological programme of a 'true to nature' re-creation of reality. And even when die Droste conjures up the putative safe and sound world of the past, then, above all, she does so to hold up a mirror to the present and never without an understanding of the irreversibilty of historical development.