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Wilhelmine von Hillern

German literature, despite its extraordinary productiveness and its possession of a few great masterpieces, is far from being rich in the department of belles-lettres, especially in works of fiction. It has no list of novelists like those which include such names as Fielding, Scott and Thackeray, Balzac, Hugo and Sand. In fact, there is scarcely an instance of a male writer in Germany who has devoted himself exclusively to this branch of literature, and has won high distinction in it. It has been cultivated with success chiefly by a few writers of the other sex, whose delineations have gained a popularity in America only less than that which they enjoy at home—in part because the life which they depict has closer internal analogies to our own than to that of England or of France, still more perhaps because the pictures themselves, whatever their intrinsic fidelity, are suffused with a romantic glow which has long since faded from those of the thoroughly realistic art now dominant in the two latter countries.

In none of them is this characteristic more apparent than in the works of Wilhelmine von Hillern, which bear also in a marked degree the stamp of a mind at once vigorous and sympathetic, and are thus calculated to awaken the interest of readers in regard to the author's personal history.

Her father, Doctor Christian Birch, a Dane by birth and originally a diplomatist by profession, held for many years the post of secretary of legation at London and Paris. He withdrew from this career on the occasion of his marriage with a German lady connected with the stage in the triple capacity of author, manager and actress. Madame Birch-Pfeiffer, as she is commonly called, was one of the celebrities of her time, and her dramatic productions still keep possession of the stage. Soon after the birth of her daughter, which took place at Munich, she was invited to assume the direction of the theatre of Zurich. Here Wilhelmine passed several years of her childhood, separated from her father, whose engagements as a political writer retained him in Germany, and scarcely less divided from her mother, whose duties at this period did not permit her to give much attention to domestic cares. Without companions of her own age, and left almost wholly to the charge of an invalid aunt, she led a monotonous existence, which left an impression on her mind all the more deep from its contrast with the life which opened upon her in her eighth year, when Madame Birch-Pfeiffer was summoned to Berlin to hold an appointment at the court theatre.

In the Prussian capital the family was again united, and became the centre of a social circle embracing many persons connected with dramatic art and literature. Devrient, Dawison and Jenny Lind were among the visitors whose conversation was greedily listened to by the little girl while supposed to be immersed in her lessons or her plays. Under such influences it would have been strange if even a less active brain had not been fired with aspirations, which took the form of an irresistible impulse when, at thirteen, Wilhelmine was allowed for the first time to visit the theatre and witness the acting of Dawison in Hamlet and other parts. Henceforth all opposition had to give way, and in her seventeenth year she made her début as Juliet at the ducal theatre of Coburg. Two qualities, we are told, distinguished her acting: a strong conception worked out in the minutest details, and an intensity of passion which knew no restraint, and at its culminating point overpowered even hostile criticism. Subsequently careful training under Edward Devrient and Madame Glossbrenner enabled her to bring her emotions under better control, repressing all tendency to extravagance; and, greeted with the assurance that she was destined to become the German Rachel, she entered upon her career with a round of performances at the principal theatres of Germany, including those of Frankfort, Hamburg and Berlin.

These triumphs were followed by the acceptance of a permanent engagement at Mannheim, which, however, had hardly been concluded when it gave place to one of a different kind, followed by her marriage and sudden relinquishment of the vocation embraced with such ardor and pursued for a short period with such brilliant promise. Dawison is said to have remarked that by her retirement the German stage had lost its last genuine tragic actress.

Since her marriage Madame von Hillern has resided at Freiburg, in the grand duchy of Baden, where her husband holds a legal position analogous to that of the judge of a superior court. Her social life is one of great activity, though much of her time is given to superintending the education of her two daughters. But the abounding energy of her nature made it inevitable that her artistic instincts, repressed in one direction, should seek their full development in another. Literature was naturally her choice. Her first work, Doppelleben, appeared in 1865, and though defective in construction, owing to a change of plan in the process of composition, served to give assurance of her powers and to inspire her with the requisite confidence. Three years later Ein Arzt der Seele, of which a translation under the title of Only a Girl has been widely circulated in America, established her claim to a high place among the writers of her class. Her third work, Aus eigener Kraft (By his own Might), met with equal success, securing for its author a large circle of readers on both sides of the Atlantic ready to welcome the future productions of her pen. The qualities which distinguish her writings are vigor of conception, sharpness of characterization, a moral earnestness pervading the judgments and reflections, and an ardor, sometimes too exuberant, which gives intensity to the delineation even while exciting doubts of its fidelity. Similar qualities had characterized her acting, and they spring from a nature which a close observer has described as clear in perception yet swayed by fantasy; strong of will yet impulsive as quicksilver; finding enjoyment now in animated discussion, now in impetuous riding, now in absolute repose; full of maternal tenderness, yet fond of splendor and the excitements of society; a nature, in short, abounding in contrasts, but substantially that of a true, noble and lovable woman.