Wilhelmine von Hillern, née Birch, was born in Munich, the only daughter of German playwright (and former actress) Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer and her husband Christian Andreas Birch, a Danish-born writer and theater critic. She was raised in Berlin and met many of the writers and musicians who visited her parents. She was educated by tutors and studied languages, music, and literature. Against the wishes of her mother, she decided to become an actress, and made stage debut in 1853. After performing in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and other cities, she began a relationship with Hermann von Hillern, who later became a prominent jurist. They married in 1857 and had three daughters. She began publishing short stories and novels during the 1860s and 1870s. One of her stories, Höher als die Kirche (Higher Than the Church, 1877) became well known in the USA as a text for students of elementary German. Her 1875 novel Die Geyer-Wally (The Vulture Maiden) was published in English as "A German Peasant Romance" in the Cornhill Magazine. It was adapted several times for stage and film and was the basis for the opera La Wally by Alfredo Catalani, first performed in 1892.