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NA228512 - SPYRI, J.: Heidi (Abridged)

Johanna Spyri

Johanna Spyri



Orphaned and taken to live with her reputedly monstrous grandfather in the Swiss Alps, the bright, spirited, eight-year-old Heidi is unphased. Accepting, observant, and infectiously enchanted by the many beautiful things that she discovers, she becomes irreversibly attached to living in the mountains. Life in Frankfurt is a shocking piece of urban suffocation, but good things come from bad. With firm friends and the ability to read, Heidi returns to the mountains a little older, a little wiser, and even happier than before.


Heidi herself is generally better known than her creator, Johanna Spyri. The daughter of a doctor, she was born in 1827 and grew up with her five siblings in a farming village near Zurich, with distant views of the Alps. She married a promising young lawyer and moved to Zurich, but despite intense social activity through a literary society, where she met Richard Wagner and the writer Gottfried Keller, she was unhappy in the city and struggled with depression. She became well known as a children’s writer in 1878 when she began Heimathlos (or ‘Homeless’), a volume containing ‘Stories for Children and for Those Who Love Children’. The inspiration for Heidi, by far her most famous story, came when she spent some time in Jenins – a village along the east bank of the Rhine near Mayenfeld, where the story is set. When Heidi’s Formative Years (part one of what we now know as Heidi) appeared in 1880 it was met with immediate success, despite the anonymity of authorship. On writing the sequel, concerned with Heidi’s homesickness in the city, Spyri revealed her identity. Even C.F. Meyer, the author with whom Spyri had established a friendly relationship of mutual criticism, was enthusiastic about Heidi. However, Spyri’s already subdued disposition was permanently saddened after the death in 1884 of both her husband and her only son. Her love of children compelled her to write over thirty more stories at her tiny ink-stained desk, before she herself died in 1901.


It seems clear that in Heidi Spyri was expanding upon the nostalgia of her own rural childhood. Heidi’s instinctive love of the open countryside and consequent rejection of city life unmistakably reflect the experiences of Spyri, who depicts the mountain scenery with genuine affection and vivid clarity. Although she also wrote specifically for adults, it is her uncommon empathy with children’s thoughts and feelings that has proved her most remarkable attribute. She was innovative in seeing and representing the world from a child’s perspective. In Heidi we can appreciate her desire to preserve the innocence of children and indulge in their fascination with the world. In so doing, she appeals to adults as well, who are only too willing to believe in this gentle, uplifting story.


Each character in Heidi is so carefully and crisply drawn that we feel well-acquainted with them all. With the exception of Miss Rottenmeier – the straight-laced disciplinarian housekeeper – they are all extremely likeable, and even Miss Rottenmeier’s uptight intolerance seems faintly comical. From the gruff but warm-hearted Grandfather to the gentle, mature Clara; from poor, blind Granny to the upright, loving Grandmamma; and from the simple, clumsy Peter to the endearing Heidi herself, each character has a pleasingly defined role to play.


Does the story represent too simplistic an ideal? The triumph of “Good over Evil” is undeniably black and white, inviting the charge that it presents an unrealistic view of the world to children. However, the success speaks for itself, and the idealism is harmless. The most enduring fairy stories are those with a similar dependable optimism, and these also enjoy the unquestioning belief of children, not to mention the escapist indulgence of adults.


Written over 120 years ago, Heidi has since been translated into over fifty languages and printed in an equivalent number of millions of copies. Through a variety of print, film, and television versions all over the world, the tale is renowned. Heidi has retained her character through generations of social and literary change. Simple and affecting, its themes are timeless, and its charm everlasting.


Notes by Genevieve Helsby

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