Walking in the footsteps of Heidi and her creator, Johanna Spyri - Hindustan Times
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Walking in the footsteps of Heidi and her creator, Johanna Spyri

ByTeja Lele
Jun 12, 2024 07:59 PM IST

An enduring classic of children’s literature, Heidi underscores the therapeutic power of nature, the beauty of the everyday, the value of simplicity, and the importance of hope. Revisiting the book and the landscape that’s such an intrinsic part of it on the author’s 197th birth anniversary

Johanna Spyri’s first story, A Leaf on Vrony’s Grave, was published in 1873 and deals with domestic violence. However, the Swiss author is best known for Heidi, a novel for children that she wrote in just four weeks.

A village in the Swiss Alps much like the one Heidi lived in . (Shutterstock)
A village in the Swiss Alps much like the one Heidi lived in . (Shutterstock)

Heidi, which tells the story of a young orphan girl who moves to the Swiss Alps to live with her grandfather, has been translated into hundreds of languages and has never been out of print. The adventures of the cheerful and kind-hearted Heidi as she navigates life with Grandfather, Peter the goatherd, and her sickly friend Clara is famous for its vivid portrayal of the landscape and for Spyri’s psychological insight into a child’s mind.

Author Johanna Spyri (Wikimedia Commons)
Author Johanna Spyri (Wikimedia Commons)

Born on June 12, 1827, the author was the fourth of six children of Dr Johann Jakob Heusser-Schweizer and poet Meta Heusser-Schweizer. The family lived in Hirzel, a pastoral area in the canton of Zurich, set against the mighty Alps and teeming with lush forests, rolling hills. Johanna moved to Zürich at 25 after she married Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer, in 1852. Their only son, Bernhard Diethelm, was born three years later.

Her love of her homeland, feeling for nature, and cheerful wisdom gave her work and her life a unique, sensory quality. Her books include Heimatlos (1881) and Gritli (1882).

But the move to Zurich wasn’t easy for a woman who had grown up in the lap of nature. She often went to stay with a friend in Jenins, in the canton of Grisons. A few trips and excursions led to the idea of Heidi. Local lore suggests that a young, cheerful girl who lived in a village above Maienfeld was the original inspiration for Heidi.

Spyri wrote two volumes in German recounting Heidi’s adventures: Heidis Lehr - und Wanderjahre (1880) and Heidi kann brauchen, was es gelernt hat (1881). The text of these two volumes is usually translated and published together as a single book, originally subtitled “a book for children and those who love children”. The story of Heidi has since then been translated into over 55 languages, and has sold more than 60 million copies. Adaptations include a 1937 English film starring Shirley Temple and a 1968 TV movie.

Switzerland’s most famous author remains best known for this heartwarming story with its vivid descriptions of mountains, pasture land, Grandfather’s cabin, and the central character’s simple life. My mind still returns to the images of toasting a chunk of cheese over a fire, the sunset setting the mountainside alight, drinking fresh goat milk up in the Alps, and sleeping in a bed of soft, sweet hay while looking up at a canvas of stars… Heidi’s life seemed idyllic. After all, few contemporary children can gaze “so intently at the mountain peaks that soon they seemed to her to have faces and to be looking at her like old friends”.

Heidi is taken away by her aunt after she charms almost everyone in the village of Dörfli, and her life in Frankfurt reveals her yearning for her home in the mountains. But the cheerful girl finds a great friend in Clara, and ultimately returns home when the family she’s staying with realises that she thrives in the Alps where she is her true self. And when Clara comes visiting, the Alps work their magic on her health as well.

Heidi may seem to be a simple children’s tale but it is much more: it puts the spotlight on the things that matter – the power of nature, the need to find one’s way back home, and the healing influence of love and friendship.

In Connecting Childhood and Old Age in Popular Media, Ingrid Tomkowiak decodes the relationships Heidi has with the elders in her life, writing that the girl “both gives and takes from her intergenerational friendships”. The connections between Heidi and the three important elderly figures in her life are based on varied traits, and lead to a mutually reinforcing “exchange”.

“The connection between Heidi and Grandfather arises from a shared appreciation of nature and simple lifestyles. Heidi reseeds in Grandfather an interest in other human beings, and ultimately in God. Heidi also provides comfort to Peter’s grandmother, whose illness has left her alienated from society. From Grandmamma Sesemann, Heidi receives kind company, and the gifts of literacy and Christianity,” she writes.

Heidi also moved girls’ fiction from a focus on protagonists who are safe (family stories and Backfisch – German slang for a teenage girl – novels) to girls who are vulnerable (orphan girl novels). In the former, girls worried about their education and marriage and found pleasure in the natural world; in the latter, girls had to cultivate relationships and change others even as the natural world served as a setting for healing.

In a chapter titled The Homesick Heroine, in Transforming Girls: The Work of Nineteenth Century Adolescence, July Pfeiffer of Hollins University, Virginia, writes that homesickness “becomes a response to a dangerous world rather than a messy indicator of the heroine’s need to mature”.

In April 2010, a professor searching for children’s illustrations chanced upon a book written in 1830 by a German history teacher that may have inspired Spyri. Heidi shares some similarities in imagery and plot with Adelheide - das Mädchen vom Alpengebirge (Adelaide, the girl from the Alps).

Despite the controversy and sustained criticism of Spyri’s black-and-white character portrayals and idealisation of pastoral life, Heidi remains one of the most popular children’s books. It underscores the therapeutic power of nature, the beauty of the everyday, the value of simplicity, and the importance of hope.

Monika Elbert, in Negotiating Ecofeminist Politics in Heidi and Pollyanna, assessed the resemblance between Pollyanna (a 1913 novel by Elenor H Porter) and Heidi and showed how the novels focus on social misfits and invalid patients.

“Through their goodness, suffering, and wisdom, Pollyanna and Heidi are able to help and heal the many disabled characters they encounter, whether that disability is physical or spiritual. Ultimately, Pollyanna and Heidi must find or create their own sense of home. Both thrive as girls who become aware of their truths through their initial proximity to nature, which gives them a sense of courage and independence as they later find their voices in the most trying of circumstances,” she writes.

The Johanna Spyri Museum in Horgen, Switzerland. (Picture courtesy Museum Zurich)
The Johanna Spyri Museum in Horgen, Switzerland. (Picture courtesy Museum Zurich)

Heidi fans can see her come alive in a small museum set up in Spyri’s home town that honours the author’s life and legacy.

In A Leaf on Vrony’s Grave, Spyri wrote: “There is an old house next to the small white church in the mountain village where I lived for a good 20 years. I enjoyed, with open eyes, the glory that God poured out on this little spot of earth”.

That old house was converted into the Johanna Spyri Museum in 1981 by schoolteacher Jürg Winkler. He founded the museum on the 80th anniversary of her death, creating a place where her personality and her works could be presented and preserved.

“This old house was the schoolhouse where I received my first lessons with the children of the village, which consisted less of giving us what we needed - than in taking what we wanted...” the author had written decades earlier.

The museum displays a plethora of photos and literary works and the Spyri Stube, a showcase of personal items like the author’s writing table and documents. It also offers gifts and Heidi souvenirs and houses Switzerland’s smallest post office with a special Heididorf (Heidi’s village) postmark.

Johanna Spyri’s writing desk displayed at the museum. (Courtesy Museum Zurich)
Johanna Spyri’s writing desk displayed at the museum. (Courtesy Museum Zurich)

Spyri’s stunning descriptions have drawn many readers to Switzerland. In Maienfeld in the “Heidiland” holiday region, where Heidi (and later Clara) became healthy and happy, stands the “Original Heidi House”, a house with furnishings in the style of Spyri’s time. Different Heidi trails and paths and the Heidi Alp offer perfect days outdoors. A stop in the Spyri forest with its memorial plaque of Johanna Spyri and her mother Meta Heusser is a must for fans. Heidi-themed tours are also available. In 1983, the natural beauty of Hirzel was listed in Switzerland’s Federal Inventory of Landscapes and Natural Monuments of National Importance.

Spyri may have come under attack for her conservative mindset – she was against university education for women – but in Heidi she encapsulates an idealistic world where the child protagonist and her fans feel safe, secure, and loved.

Contemporary children who toggle devices so effortlessly have much to learn from Heidi, the girl who was “never unhappy, for wherever she was she found something to interest or amuse her”.

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.

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