(Full name Johanna Louise Heusser Spyri) Swiss author of juvenile novels and children's poetry.
The following entry presents criticism on Spyri's juvenile novel Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre: Eine Geschichte fuer Kinder und auch fuer solche welche die Kinder lieb haben (1880; Heidi: A Story for Children and Those That Love Children) through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLR, Volume 13.
An enduring classic of girl's fiction, Spyri's Heidi (1880) utilizes the panoramic vistas of the Swiss Alps and gentle Christian theology to present the quintessential story of an orphan who redeems the people around her through the miracle of personal faith. Part of a larger canon of orphan narratives common to the era—including Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna, and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden—Heidi distinguishes itself through its unique presentation of the tender relationship between Heidi and her grandfather. The subject of hundreds of translations and reinterpretations, Heidi has never been out of print since its initial release. Author Charles Tritten released two sequels, Heidi Grows Up (1939) and Heidi's Children (1958), which failed to live up to the auspicious reputation of Spyri's original. Through its tale of an orphan girl's early childhood in the remote Alps, Heidi has become treasured for its sentimental and optimistic tone, etching itself into the fabric of juvenile culture in spite of its occasionally didactic methodology.
Spyri was born Johanna Louise Heusser on June 12, 1827, in the village of Hirzl, located near Zurich, Switzerland. She was the fourth of six children born to Johann Jakob Heusser, a village doctor, and Meta Schweizer Heusser, a noted local songwriter and poet. As a child, Spyri spent summers in the villages of Maienfeld, Jenins, and Chur in the high pasturelands of the Swiss canton of Graubünden—locations that would later be reflected in Heidi's beloved mountain home and the fictional town of Dörfli. She married Bernhard Spyri, a law student, in 1852 and, upon his graduation, they settled in Zurich where Bernhard became a town clerk. Among their social circle at the time was composer Richard Wagner, creator of such operas as Tristan und Isolde. Spyri gave birth to the couple's only child, Bernhard Diethlem Spyri, in 1855. Concerned by the flood of wounded soldiers and refugees finding asylum in Switzerland during the Franco-Prussian War, Spyri began a writing career with the intention of donating all of her proceeds to the Red Cross, an organization she had been affili-ated with since its creation in 1864. She released her first book, A Leaf on Vrony's Grave, in 1871 and soon published a series of short stories aimed publicizing the hardships of war victims. In 1880 the first portion of Heidi was released in Germany under the title Lehr und Wanderjahre: eine Geschichte fuer kinde und auch fuer solche welche die Kinde lieb haben (Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning) with its companion Heidi Makes Use of What She Has Learned following in 1881. Today, the two halves are published together as Heidi: A Story for Children and Those That Love Children. An enormous success, the release of Heidi made Spyri a household name in Switzerland, and her reputation expanded greatly when the book was translated into English in 1884. Over the course of her literary career, Spyri would release more than fifty books, though she shunned the public spotlight. She died on July 7, 1901. Of her many publications, only Heidi has remained popular with modern readers, but Spyri remains a treasured figure in Switzerland, with her memory honored by a postage stamp in 1951 and a coin in 2001.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
The plot focuses on Spyri's titular heroine, Heidi—her full name is Adelheid—who is merely five years old at the book's opening. An orphan, she is taken by her cousin Dete to live with her reclusive grandfather in the mountainous Swiss Alps. Her grandfather—mostly referred to as Grandfather, or Alm-Uncle after the mountain peak where he lives—is a sad figure who has abandoned his religious faith and lives as a hermit. Despite these failings, Grandfather is struck by Heidi's self-reliance and optimism, accepting Heidi into his home and teaching her the joys of rural life. Between her grandfather's love and the company of a local goatherd named Peter (who lives with his own aged grandmother), Heidi finds her new life in the mountains idyllic. Sadly, her cousin Dete returns to take her away from her grandfather, ostensibly so that the now eight-year-old Heidi can be educated. In reality, Dete has arranged for Heidi to become the live-in companion to a rich, infirm girl named Clara Sesemann in Frankfurt, Germany. Heidi brings a wealth of joy into sad Clara's life, but provides unending aggravation to the family housekeeper/governess Fraulein Rottenmeirer. Bonding with Clara's businessman father and grand mamma, Heidi finds a measure of happiness in the city, even learning to read. Regrettably, Heidi slowly begins to physically waste away in the foreign environment, missing the fresh air and natural surrounding of the Alps. The Sesemanns agree to send Heidi back to her grandfather, resulting in a joyful reunion. The newly literate Heidi now reads biblical stories to her grandfather, most significantly the tale of "The Prodigal Son." Grandfather undergoes a redemptive metamorphosis and agrees to return to the church. Eventually, Clara visits her friend's home in the mountains where the two girls spend a happy period together. But the goatherd Peter becomes jealous and, in an attempt to drive Clara away, he destroys her wheelchair. However, with Heidi's assistance, Clara undergoes a miraculous cure and walks for the first time. A grateful Mr. Sesemann agrees to pay to fix Peter's grandmother's cottage, and by story's end, all of the primary characters live new lives enriched by their experiences with Heidi.
Mary G. Bernath has described Heidi as "a book of absolutes," which seems accurate given the few subtleties in Spyri's expression of Heidi's world: themes of redemption, the beauty of the natural world, and the curative power of faith are definitively overt in their presentations. Perhaps the most evident thematic element in Heidi is the power of redemption. Spyri makes Heidi's recitation of "The Prodigal Son" a moment of clarity for Grandfather whereby he realizes his dormant wish to reconcile with his Christianity. But his redemption truly begins with his loving acceptance of Heidi into his home. To that end, some have argued that the story is part of the "convert-and-reform" tradition made popular by such novels as George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) and Martha Furquharson's Elsie Dinsmore (1868). Malcolm Usrey has stated that, "The reformation and conversion of Heidi's grandfather is the major plot of Heidi, and it is around his reformation and conversion that Spyri builds both the grandfather's and Heidi's characters, making Grandfather something of a Byronic hero and Heidi a child of nature, a natural child in the vein of Rousseau's ideal child, Ėmile." Likely driven by her own first-hand childhood memories of Switzerland's upland pastures and mountain villages, throughout Heidi, Spyri ascribes qualities equalling almost religious transcendence to the natural world. Heidi's childhood home is simple with few luxuries, and yet she is happiest there, with Spyri lovingly describing the majestic beauty of Heidi's world and her freedom to revel in those surroundings. In this respect, Spyri seems to advocate allowing children to live unfettered in early life rather than being forced into overly structured educational systems. Lois Keith has posited that Heidi is "about giving children independence and the freedom to play" and that "faith in God on its own is not enough to fulfil the writer's purpose, which is to show that children should not be passive receivers of life but must believe in their own power to change things for the better." Thematically, Heidi is also clearly a force for positive change. Indeed, Barbara and Richard Almond have asserted that Heidi is essentially a "novel about cures." Beyond even the seemingly miraculous healing of Clara Sesemann's invalidism, Heidi is able to affect reparative cures for nearly every preexisting problem that exists in those about whom she cares. In his analysis of Heidi, Peter Hunt has concluded that, "the message, like that of The Secret Garden, is clear: children hold the key, through their purity, to spiritual and physical health."
Despite its unarguable success as an iconic piece of girl's fiction, questions surrounding the literary value of Heidi have continued to inspire debate. While noted critics such as Anne Eaton have described the character of Heidi as "so honest, so genuine in her enjoyment of the life in her grandfather's cottage that every detail of that life is glowing and memorable," others have decried the novel's overtly moral themes, with Phyllis Bixler Koppes arguing that the story is "unmistakably flawed by … didacticism." Scholars have remained divided in their appraisals of Heidi since the book's first publication, with supporters praising Spyri's unabashed optimism, while detractors fault the story's flat prose and oversimplified plot. Mary G. Bernath has commented that, "Heidi is an old-fashioned book in which the good characters live 'happily-ever-after.' In today's uncertain world, where both the news and fiction tend to be painfully realistic, it is reassuring to find a story where good people are rewarded and where love and honesty triumph. Modern readers may find certain aspects of the book a bit overdone. Heidi is almost too full of joy, Peter too simple-minded, and the grandfather too all-knowing and kind beneath his gruff exterior to be totally believable. Yet readers care about these characters deeply and become much involved in the story." Regardless of its arguable literary merit, Heidi remains a fixture in children's literature. Malcolm Usrey has opined, "That Johanna Spyri's Heidi has been a popular and widely-read book for a hundred years does not make it a touchstone; Heidi does not now, and did not when it was published, represent an innovation or breakthrough in children's literature, in the way that Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit or Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy did. Yet Heidi is a book of enduring interest and significance."
Selected Editions of Heidi
Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre: Eine Geschichte fuer Kinder und auch fuer solche welche die Kinder lieb haben [Heidi: A Story for Children and Those That Love Children; translation by Louise Brooks; illustrations by Cecil Leslie] (juvenile novel) 1880
Heidi [translation by Helene S. White] (juvenile novel) 1902
Heidi [translation by Elisabeth P. Stork; illustrations by Maria L. Kirk] (juvenile novel) 1915
Heidi [illustrations by Anne Alexander] (juvenile novel) 1923
Heidi [illustrations by Louis Rhead] (juvenile novel) 1925
Heidi: A Little Swiss Girl's City and Mountain Life [translation by Helen B. Dole; illustrations by Marguerite Davis] (juvenile novel) 1927
Heidi [illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith] (juvenile novel) 1958
Heidi [translation by Helen B. Dole; illustrations by Sergio Leone] (juvenile novel) 1963
Tomi Ungerer's Heidi: The Classic Novel [translation by Helen B. Dole and John Githens; illustrations by Tomi Ungerer] (juvenile novel) 1990
Heidi [illustrations by Ted Rand] (juvenile novel) 1994
Heidi [illustrations by Loretta Krupinski] (juvenile novel) 1996
Heidi: A Timeless Story of Childhood [adapted by Lucy Coats; illustrations by Pamela Venus] (juvenile novel) 2000
Heidi: With a Discussion on Optimism [adapted by Celia Bland; illustrations by Eva Clift] (juvenile novel) 2003
Red-Letter Stories [translation by Lucy Wheelock] (children's poetry) 1884
Rico and Wiseli [translation by Louise Brooks] (juvenile novel) 1885
Uncle Titus: A Story for Children and for Those Who Love Children [translation by Lucy Wheelock] (juvenile novel) 1886; also published as Uncle Titus in the Country, 1926
Gritlis Kinder [Gritli's Children: A Story for Children and for Those Who Love Children] (juvenile novel) 1887
Swiss Stories for Children and Those Who Love Children [translation by Lucy Wheelock] (juvenile novel) 1887
In Safe Keeping [translation by Lucy Wheelock] (juvenile novel) 1896
Dorris and Her Mountain Home [translation by Mary E. Ireland] (juvenile novel) 1902
Moni der Geissbub [Moni the Goat Boy, and Other Stories; translation by Edith F. Kunz] (juvenile novel) 1906
Heimatlos: Two Stories for Children and Those Who Love Children [translation by Emma Stetler Hopkins; illustrations by Frederick Richardson] (juvenile novel) 1912
Chel: A Story of the Swiss Mountains [translation by Helene H. Boll] (juvenile novel) 1913
The Rose Child [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1916
What Sami Sings with the Birds [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1917
Little Miss Grasshopper [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1918
Beim Weiden-Joseph [Little Curly Head: The Pet Lamb; translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1919
Cornelli wird erzogen [Cornelli; translation by Elisabeth P. Stork; illustrations by Maria L. Kirk] (juvenile novel) 1920
Toni: The Little Wood-Carver [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1920
Erick and Sally [translation by Helene H. Boll] (juvenile novel) 1921
Maezli: A Story of the Swiss Valleys [translation by Elisabeth P. Stork; illustrations by Maria L. Kirk] (juvenile novel) 1921
Tiss: A Little Alpine Waif [translation by Helen B. Dole; illustrations by George Carlson] (juvenile novel) 1921
Trini: The Little Strawberry Girl [translation by Helen B. Dole; illustrations by George Carlson] (juvenile novel) 1922
Jo: The Little Machinist [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1923
The Little Alpine Musician [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1924
The New Year's Carol [translation by Alice Howland Goodwin; illustrations by Grace Edwards Wesson] (juvenile novel) 1924
Die Stauffermuehle [Joerli: The Story of a Swiss Boy; translation by Frances Treadway Clayton and Olga Wunderli] (juvenile novel) 1924
Vinzi: A Story of the Swiss Alps [translation by Elisabeth P. Stork; illustrations by Maria L. Kirk] (juvenile novel) 1924
Arthur and Squirrel [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1925
Children of the Alps [translation by Elisabeth P. Stork; illustrations by Margaret J. Marshall] (juvenile novel) 1925
The Children's Carol [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1925
Eveli and Beni [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1926
Eveli: The Little Singer [translation by Elisabeth P. Stork; illustrations by Blanche Greer] (juvenile novel) 1926
Peppino [translation by Elisabeth P. Stork; illustrations by Blanche Greer] (juvenile novel) 1926
Boys and Girls of the Alps [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1929
In the Swiss Mountains [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1929
Renz and Margritli [translation by Helen B. Dole] (juvenile novel) 1931
Catherine Townsend Horner (review date 1982)
SOURCE: Horner, Catherine Townsend. Review of Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, illustrated by Anne Alexander. In The Aging Adult in Children's Books and Nonprint Media: An Annotated Bibliography, p. 115. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982.
[Heidi is t]he enduring classic in which Heidi, 5, comes to live with her grandfather, the truculent Alm-Uncle, endears herself to him and to Peter the goatherd and his grandmother, only to be carried off again to the city to be companion to the wealthy invalid, Clara. Her homesickness is physically and emotionally debilitating in spite of her love for Clara, and the discerning doctor prescribes a return to her natural habitat. There she repatriates her grandfather into human society and brings light into Peter's grandmother's darkness. When Clara pays a visit to the Alm, Peter's jealousy precipitates a crisis, but he atones by assisting Heidi and Grandfather in restoring the stricken girl to health. Clara's grateful father bestows beneficences on all.
Joanna Rudge Long (review date February 1985)
SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. Review of Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, and Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, adapted by Rosemary Harris, illustrated by Tomi Ungerer. School Library Journal 31, no. 6 (February 1985): 79-80.
Gr. 2-7—Copiously illustrated in full color reproduced from paintings in oil, Heidi, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, is an earnest and partly successful effort to produce an outstanding edition of this old favorite. The typography uses space generously, with unusually graceful, well-balanced placement of type and ornament. The unattributed translation is acceptable, differing somewhat in form but not at all line-by-line from the 70-year-old edition (McKay) to which it was compared. Sanderson has filled her paintings with detail that is the result of considerable research in costume, landscape, botany and architectural history. Her depiction of time and place is careful and authentic. Her use of well-chosen live models gives the characters welcome individuality. The traditional moments are there: Heidi awakened from sleepwalking, Clara's first steps, etc.; but Sanderson tells almost too much about Heidi's world. As in length TV dramatizations, all is made solid with little left to imagine. Some illustrations are marred by coyness: Heidi is rueful, the kittens are too cute, the steeple too dramatically touched by light. Sanderson cites N. C. Wyeth as inspiration; see Jessie Willcox Smith for a less sentimental, beautifully designed Heidi (Scribners, 1958; o.p.), elegantly lovely in its simplicity and also inspired by Wyeth's style. In undertaking the abridgment of a classic, the usually gifted Rosemary Harris has tried to preserve the main outlines and original language. Her success is indifferent: the remaining story is choppy and oversimplified, motivations and causal relationships badly stated rather than evolving from accumulated detail—in short, a typical abridgment. Large collections may consider purchase for the sake of the illustrations. Ungerer's propensity for humor and caricature might be more appropriate to Pippi Longstocking than to Heidi, who has been traditionally portrayed in sentimental style, yet his emphasis on the lively side of the story and Heidi's character is refreshing. His virtuousity as draftsman and observer would find a worthier setting in an unabridged edition.
Elizabeth Laraway Wilson (review date 1987)
SOURCE: Wilson, Elizabeth Laraway. Review of Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. In Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children's Literature, p. 206. Wheaton, Ill.: Cross-way Books, 1987.
[Heidi is t]he beloved story of the vibrant Swiss girl who brings change and new life to those around her. It has lost none of its unique charm over the years. Not the least of the joys of Heidi's story is the atmosphere created by the descriptions of mountain life—the goats on the steep slopes, the sparkling air, the meals of milk, bread, and cheese. A lovely, timeless classic. This is another of those wonderful old books that has been altered in some editions, made into movies, and otherwise changed from the original text in its presentation. To gain its true atmosphere and value, be sure to obtain one with the original text.
Mary G. Bernath (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Bernath, Mary G. "Heidi." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 2, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 545-54. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, 1990.
[In the following essay, Bernath examines multiple aspects of Spyri's juvenile novel Heidi, including the author's personal history, the book's plot and characters, and the social and religious themes present in the text.]
About the Author
Johanna Heussel Spyri spent her entire life within a few miles of Zurich, Switzerland. The details of her youth have been preserved in an account by her childhood playmate, Anna Ulrich, entitled Recollections of Johanna Spyri's Childhood (1925). Far less is known about her adult life. Not only have her personal papers and manuscripts been lost over the years, but she was said to be a deeply private woman who shunned public attention and considered the influence of her books more important than the details of her life. Her friends respected her wish for privacy by revealing little about her adult life.
Born in the village of Herzel, seven miles from Zurich, on June 12, 1827, Spyri was named Johanna after her father, Dr. Johann Jakob Heussel, a local physician. The family maintained a home of culture and activity, and Spyri's mother was a gifted poet and songwriter. The family enjoyed acting out charades together, and the children were required to write little verses, which they turned in to their father every Sunday night. Spyri enjoyed these writing projects and even wrote extra verses for her younger siblings. Besides her large family—Spyri was the fourth of six children—her home included her grandmother, two aunts, two female cousins, and sometimes even a few of the doctor's patients.
From all accounts, the young Spyri was just like Heidi, even sharing the same grey eyes and brown hair. "Hanneli" or "Hanni," as her family called her, enjoyed nature, frolicking out-of-doors, creative drama, storytelling, and music more than she liked academics. She studied with the pastor at the village school. Although lively and witty and a clever mimic, she lacked the talent in drawing thought essential for young ladies of her time. Her friend Anna Ulrich noted that Spyri used her eraser more than her pencil; indeed, she once submitted a drawing to her teacher with a hole in the middle of it. The teacher was not amused. Ulrich also quotes Spyri's sister, who remembered that Spyri loved the sound of the wind in the fir trees so much that she would stop playing just to listen. The two sisters also made friends with Franz Antoni, an old goatherd, who gave them bread with fresh cheese and butter to eat at his hut.
In Writers for Children, Catherine Eayrs notes that the kindly doctor in Heidi is much like Spyri's own father and that Clara's grandmamma and Peter's grandmother are storytellers much like her own grandmother. Heidi and Peter's difficulties in school come from memories of her own frustrations. Even the settings are real. She knew well the city of Maienfeld in eastern Switzerland, and Dörfli, although fictional, is much like the village of Jenins, where she spent much time between 1846 and 1852.
Bernhard Spyri, her brother Theodor's classmate, often came to spend Saturday nights and Sundays at her house. In 1852, while Johanna was studying in Zurich, they married. Bernhard Spyri was a lawyer and later became town clerk in Zurich. Their friends included the poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and the composer Richard Wagner. They had one son, Bernhard Diethelm Spyri, who died of tuberculosis in 1884 at the age of 29. The elder Bernhard died later that same year.
Johanna Spyri began writing for publication in 1870, prompted mainly by a desire to do something to help the soldiers wounded in the Franco-Prussian War. Many soldiers and war orphans came to Switzerland for shelter, but money for supplies to help them was scarce. Spyri had been active in the International Red Cross, begun in 1864, and she hoped to be able to donate all of her royalties to charities as well as to publicize the conditions of the orphans. Her first book, A Leaf on Vrony's Grave (1871), and the first of the Heidi stories, published in Germany in 1880, were both published anonymously. The second Heidi story, published in 1881, gave her credit for authorship. Originally entitled Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning and Heidi Makes Use of What She Has Learned, the two Heidi books are now published as one. Heidi ran through thirteen editions in its first ten years. After the death of her son and husband in 1884, Spyri's writing intensified, and in 1886 she moved near Zurich's municipal theatre. In time she became an invalid and something of a recluse, but she continued to write until her death on July 7, 1901. Her last story, Jörli, was published in Berlin that year.
Heidi is an old-fashioned book in which the good characters live "happily ever after." In today's uncertain world, where both the news and fiction tend to be painfully realistic, it is reassuring to find a story where good people are rewarded and where love and honesty triumph. Modern readers may find certain aspects of the book a bit overdone. Heidi is almost too full of joy, Peter too simple-minded, and the grandfather too all-knowing and kind beneath his gruff exterior to be totally believable. Yet readers care about these characters deeply and become much involved in their story.
The book was originally written in German and first published in English in 1884. It is a simple narrative of love between a girl and her grandfather, of the joy of helping others, of the beauty of nature, and of reverence for God. Neither of the villains, the selfish Aunt Dete and the pretentious Fraulein Rottenmeier, can appreciate the natural goodness of Heidi, the girl of the mountains. Heidi's home in the Alps is an idyllic place, far from the modern world and its concerns. The enduring popularity of the book arises from the liveliness of its characters and the universality of its themes. As Clifton Fadiman observes in his after-word to the Macmillan Classics edition of Heidi, ever since that first English translation in 1884, "year after year, it has kept its place in the hearts of young readers, especially girls." At present, there are fifteen editions in print, three of them in simplified versions. The secret of its continued success is simply that Heidi makes its readers happy.
Heidi takes place in the Swiss Alps and in nearby Germany, most particularly Frankfurt. The time is the late 1800s, when public opinion and traditional morality dominate daily life. On Heidi's mountain, the setting is pastoral in the literal sense, home to a shepherd and goats and filled with abundant flowers, broad meadows, gentle winds, ancient fir trees, and heavy snows. Sunrises and sunsets are always noticed and celebrated, especially by Heidi and her grandfather. Nothing is ever taken for granted.
The wildness of the place often frightens away city visitors. Upon returning Heidi to the mountain, for example, Sebastian lets her go on alone from the Mayenfield train station, "glad of having no tiring and dangerous journey on foot before him." Transportation is difficult, to be sure, for after the train journey comes a ride in a cart or on horseback, then a steep climb up the footpath from Dörfli. Inaccessible as it is, the mountain richly rewards those hardy souls who make the effort to visit it. From it Heidi receives her strength; away from it she grows pale and weak. The good doctor from Frankfurt and Clara each discover there a life-giving potion to heal their emotional and physical ills. The simple, natural diet of bread, cheese, goat's milk, and occasional meat, coupled with the mountain air, promotes good appetite, sound sleep, and emotional well-being.
In Frankfurt, life is much less rustic, and the book depicts in some detail the home of a wealthy family of the nineteenth century, replete with multiple servants, fine clothes, elaborate meals, and formal etiquette. Heidi feels trapped in the city, however, unable to see the sky or trees or grass.
Moral codes are strict in this period, both in the cities and in the small villages. The work ethic is strong. The A-B-C book from which Peter learns to read reflects clearly the sternness of the time, with beatings, starvation, and other punishments threatened for failure to learn any of the letters. Condemnation for wrongs is the rule in this society, as illustrated by Dörfli's long-standing criticism of Alm Uncle for drinking and gambling in his youth.
Themes and Characters
Heidi is a book of absolutes, with definite vices and definite virtues. The chief vices are selfishness, hypocrisy, and materialism, as embodied mostly in the minor characters: Heidi's Aunt Dete, the Sesemanns' head housekeeper Fraulein Rottenmeier, and the villagers. The virtues are equally clear and include love for others, faith in God, humility, and respect for nature. The "good" people—Heidi and her grandfather, Peter's blind grandmother, Herr Sesemann, his invalid daughter Clara, and Grandmamma Sesemann—are easily recognized as such. Peter, the goatherd, is the only neutral character. He is basically lazy, somewhat simpleminded, and very jealous, but he is a friend of Heidi's and embodies the essence of pastoral life. He also learns the power of prayer and forgiveness at the end, which makes him the only character to grow; all the other "good" characters are good when the story begins.
The vices in this book are obvious when they appear. Dete reveals her selfishness with her treatment of Heidi, whom she considers little more than a piece of baggage left behind by her dead sister. Dete cares for the girl when it is convenient or when she has something to gain by it but abandons her when she has better things to do. The opening scene, in which she delivers Heidi up to her grandfather, whom everyone fears, makes her selfishness clear. Similarly, when she snatches Heidi away after her grandfather has grown to love her, Dete again acts for her own personal gain.
Another vice, hypocrisy, manifests itself in all the villagers, in most of the servants, and in Aunt Dete. Spyri implies that society as a whole is hypocritical, basing its actions primarily on appearances. Gossip rules, and people always criticize others when in fact they are no better themselves. Heidi's grandfather, the Alm Uncle, has moved to the mountain because of his refusal to tolerate this hypocrisy. He tells Heidi that when the great bird of the mountain croaks and screams he "is mocking at the people because they all go huddling and gossiping together, and encourage one another in evil talking and deeds." Even those who think well of the grandfather have not the courage of their convictions to defend him, waiting until the pastor has publicly shaken his hand before greeting him themselves like "an old friend whom they had long missed."
Hand in hand with gossip goes materialism, another form of slavery to appearances. Fraulein Rottenmeier tries to throw away Heidi's tattered straw hat and red shawl, considering them inappropriate for her new station, but Heidi is sentimentally attached to them and knows she will need them for her home-coming. She remembers her grandfather's parting words to Dete about her "hat and feather" and does not wish to make the same mistake herself. To this end, she sheds her pretty town dress and feathered hat at Brigitta's house, explaining to the puzzled Brigitta, "I would rather go home to grandfather as I am or else perhaps he would not know me." Her instincts prove correct, for his first pleased response to her return is, "You don't look much of a grand lady." The interesting point about materialism in this book is that the truly wealthy people, such as the Sesemanns, are not the least bit materialistic, while those who wish to be wealthy are the most preoccupied with material objects. The true benefit of the grandfather's way of life is that, without being wealthy, he has no need of money in order to live comfortably. He is already rich in the intangible gifts of the mountain.
A major message of Spyri's book is that people must love each other and work together. Although outsiders never penetrate Alm Uncle's gruff exterior, he is never unkind to any creature. His goats are the best cared for on the mountain, and from the start, his tenderness toward Heidi comes through. Early in the book, at Heidi's suggestion, he repairs Peter's grandmother's house, although he refuses to accept any thanks for it. He developed his abilities as a nurse when he cared for a dying captain long ago, and he achieves miraculous results for Clara. Again he wants no reward, telling Herr Sesemann, "I too have my share in the joy of your daughter's recovery, and my trouble is well repaid by it." He wants nothing for himself, only assurance that Heidi will be cared for should he die before she is grown.
This joy in doing for others is especially apparent in Heidi, who always puts those who are less fortunate before herself. She uses her money to buy soft white rolls for the blind grandmother rather than things for herself, and she requests for her reward at Clara's cure only a bed with fluffy pillows and warm covers for the grandmother. She assumes the role of a substitute daughter for the doctor, promising to come to him if he is ever ill and in need of her. Much as she loves being outdoors, the thought that her reading "might make it light and happy again for the grandmother gave her the greatest pleasure, greater even than being out on the sunny mountain with the flowers and goats."
Heidi readily embraces a deep faith in God's goodness. Clara's grandmother teaches her to pray when she is at the depths of her homesickness, and Heidi comes to believe that she must never forget God, who always knows what is best for her. The faith she learns from Grandmother Sesemann builds on the premise that God always listens but does not always answer prayers immediately. Heidi believes that God delayed answering her prayer to go home so that she would be better able to help those that she loves. The events of the narrative suggest that "everything will come to pass according to God's purpose."
Along with joy in helping others and faith in God come two related virtues: humility and appreciation of nature. Grandfather must learn humility in order to thank God for sending Heidi to him. Similarly, Peter must confess to destroying Clara's chair before forgiveness, relief from fear, and a reward of a penny a day come to him. Humility is also promoted in the emphasis on simple clothes, simple food, and a simple way of life.
Appreciation of nature comes readily to all those on the mountain, especially Heidi and her grandfather. Heidi's exuberance at seeing her first mountain sunset, when "everything is on fire," is sustained throughout the book. The sights and sounds of the mountain continuously beckon her out of doors, and even at night, the stars are in full view from her bed. The shock of confinement is tremendous on the first morning she awakes in Frankfurt and feels like a caged bird "trying the bars in turn to see if it cannot get through them and fly again into the open." In the city she grows pale, loses her appetite, and begins to sleepwalk. Sent home to be cured, her joy overflows upon seeing the mountain sunset once again: "the two high mountain peaks rose into the air like two great flames, the whole snowfield had turned crimson, and rosycolored clouds floated in the sky above…. Heidi … thanked God for having brought her home." This power of the natural to inspire and heal also touches the doctor and Clara, who recover in soul and body while visiting the mountain.
Spyri followed the literary conventions of the late nineteenth century in a number of ways. She depicted an invalid and an orphan in many of her stories, Heidi included. These stock characters were expected to serve the didactic purpose of depicting death as a "release from earthly misery" and to help convey a spiritual message. Spyri's books manage to be both didactic and imaginative. She has been compared favorably to other noted writers of her time: to Louisa May Alcott for her development of female characters, to Robert Louis Stevenson for her setting and plot, and to Hans Christian Andersen for her treatment of death and spirituality.
Interspersed in the narrative of Spyri's story are frequent lyrical passages. These convey Heidi's over-whelming joy at being alive and at the beauty of the world around her. Light imagery prevails throughout the story, as manifested in the dazzling light of the mountain sunrises, sunsets, and sparkling stars, all of which are admired and described in vivid color and detail. Clara, who has never seen the sky or the stars before, is entranced to be able to watch the heavens from her bed.
Glowing images also celebrate abstract forms of light, such as the light of joy, peace, faith, and understanding. Even the blind grandmother finds that Heidi's exuberance and the hymns she reads "often make it so bright for her that she is quite happy again." The original religious verses that Heidi reads reveal Spyri's poetic talents and convey a deep faith in God that goes beyond any particular denomination. One's heart must be open, however, in order to fully benefit. The doctor, for example, because of the loss of his daughter, has "such a shadow over his eyes that he cannot feel and enjoy the beauty around him, while the heart grows doubly sad knowing how beautiful it could be." Heidi, to ease his pain, reads him one of the grandmother's favorite hymns, reviving him with its message of faith in God.
Beautiful as all this light may be, it seems almost too much at times for the modern reader. The book tends toward hyperbole, with little subtlety of character or theme. Every thought or feeling is explicit. Heidi's delight at the goats, the sunset, the cheese, the flowers, the goats' milk, even the tumbledown house in Dörfli is portrayed in details so descriptive that they overwhelm and almost embarrass the reader:
She rejoiced with all the myriad little beetles and winged insects that jumped and crawled and danced in the sun…. All the tiny living creatures must be as happy as she, for it seemed to her there were little voices all round her singing and humming in joyful tones, 'On the mountain! on the mountain!'
The ending of the book focuses on one smiling face after another, smothering the reader with its overabundance of happiness. This discomfort arises, of course, from more cynical contemporary attitudes in an age when joy and exuberance are distrusted and downplayed. Perhaps the book's lasting appeal comes partly from the very novelty of this unabashed joy and happiness.
Heidi is in many ways a religious book. It espouses no particular dogma but most definitely reflects Spyri's background as a devout Christian. All is controlled by a loving God who knows what is best for his subjects, even when they do not. Prayer is encouraged as the answer to life's troubles and frustrations, and the book teaches that one must remember not only to ask God for help with troubles but also to thank him for blessings. The characters' greatest happiness comes from helping others, thereby dramatizing the golden rule. The book makes clear that forgiveness is always at hand for those who are truly sorry. In addition, the book promotes honesty, humility, and appreciation of nature's beauty.
Heidi is an old-fashioned story, and the solutions to Heidi's problems and concerns may sometimes seem too easy and simplistic to today's readers. But because these characters' problems are universal, the book should prompt discussion of how today's youth can and should deal with similar problems. Certainly the dangers of blindly following public opinion, the need for love, and the necessity of handling disappointment are very real concerns for young people today. Those critics who have accused the book of being outdated, too didactic, too sentimental, or too unrealistic ignore its treatment of concerns that continue to trouble young people of today.
Christine M. Heppermann (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Heppermann, Christine M. "Spyri, Johanna." In Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, p. 623. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
[In the following essay, Heppermann presents a brief biographical overview of Spyri's life and offers a positive assessment of Heidi.]
Johanna Heusser Spyri began writing at age forty-three, donating the proceeds from her short stories to help refugees of the Franco-Prussian War. She went on to write more than forty children's books, but it is her first full-length novel, Heidi, originally published in 1880, translated from German to English in 1884, and rendered in numerous illustrated editions and screen interpretations since, that earned her lasting international renown.
Born in the village of Hirzel, Switzerland, near Zurich, Spyri infused all her writing with her love of the Swiss countryside. Readers experience Heidi's delight in the sound of wind rustling the fir trees outside her grandfather's Alpine hut or in the wildflowers carpeting the higher pastures where the goats graze. What distinguishes Heidi from the rest of Spyri's writing, however, is the character of Heidi herself. Although she plays a role found repeatedly in literature of the period, that of a child reformer whose innate goodness spiritually revives almost everyone she meets, this does not diminish the strength and appeal of her personality. When taken to live with her gruff, reclusive grandfather, called the Alm-Uncle by the villagers who speculate on his reputedly shady past, Heidi shows no fear—only tenacious curiosity, then infectious enthusiasm for his simple way of life.
Critics over the years have found fault with the book's interludes of religion, used, some have said, to resign poverty-stricken characters to their fate. Children apparently overlook these elements, enthralled with the story of a little girl who, they feel, would make a marvelous friend.
Barbara Almond and Richard Almond (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Almond, Barbara, and Richard Almond. "Heidi (Johanna Spyri): The Innocence of the Child as a Therapeutic Force." In The Therapeutic Narrative: Fictional Relationships and the Process of Psychological Change, pp. 125-30. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996.
[In the following essay, Almond and Almond explore how Spyri's Heidi utilizes the pure-spiritedness of its titular character to initiate the psychological and physical recoveries of other characters within the text.]
Heidi is a novel about cures. It has been translated into many languages and has survived as a children's favorite for over a century. Because of its widespread popularity and its emphasis on healing, it is interesting to compare it to some of our previous studies to see what similarities and confirmations it provides.
The psychological story of Heidi is complex; it concerns developments and changes in many characters. Most readers recall best the cure of the little paralyzed girl, Klara Sesemann. Klara's recovery is like Colin's in The Secret Garden, where multiple influences, including that of nature, contribute to the overcoming of developmental blocks. Klara, the only child of a widowed father, presumably fears growing up, and has lapsed into a symptom that makes her passive and helpless as she anticipates puberty.1 Her cure is facilitated by the interweaving of healing relationships and dramatic events—the positive support and encouragement provided by Heidi and Heidi's grandfather, the healthy mountain air, and the jealousy of Peter, the goatherd, who destroys Klara's wheelchair. (Recall how another destructive act—the theft of Silas Marner's gold by Dunstan Cass—also propelled a recovery.) The fabric of mutual aid in Heidi is so like that of The Secret Garden that we will not elaborate it any further. Rather, we note that the story of Heidi lends support to a number of the ideas about therapeutic narrative in The Secret Garden cited in Chapter 7: (1) the relationship of man (or child) to nature and the "natural" (i.e., the core of human experience in the body) is crucial to emotional health; (2) helping others helps oneself; and (3) a dyad, triad, or group may develop a healing ethos. Embedded in Johanna Spyri's main story is a significant subplot, the healing of Uncle Alp, Heidi's reclusive grandfather. We shall depict his cure in this chapter because it is very close to that of Silas Marner and it enhances some of the conclusions of the previous two chapters.
Uncle Alp, the elder of two brothers, had charge of his parents' property, "the finest farm in Domschlag," which he lost through gambling. His parents died of grief, and Alp went to Naples where he was not heard from for fifteen years. When he returned, it was with a half-grown son and the rumor of having killed a man in a brawl. The farmers of Domschlag refused to take father and son in, and Uncle Alp moved to the mountain village of Doerfli where he settled. His son grew up, learned carpentry, and married. Two years later the son was killed by a falling beam; his widow died of grief leaving the infant Heidi orphaned. The Doerfli villagers took this a sign of Uncle Alp's evil nature, and the pastor urged him to repent. Instead, embittered and isolated, Alp took to the Alm (the foothills under the Alps), where he lived alone for some years before the story of Heidi begins.
Like Silas Marner, Uncle Alp is a recluse, occupied only by the routine of everyday life and soothed by the presence of the mountain environment. Alp has sins to account for his self-exile—he is directly or indirectly held responsible for the deaths of his parents, a man he has killed in a fight, his son, and his daughter-in-law. He has not "repented" because, like Silas Marner, he feels he is being held accountable for too much. His behavior was wild, but his intent was not to destroy. To confess to guilt for all these crimes would be to accept himself as worse than he feels he is. Withdrawal to the hut on the Alm, with its beautiful, natural surroundings is his compromise position, akin to Silas Marner's isolation with his loom and his gold.
When Heidi, his five-year-old orphaned grandchild, is thrust upon him by the impatient, uncaring aunt/foster mother, Dete, he reacts resentfully: "'Suppose the child begins to fret and whine for you, as is usually the case with the unreasonable little things, what shall I do with her?'" (p. 15). Dete responds by citing her other responsibilities, and addressing his guilt, "You don't want anything more laid to your charge" (p. 16).
Initially, the grandfather is reserved and gruff, but Heidi's charm, curiosity, and excitement about life begin to soften him. When he seems indifferent to her needs, she provides for herself. He then begins to help her adapt to her new setting. Like Eppie, Heidi is an idealized child, positive and spontaneous. The psychological importance of the loss of her parents is suggested only indirectly, through her sympathy for one of the goats, Schneehöpli, who has just been separated from its mother and is unhappy. In contrast to her grandfather, Heidi has the optimism of a child for whom loss can be repaired. (In reality, a child who had just been dumped unceremoniously with a total stranger would be frightened, depressed, and suspicious. The appeal of Heidi to her young readers must, in part, have to do with her heroic response to such adversity.)
Uncle Alp's depressed state is suggested in their initial encounter: "After Dete had disappeared, the uncle sat down again on the bench and blew great clouds of smoke from his pipe, while he kept his eyes fixed on the ground without saying a word. Meanwhile Heidi was content to look about her" (p. 17).
The beginning of change in Uncle Alp is stimulated by the contrast between his inner state and Heidi's. Heidi looks into the goats' shed and listens to the wind in the fir trees. Then she returns to her grandfather.
When she found him in the same place she had left him, she placed herself in front of him, put her hands behind her, and gazed at him. Her grandfather looked up.
"What do you want to do?" he asked, as the child continued standing in front of him without moving.
"I want to see what you have in the hut," said Heidi.
"Come along, then!" and the grandfather rose and started to go into the hut.
When Heidi asks where she is to sleep, the grandfather says, "Wherever you like." She looks about and climbs a ladder to the hayloft, where she finds a window with a view down into the valley. Announcing that she will sleep here, Heidi demands a sheet, and proceeds to make herself a bed out of hay. When her grandfather comes to look at it, he admires her creation, and adds more hay so that she will not feel the hard floor.
In a series of similar interactions, Heidi arranges the necessities of her new life—a place to eat, a chair to sit on at the table, and a place setting for herself. Heidi's initiative and interest engage her grandfather's help. The grandfather, stimulated by a growing admiration for the child, thinks to himself, "She knows what she sees; her eyes are in the right place." During the night, after Heidi has eaten and gone to sleep, the wind howls, and branches crack off the trees. The grandfather awakens and thinks, "She may be afraid." He climbs the ladder, and sees that Heidi is sleeping peacefully, with a look of happiness on her face. "The grandfather gazed long at the sweetly sleeping child until the moon went behind a cloud again and it was dark. Then he went back to his own bed" (p. 25). From this point we see the same pattern repeated: grandfather's reserve and withdrawal encounter Heidi's unfailing interest, curiosity, and compassion. He responds in kind, becoming a caretaker, first for Heidi, then at Heidi's prompting for Peter the goatherd's family.
Heidi's cheerful appreciativeness provides a yardstick against which Uncle Alp measures his bitterness, cynicism, and depressed withdrawal. The child's lack of expectations, beyond those necessary for her bodily needs, assures him that humans are not what he has come to expect—the representatives of punishment and rejection, the reminders of past disappointments and sins. Heidi simply lives her life—a child, optimistic about the world despite multiple losses of her own. She provides her grandfather with requests that are simple, and free of selfish baggage. She makes no judgments about who her grandfather is, or what he has been in the past.
Uncle Alp does not give up his position of self-exile quickly. He trusts only Heidi, not others. When the parson comes to urge him to move to the village over the winter, for the child's sake, he refuses. He provides for Heidi's need for activity during the shut-in cold months by helping her visit down the mountain with Peter's family, where she becomes attached to Peter's grandmother. This relationship has special meaning to Heidi. She was cared for between one and five by her own grandmother.
In this novel, as in Silas Marner (and many of our examples), it is the helper who is helped. Through aiding Heidi, Uncle Alp begins to care for and trust human company again. When Dete returns after two years to take Heidi to the Sesemanns in Frankfurt, Uncle Alp is resistant, but unable to protect his newfound relationship. In effect, he has enlisted Heidi in his uncivilized, reclusive retreat; hence, he is vulnerable to Dete's worldly plans and threats. When he re linquishes Heidi, he tells Dete never to bring her back. Nevertheless, when, after her long, unhappy sojourn in Frankfurt, Heidi returns, rushing up to him and hugging him, he responds with feeling. "Neither did the grandfather say anything. For the first time in many years his eyes grew moist, and he had to pass his hand over them" (p. 166; italics added). As was the case with Silas Marner, Uncle Alp has had to engage in a new attachment, and experience a new loss, to begin mourning his earlier losses.
Soon after their reunion, Heidi addresses Uncle Alp's outcast position more specifically. While at Frankfurt she has been taught by Klara's grandmother about God, and about trusting in his plan. She conveys this to her grandfather in the following interchange.
"Now I will always pray as the grandmamma told me, and always thank the dear Lord, and if He does not do what I ask, then I will surely think all the same, it will just be as it was in Frankfurt; the dear Lord is planning something much better. But we will pray every day, won't we grandfather? And we will never forget Him, so that the dear Lord may never forget us."
"And if one should do so?" murmured the grandfather.
"Oh, it would not be well for him, for then the dear Lord would forget him, too, and let him go away, and if he should get into trouble and complain, nobody would pity him, but everybody would say: 'He first ran away from the dear Lord; now the dear Lord, who might have helped him, lets him go.'"
"That is true, Heidi; how did you know it?"
"From the grandmamma; she told me all about it."
The grandfather was silent for a while. Then he said to himself, following his own thoughts,
"And if it is so, then it is so; no one can go back, and whomever God has forgotten, He has forgotten."
"Oh, no, grandfather; one can go back; that I know, too from the grandmamma; and then it says so in the beautiful story in my book; but you don't know about that; we are almost home, and you shall see how beautiful the story is."
Heidi then reads her grandfather the parable of the prodigal son. Uncle Alp is deeply moved. When Heidi is asleep, he prays to God for forgiveness and the next morning he takes the child to church. Afterward, he tells the pastor that he will come to the village for the winters, so that Heidi may attend school. With the grandfather restored to human society, the focus of the story moves on to the healing of other characters. Uncle Alp becomes an agent of cure for others. He intuitively recognizes their needs and refashions his retreat on the Alm into a place where health is restored.
We want to flag certain commonalities between Silas Marner and Heidi, because their recurrence suggests that authors are, again, tapping into some universal process or narrative. In both stories, the "patient" is a man in or beyond midlife. The problem is not one of a delay in development, but of a major divergence from a satisfying life course. Each man has fashioned a substitutive existence, in which human relatedness is replaced by some other source of satisfaction, more controllable and predictable. A child enters the scene. The child's simple needs, straightforward communications, and potential lovingness engages the man's otherwise inaccessible capacity for involvement with people, and seems to tap into a hope about starting over that has survived.
In the course of both stories there is a repetition of trauma: in Silas Marner, the loss of the gold; in Heidi, the loss of Heidi herself. In Silas Marner, the second loss is necessary to stir the weaver out of his retreat; in Heidi, the loss seems to release the affect of sad-ness, and the process of mourning for the past. These two reactions are related. In adults, the deficiencies and conflicts engendered by childhood experience do not sit quietly in the psyche waiting for better, corrective experiences to become resolved. If people worked this way, treatment would be a simple matter of supplying what the past has omitted, or providing reassurance that the conflicts of childhood are no longer pertinent. Adults, like our two fictional old men, have formed protective shells of character to immunize themselves from the repetition of injury or the danger of intense feelings. These shells must be opened in the therapeutic process, but in a context that is safe. Furthermore, the inner coating of pain must be acknowledged emotionally as the mourning of past losses, deprivations, and disappointments.
The final step in the process seems to be to help someone else. This can be a part of healing itself, but it is also an external sign and ratification that there has been internal change. Both men in these stories have been selfish—or accused of being so—in youth. Now, through caretaking they show that they have a capacity for altruism, that the positive directionality of their cure has been internalized.
1. A symptom that makes her passive and helpless: See Palmer (1988) for a more thorough discussion of Heidi's appeal to latency-aged girls.
Lois Keith (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Keith, Lois. "The Miracle Cures: Clara in Heidi, by Johanna Spyri and Colin in The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett." In Take up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability, and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls, pp. 95-119. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2001.
[In the following essay, Keith contrasts how Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Spyri's Heidi both use innocent children to enact seemingly miraculous cures for young characters suffering from physical disabilities.]
Let us only place the rising generation, from its cradle up, under the mighty influences of divine nature, so that her intuitive language may penetrate to our children's souls and awaken an echo in them, and mankind will soon be better able to solve the riddles which contain the key of life.
From Child and Child Nature, Baroness Marenholtz Buelow, 1879
Heidi and The Secret Garden are books that celebrate life, the freedom of the spirit and the restorative powers of the open air. In both stories, children learn to thrive in the natural world and the fear of death is renounced. Faith and healing are central to these stories; a straightforward faith in God, combined in The Secret Garden with a less conventional faith in nature and 'Magic'. Closely linked to these ideas is an exploration of punishment for past sins, repentance and the renewal of belief.
Heidi, written by Swiss author Johanna Spyri in 1880, and The Secret Garden, written by American-British writer Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911, come from different countries and different times but they have many elements in common. Written within the European, Protestant tradition, they share ideas about the importance of giving children independence and the freedom to play, and have something to say about old-fashioned attitudes towards children which required them to be kept inside and quiet. Also central to these books, but largely overlooked, is the theme of the tragedy of a child who cannot walk but who is miraculously cured by faith. In both stories healing occurs in the nearly enchanted place where these children have experienced their first taste of freedom. In Heidi it happens in the high pastures of the Swiss Alps and in The Secret Garden in the enclosed, private garden the children have made their own.
Clara in Heidi and Colin in The Secret Garden both learn to walk again when they have learned to have faith. But faith in God on its own is not enough to fulfil the writer's purpose, which is to show that children should not be passive receivers of life but must believe in their own power to change things for the better. When Clara learns to walk again, we are asked to believe that this is the result of two apparently contradictory factors: that God has judged the time to be right for the healing to take place and that Clara, deciding that she no longer wants to be dependent on others, has found the energy to take matters into her own hands. In the words of Heidi's grandfather she has 'made the effort and won the day.'
The Secret Garden, published 31 years after Heidi, also deals centrally with faith and healing but in this book 'faith' is more complicated than a simple belief in the all-seeing, all-knowing power of God. In The Secret Garden, the psychological dimension is more important than the religious one. Trust and belief in God are largely replaced with confidence in the self. Colin cannot walk because he is literally paralysed by fear and believes that he is being punished in some way. When he learns to take control of his own life and learns how to love himself then he too can miraculously walk again.
For child readers this provides the standard, expected happy ending. For critics and commentators, the issue of walking/not walking in these novels is most often understood as merely a symbolic representation of the psychological or spiritual healing of unhappy children—children who are orphaned, unloved and with too many adult-imposed restrictions on their lives. In such a reading, illness and the eventual cure of the disabled child are not recognised as significant issues in themselves but as the metaphorical equivalent of sadness, powerlessness and dependency. Such a reading of Heidi gives Clara to us as a motherless girl, loved by her Grandmamma and her father but locked in the dark, unnatural world of the town. She lives in the city of Frankfurt, surrounded by bricks and mortar in a place where one can hardly see the sky. Her illness makes her passive and excludes her from the possibility of rebellion and misrule, and in this sense she is more like Beth March and Helen Burns than Katy and Pollyanna. But Johanna Spyri's motive is healing and redemption, so Clara must be made whole.
Clara accepts the idea of an all-seeing, all-knowing God although she does not understand why He has chosen to afflict her in this way. When she makes the journey to Heidi's home high up in the Alps and is surrounded by the beauty of Creation, she is able to feel God's purpose and finds the will to walk. Her walking, along with the symbolic destruction of the wheelchair by the jealous goat-herd, means that when Clara stands on her own two feet she is for the first time truly herself. Her healing plays a part in restoring religious faith to the previously errant grandfather. It teaches the reader to understand that God always knows what is best even though we may not understand His reasons, and it gives Heidi the role frequently allocated to the orphaned, previously homeless heroine—the power to bring light where hitherto there has been darkness.
A similar reading of The Secret Garden would include an understanding of Colin's first steps and the regaining of his physical strength as a throwing off of his earlier negative and destructive self-image. The literal key to the garden found by Mary at the beginning of the book becomes the symbolic key which unlocks Colin's belief in himself. In bringing the dead, dark garden to life, the children discover their own Arcadia and in watching the plants grow, they too grow and blossom into happy, healthy, plump children full of life and energy. Colin's walking is a result of faith in himself and faith in others.
A modern reading of The Secret Garden also includes a psycho-sexual interpretation, as shown by the reviews of Agnieszka Holland's 1993 film version of the book. The clearing of the garden and the growth of the flowers from bud to full bloom is thus symbolic of the ten-year-old children's developing sexuality. Colin's walking and his relationship with Mary is seen, not just as a co-operative friendship between two lonely children but also as a sign of their sexual development. As Colin learns to walk he becomes physically and mentally stronger and can leave behind the dependence of childhood. The final image of him running forward to meet his estranged father shows him upright and, more than just a boy, ready to enter adulthood.
Of course in life, both these writers would have known real, disabled children quite unable to throw away their wheelchairs (if they were rich enough to have one) and be cured by faith. Frances Hodgson Burnett had extensive dealings with 'crippled' children and adults. Her first husband was frequently described as 'lame' and her cousin's son, Willie Daniels, was disabled by an incurable hip disease. (In her divorce proceedings her husband was described as 'less than ordinary stature and a cripple', whilst she was 'of pleasing appearance and much personal magnetism'.) She worked closely with a charity called Invalid Children's Aid and in an article published by Scribner's Magazine wrote of the prevalence of spinal and hip diseases among the poor children of London; of sick children lying on dirty boards under rough sacking and of crippled children, fed on dry bread, unable to play, unable to move and with nothing to do.1 In her later books there are a large number of crippled children, and she seems to have had a particular fascination for 'hunchbacks'.
Less is known about the life of Johanna Spyri, but paralysing illnesses were common in this period and it is unlikely that she did not know some disabled children who were not able to be cured either by medical knowledge or by religious belief.
Fiction for children that relies upon the miraculously walking child for its happy ending transmits a number of messages beyond the obvious one of fulfilling the reader's expectations. Perhaps the most important of these is that children who cannot walk are to be pitied and cared for but they can never be accepted. In order for them to live into adulthood, they must be cured. An ending where the non-walking protagonist is reconciled to her or his impairment and loved and accepted by all around is not seen as a possibility and writers, readers and film-makers still find it difficult to comprehend a story which ends without the lame person walking and a symbolic discarding of the wheelchair. 'Overcoming' stories, whether from fiction or life, have the important role of lessening the fear that disability holds for people. They assure the world that normal is right, to be desired and aspired to.2
As discussed in Chapter 1, another message from these stories is that faith, whether in God, nature or self, has the ability to produce cure. The healing miracles of the New Testament were based on an absolute and unquestioning faith and this formed a social and moral code in Protestant countries which continued throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries. But there was always another dimension to 'faith'; what might now be called 'mind over matter' or the 'power of positive thinking'. This belief in human ability to change events by the force of our will can be traced as far back as Virgil and the Aeneid (30-19 B.C.): 'mens agit molem'—mind moves matter. In the eighteenth century it was the subject of an entire system of philosophy when Bishop George Berkely wrote that nothing in the world exists unless it is perceived in the human mind. Even in the most all-inclusive forms of Christian teaching and in all but the most authoritarian of Victorian moral tales, children needed to be taught that they had some power to change the circumstances of their lives.
The relationship between the power of God to decide what is best and the power of the child to change the circumstances of her or his own life by positive thinking or self-will formed two halves of the developing and changing ideas about childhood in the period in which these books were written. Absolute faith in God, and in Christ as the face of God on earth, was an essential part of the teaching of Christian children, but they also needed some measure of self-reliance in order to cope with the increasing demands made upon them. The developing, post-Calvinist view of the child as an organic whole who needed to be loved, nurtured and developed into an independent being, capable of making her or his own decisions, required a child who was fully engaged with life. The passive, unquestioning, invalid child would either remain an invalid or, like Helen Burns and Beth March, would die. Both these options were unacceptable endings for the central character of a story. If their faith was energetic enough, they could be cured.
Little is known about Heidi 's author Johanna Spyri. She was born in 1827 in the hamlet of Hirzl near Zurich and was sent to the village school, which she hated. The foreword to the sequel Heidi Grows Up, produced by her translator, Charles Tritten, and published by Collins in 1958, suggests that perhaps Spyri's teacher mistook her shyness for inattentiveness and humiliated her before her class for being dull, but whatever the reason, some of her ideas about how children suffer and fail to learn when they are locked up in schools or in the hands of foolish tutors inform the story of Heidi.
As a child, Spyri spent time in the high village of Maienfeld, where she played in the upland pastures and lunched at the herdsman's hut, and these happy memories find their place in Heidi's high playground above the fictional village of Dorfli. Spyri didn't begin to write until she was in her forties, apparently in order to help the refugees from the Franco-Prussian War who were flooding into Switzerland. Like most of the writers discussed in this book, her literary output was enormous—she wrote more than 50 books for adults and children, but it is only for Heidi that she is remembered today.
Heidi was first published under the strikingly long title of Lehr und Wanderjahre: eine Geschichte fuer kinde und auch fuer solche welche die Kinde lieb haben. It came out in England in 1884 and was an immediate success. Anne Thwaite, in her biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett, notes that in the year that it was published Heidi (together with Treasure Island), was listed as the bestselling novel of the year.3 There were no specialist lists for children at this time so it is safe to assume that like The Secret Garden, Heidi was first read and enjoyed by both adults and children. Heidi has remained an international bestseller. There are currently many editions: abbreviated, illustrated, paperback and large glossy hardbacks. Heidi has been televised, serialised and filmed (video copies of the 1937 version starring Shirley Temple are now a collectors' item). Switzerland Tourism organise trips to 'Heidi Village' where you can visit 'The Original Heidi's House', and tourists and fans are tempted by the possibility of taking photos 'with Heidi sitting at her table' or lying on the bed 'where Heidi slept'.
Heidi holds its own because its central character is good-natured and kind and the story is never dull. But perhaps the most important reason it has endured is its extraordinary evocation of place. Elizabeth En-right writes in her 1950s article 'At 75, Heidi Still Skips Along':
And over and above the action of the characters tower those other mighty characters, the mountains, with their fiery snowfields and high pastures all jeweled with rock roses and gentians. For a child who has never seen it, a new land is created: high, airy, exciting. His inward ear can hear the world of air and brooks; his imagination's eye can scan the deeps or see the eagle in the air.4
On Heidi's first day in the mountains with her grandfather, everything delights her: the clean spare hut with a place for everything, her cosy bed in the hayloft where she can lie looking out of a round window and see right down the valley, the shrill whistle which means that grandfather's two goats are home and best of all the delicious meal of golden toasted cheese, bread and fresh milk drunk from a round bowl. As Elizabeth Enright comments, many a child has developed a taste for bread and cheese after reading this book! The next morning Heidi roams the mountain with Peter and the goats and is amazed at the colours and the beauty. That night when she sees her first sunset, she thinks that the rocks are on fire and is amazed at the beautiful, crimson snow. She feels a complete sense of happiness in her new home.
Like the goats and the birds, the flowers and the insects, Johanna Spyri's child is a part of nature. Heidi gambols around like a little strong, brown goat, she eats good, simple food and grows and blossoms like the flowers. The Puritan idea of the child as a soul to be saved or damned was losing its power by this time and thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), had begun to develop ideas about the naturalness and simplicity of children. Children were unspoiled until adults made them so and in order to grow into the ideal adult, they needed a childhood in which they could develop a body which was strong and active and a mind unclouded with prejudice.
It was Rousseau's follower Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), a student of the Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), who developed the idea of the child as an organism like any other natural species. Childhood was a process, and the organic child needed to grow and develop naturally through action and play. Froebel first proposed the idea of schools for very young children, places which would nurture and develop the young. He called them 'Kindergartens', literally children's gar dens, also known as nurseries. His disciple, Baroness Marenholtz Bulow, urged that every child should be given a garden of his or her own:
To be a child who has never called a piece of ground his own, has never tilled it with the sweat of its brow, has never expended its fostering love on plants and animals, there will always be a gap in the development of the soul, and it will be difficult for that child to attain the capacity for human nurture in a comprehensive sense.5
This became a central idea in both Heidi and Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Secret Garden.
Juliet Dusinberre argues that the insistence of Froebel's followers on the need for more understanding of the child's nature generated a new insight into the relation between mind and body in the healthy child:
Johanna Spyri's emphasis in Heidi on the health-giving properties of the mountain air and fresh milk for the invalid goes hand in hand with the belief that Clara began to walk because when she fed the goats she experienced the pleasures of independence, of caring for something else rather than always being cared for.6
The assumption here is, of course, that there can only be an independent mind where there is a healthy body.
Like many other books of this period, and this includes The Secret Garden, Heidi starts with a journey. Orphaned Heidi is being taken up the mountain by her cousin Dete to live with her grandfather, who is nicknamed 'Alm Uncle'. On the way, Heidi sheds her clothes one by one, shedding the old life where she was neither wanted or loved. Heidi is a homeless child in search of a home. Unusually for such books she is still a little child, only five years old, but her intelligence and spirit make her seem older. On the first day, her grandfather realises that she has taken exact note of where everything goes so that she will remember and be able to help. With her 'loving little heart' she will eventually bring comfort and cheer wherever she goes, even to Peter the goat-herd's blind grandmother, who has not known any joy for a long time.7
Heidi's grandfather does not at first sight seem the ideal surrogate parent, living alone at the top of a mountain, isolated and bad tempered. He has not led a good life and for this he has been exiled. In his youth he played the grand gentleman and went around the country drinking and mixing with bad company. He drank and gambled away the whole of his property, reducing his brother to beggary. His parents died of sorrow, one shortly after the other. His young wife died soon after their marriage and although his son Tobias grew up to be a steady young man and married, he died when a beam fell on him as he worked. When his wife Adelaide saw 'the poor disfigured body', she fell into a fever from which she never recovered. Their orphaned daughter Heidi was looked after by an aunt and her older cousin, Dete.
In Old Testament style, the general opinion is that these disasters were the punishment he deserved for the godless life he led. A minister exhorted him to repentance 'but the old man grew only more wrathful and obdurate and would not speak to a soul'. He went up the Alm and lived the life of a near hermit.
The belief in punishment for past sins was an important part of the unforgiving and Calvinistic approach to Protestantism. The villagers of Dorfli seem to have taken on a literal interpretation of the second commandment in the book of Exodus—'For I thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.' The 'Alm Uncle' seems to accept the view that his sins have caused the death of those he (presumably) loved and has turned his back on religion. Heidi's gentler, more forgiving New Testament Christianity, taught to her by Clara's grandmother during her stay in Frankfurt, sets an example which eventually reconciles grandfather to God and man.
From the beginning grandfather is 'not himself' in his behaviour towards Heidi, but is always kind and gentle towards her. She, in turn, begins to grow 'so strong and healthy that nothing ever ailed her'. She spends every day with Peter on the mountains tending the goats and does not go to school as her grandfather is frightened that she may have inherited her mother's nervous disposition. Despite his attitude to the rest of the world, he understands what Heidi needs to be happy. He takes care that she does not get cold in the winter or go hungry. He worries whether she will be scared by the howling winds around the hut and when he looks at her in her hay-loft, 'her cheeks rosy with sleep, her head peacefully resting on her little round arm, and with a happy expression on her baby face as if dreaming of something pleasant', he cannot help but love her and want to protect her.
Into this paradise, nasty cousin Dete returns and virtually kidnaps Heidi. She is now eight years old and Dete has found a position for her in Frankfurt which will impress her own wealthy employers. The position is as companion to sickly Clara, who is first described to us in these conventional terms:
An only daughter, young and an invalid, who was always obliged to go about in a wheeled chair, and was therefore very much alone and had no-one to share her lessons so the little girl felt dull.
Grandfather is furious at this proposal and, shouting at Dete to be gone, he storms out of the hut. Heidi is tricked into believing that she will be allowed to return to the Alm as soon as she wants and is whisked away from her beloved mountain.
Clara, whom she meets the next day, is the typical storybook invalid, lying on her couch all day, occasionally wheeled from room to room. She has a thin, pale face and soft blue eyes and is both patient and passive. Although Clara is a kind and generous girl, some years older than Heidi, she is rather dull and it is only her sickness which makes her interesting. She is too sensible and ordinary to be a fully fledged romantic invalid like cousin Helen in What Katy Did. Clara, too, is motherless and her father Herr Sessemann, like other fictional fathers, is a good, kind man but often away on business. Unlike the poor crippled children described in Frances Hodgson Burnett's articles who were hidden away in bare institutions or lived in dirt and near starvation, Clara is the kind of wealthy invalid who was tolerated and protected, even loved. She is, like other fictitious invalids, confined within her house, her 'weakness' making it impossible for her to be independent or venture out. She has a 'long illness' which requires her to have extensive periods of rest, and her doctor has very little hope of her final recovery. Again, the vagueness of the unspecified illness allows the possibility that it is 'in the mind' and can therefore be reversed.
Although Clara tries to be a good friend to Heidi, her stay in Frankfurt is a period of great unhappiness for her. Like all the really good children's writers of this time, Spyri has a deep, instinctive understanding of what makes children unhappy or scared and how they react when they have no one who listens to them. Fraulein Rottenmeier, the acerbic housekeeper, is the foolish and small-minded villain of the piece. She has old-fashioned ideas about children, believing that they should be quiet, grateful and still. Punctuality and neatness are what is important. Emotions, if children must have them, are best kept hidden and tears must be swallowed. Heidi, unusually in literature of the period, is not a middle-class child and does not understand the ways of the town or the hierarchy of servants and masters within the grand house. Without meaning to, she creates chaos. She wanders out of the house and gets lost, misses meals, doesn't understand the rules. When an organ boy she has met brings a bundle of kittens to the house, Fraulein Rottenmeier calls her an utter barbarian and threatens to lock her in the cellar with the rats and black beetles.
With painful accuracy, Johanna Spyri describes what happens to a homesick, desperately unhappy child who learns to lock all her feelings inside her so that no one perceives her sorrow. She now becomes the metaphorical bird locked in the cage. When she tries to catch a glimpse of the sky she can see nothing but walls, windows and stony streets. Heidi longs for her grandfather and the beautiful mountains, but as the seasons pass and it becomes spring once more, she realises that she has been lied to and cannot choose to go home. People are kind to her and she does not wish to seem ungrateful to Clara (who despite her kind, patient, invalid status seems quite unable to perceive Heidi's troubles) or to the good Frau Sessemann, Clara's 'Grandmamma'. Her secret feelings stay locked inside her, but when 'the weight of trouble on her little heart grew heavier and heavier, she could no longer eat her food and every day she grew a little paler'.
One of the purposes of this long, unhappy time is to develop Heidi's (and, by implication, the reader's) faith in God. She has not been brought up with any religion and has never been taught how to pray. Grandmamma Sessemann, on her visit to Frankfurt, gives Heidi beautiful picture books and through these Bible stories, she learns how to read and speak to God:
Dear child, let me tell you what to do: you know that when we are in great trouble, and cannot speak about it to anybody, we must turn to God and pray to Him to help, for He can deliver us from every care that oppresses us. You understand that, do you not?
When Heidi tells her that she is not used to praying, Grandmamma explains that this is the reason she is so unhappy. If she prays to God and tells him her troubles, 'He can help us and give us everything that will make us happy again.'
So, Heidi enthusiastically prays to be allowed to go home to her grandfather, but when she finds that her prayers are not answered, her eyes begin to look sad again and she stops telling God her troubles. Now Heidi is introduced to the moral and religious idea of 'God's plan'. Grandmamma explains that God will give Heidi her wishes but only when He judges the time to be right. He cannot give her everything she wants right now because she may later come to realise that it was not the best time for her to have it:
He thought it was better for you not to have at once what you wanted, He said to Himself: Yes, Heidi shall have what she asks for, but not until the right time comes, so that she may be quite happy.
Despite all this teaching, it is psychological rather than religious reasons which eventually bring Heidi home. She begins to sleepwalk, terrifying the whole household who believe that the unlocked front door each morning means that there must be a ghost. One night Herr Sessemann and his friend the doctor stay up to find out and are astonished to see the tiny white figure of Heidi in the open doorway, trembling from head to foot. The doctor sees how ill she has become. Like her mother before her, she has 'over excited nerves' which pills and powders will not cure. When he asks her the questions that should have been asked long ago, she tells the doctor how Fraulein Rottenmeier forbade her to cry and how all her feelings have been kept inside her, so that she has felt as if a great stone is weighing on her heart. Dramatically, the doctor announces to Herr Sessemann that unless she is sent back to the mountain air immediately, she may not go back at all.
So begins the second half of the book, of which the most significant element is healing. Heidi is healed the moment she is back in the mountains; the grandfather is healed by repentance of past transgression and makes his peace with God and man; the doctor is healed of a broken heart at the death of his beloved daughter and, most important of all, Clara is healed and learns to walk again. Heidi's 'loving heart', the landscape of natural beauty and the realisation of 'God's Plan' are the significant elements in this restoration.
Clara's visit takes longer than planned—she has had a 'bad attack, although she bore it so patiently', but eventually she is brought up the mountain in a sedan chair. She arrives in May, the time of growth and rebirth.8 The last snows have disappeared and the colours of the flowers are starting to show. Like cousin Helen in What Katy Did, Clara brings with her the thoughtful gifts of the wealthy invalid—everyone from Peter's grandmother to Heidi herself is presented with expensive, loving presents.
The reader has received several hints concerning the forthcoming healing. Clara's letter announcing her arrival tells Heidi of the doctor's words, 'no-one can help getting well up there', and when Heidi visits Peter's grandmother to give her this news, she is asked to read aloud a little hymn:
All things will work for good
To those who trust in Me;
I come with healing on my wings,
To save and set thee free.
To Heidi, healing means 'that which cures everything and makes everything well', and grandmother confirms that 'everything will come to pass according to God's good purpose'.
From the minute of her arrival, Clara is entranced by all the beauty around her. Almost her first words are 'if only I could walk about with you … if I could but go and look at the fir trees and at everything'. She longs to join Heidi on the higher slopes where she could see for herself the flowers and the smells Heidi describes: the red centaury, the bluebell flowers, and the bright yellow rock roses. Her 'cure' happens when she has been in the mountains for three weeks. Grandmamma has left and Clara is being nursed by the Alm Uncle who is surprisingly good at it, having nursed his own captain who had been 'crippled' fighting in Sicily. He takes care of all Clara's needs with gentle care, although of course, since this is a nineteenth-century novel, we are not told any details of what this personal care might be. Although described as a child or a 'little daughter', she is actually about 14 years old, the crucial transitional age between being a girl and being a woman. But in her invalid state she is forever the child and it is appropriate to think of the grandfather attending her 'as if his chief calling had been to look upon sick children'. She will not be on the path to young womanhood until she is made whole by walking.
Clara's health begins to improve almost from her first breath of mountain air. At her first lunch in the mountains she takes a second helping of golden toasted cheese and many references are made after this to her increased appetite. At the end of her first day, Clara lies with Heidi on the soft bed in the hayloft and exclaims in delight, 'Heidi, it's just as if we were in a high carriage and were going to drive straight into heaven.' This encourages Heidi to deliver a little religious homily in which she tries to explain that seemingly insoluble problem of why people need to pray if God has the future already planned. She tells Clara, 'We must never forget to pray, and to ask God to remember us when He is arranging things so that we too may feel safe and have no anxiety about what is going to happen.'
The 'high life-giving mountain air' gives Clara new energy and she wants to stay for ever in this 'great stillness' and beauty. She is almost at the end of her visit before grandfather names the possibility of her walking: 'Won't the little daughter try if she can stand for a minute or two?' Clara attempts to please him, but without success, and she has to content herself with listening to Heidi's descriptions of the flowers she cannot see for herself and the wonderful light from the evening sun. When Heidi begs her grandfather to push Clara's wheelchair up the mountain so that they can be with the goats, again he coaxes her with the reply that he will: 'But if I do, the little daughter must do something to please me: she must try her best again this evening to stand on her feet.'
Somehow, everyone has failed to notice the growing jealousy of Peter the goat-herd. Until Clara's arrival, Peter, who is poor, not very bright and often abused by the adults around him, has enjoyed having Heidi as his special friend. He bitterly resents Clara and cannot bear the thought that for the first time that summer (we seem to have gone from early spring to full summer in three weeks) Heidi will not be exploring the mountain but sticking by Clara's side all day long and ignoring him. Ironically, since all through the book the weak and passive Clara has been presented as someone to be pitied, Clara's wheelchair is to Peter both a symbol of her wealth and superiority and an indispensable part of her ability to stay on the mountain. When he sees it standing ready outside the hut, waiting for Clara to be lifted into it, he regards it as a powerful enemy and thinks that with it gone, Clara will have to go back home: 'There stood the chair on its high wheels; Peter seemed to see something proud and disdainful about it, and he glared at it as at an enemy that had done him harm and was likely to do him more still today.' In a furious temper, he hurls the wheelchair down the mountain and hiding behind a bush, he watches it racing faster and faster down the hill until it smashes into a hundred pieces. He is sure that 'Heidi's friend would be obliged to go away, for she would have no means of going about'. Heidi will be free to come out with him again and everything will be all right. But as Johanna Spyri cannot help but remind the reader, 'Peter did not consider, or did not know, that when we do a wrong thing trouble is sure to follow.' As a moral lesson, Peter's plan is foiled in all respects. He suffers several days of panicky fear and is eventually found out, and Clara is not sent home and is carried onto the high slopes by grandfather, where she will have the best day of her life.
The mountain pastures where the girls are taken becomes their garden of Paradise; nature is at its most perfect. The snowfield sparkles as if set with thou-sands of gold and silver stars, the sky is dark blue, the mountains lift their lofty heads and the great bird is poised aloft. They are at the top of the world, almost in heaven. As in the parallel scene in The Secret Garden, there are no authoritative adults around to limit them in their desires. What time or place could be more perfect for a miracle? Clara, sitting alone for a few moments feeding one of grandfather's little goats, feels something akin to a religious vision. The vision is for her own future as an independent young woman:
She suddenly felt a great desire to be her own mistress and to be able to help others, instead of herself always being dependent as she was now. Many thoughts unknown to her before, came crowding into her mind and a longing to go on living in the sunshine, and to be doing something that would bring happiness to another, as now she was helping to make the goat happy.
Whilst Clara is thinking about the kind of woman she hopes to become, Heidi is planning ways to help Clara see the flowers beyond her reach. In vain, she tries to help Clara onto her feet, but Heidi is too small and Peter too stiff to support her weight. Then, with Heidi's encouragement, Clara finds that with determination to go beyond her pain, she is able to do it alone. Suddenly and miraculously, she finds that she can 'take up her bed and walk':
And Clara went on putting one foot out in front of another until all at once she called out, 'I can do it, Heidi! Look! Look! I can make proper steps.'
Heidi can think of no greater joy than for Clara to walk about and not have to be pushed around in a chair. Clara agrees, 'for she could think of no greater pleasure in the world than to be strong and able to go around like other people, and no longer have to lie from day to day in her invalid chair'.
Although there are a few further references to not tiring herself and leaning on grandfather's arm for support, it is clear that we are to understand those first few steps not as the beginning of a long journey towards health and recovery, but as a sudden and miraculous healing. Sitting at the top of the mountain only moments later, Heidi 'suddenly remembers that Clara was cured; that was the crowning delight of all that made life so delightful in the midst of all this surrounding beauty'.
When grandfather goes to fetch the children from the mountain and hears from Heidi what happened that morning, his first words to Clara are, 'So we've made the effort, have we, and won the day!' His first response is that Clara has walked because she found the energy and will to do so. But to this idea is added another more weighty one: that her healing is a 'blessing bestowed by God'. Later that night, in the second of her homilies to Clara, Heidi explains that God has now shown why he did not answer Heidi's prayers to take her away from Frankfurt. If she had left when she wanted to, Clara would never have come to Switzerland and if this had been the case, she would never have got well. Heidi explains that He 'always intends something better for us than we know or wish for', and that people must always continue to pray just to show that we 'have faith in God to make everything alright in the end'.
The absolute power of God to decide what is best and the power of the individual to change the circumstances of her or his own life by acts of self-will or the 'power of positive thinking' are two quite separate views of life, but they highlight the delicate balance between dependence and independence for the Victorian girl as she approached womanhood. On the one hand the invalid (in-valid, not worthy, not real) could provide a role model for the Victorian ideal of the woman as self-sacrificing, passive and dependent on others, and this could be symbolically represented through the character confined to bed, or in a 'wheeled chair', unable to walk and accepting the will of God. On the other hand, this was an inadequate representation of the Victorian ideal for womanhood which also required her to be domestically active, vibrant, not only in charge of the hearth and home and acting as moral guide for her husband and children, but also going outwards to engage in good works for those less fortunate, someone like that most perfect of perfect mothers, Marmee in Little Women.
The 'poor little, white, sickly, Clara' of the earlier chapters in Heidi would not be able to grow into an adult upon whom there would be many demands and responsibilities. Like Marmee or Clara's own indomitable grandmother Frau Sessemann, the middle-class woman of the day needed tremendous resources, skills and energy to run their domestic empires. They had to supervise the servants, run the house, make endless decisions about domestic matters, be financial managers, supervise the religious guidance of their own children, obey their husbands and use their powers to minister good and transform the lives of others. Since the Victorian woman needed to be both a passive believer in the divine right of God (and men) and a person who did not always accept fate but could make things happen by her own acts of will, it was possible, indeed desirable to hold two apparently contradictory beliefs at the same time.
Clara, like Katy Carr before her, walks when God has judged the time to be right for her to stand on her own two feet and she has 'made the effort and won the day'. When Clara walks again she metaphorically steps into her dead mother's shoes. Tears spring into Herr Sessemann's eyes when, seeing his 'new' daughter for the first time, he finds in her the image of his departed wife: 'Just so had Clara's mother looked, the fair-haired girl with the delicate pink-and-white complexion.' Like 15-year-old Katy Carr who comes downstairs on her dead mother's birthday in order to take up her rightful place, 14-year-old Clara is now well on the way to leaving behind the dependence of childhood and becoming the 'Heart of the House' in Frankfurt.
Heidi is an important book which has had a powerful effect on generations of readers. Its ending is entirely happy and positive. Clara's pleasure at her new-found independence, the joy of her grandmother, father and the doctor when they visit her and unexpectedly discover her complete cure, the Alm Uncle's religious transformation, Clara and Heidi's lasting friendship and over and above the continuing beauty and magic of the place all add to its enchantment. On readers who themselves cannot walk, its effect is curious. One story which I think is quite common, particularly for those disabled children who spent large portions of their childhood separated from the rest of the world in 'special' schools, was told to me by a woman who, like Clara, used a wheelchair as a child. Heidi was a favourite book, she loved the story and the strong sense of place and believed that like Clara, she would walk before she reached adulthood. Since neither literature nor life had given her images of the independently minded non-walking adult, she too waited and longed for God's divine blessing to be visited upon her. As an adult she is no longer waiting and has instead become an active campaigner in civil rights for disabled people. A dream story came from a different disabled child, also a fan of Heidi and also a wheelchair user, who was taken on holiday to Switzerland when she was nine. Having looked forward to visiting the mountains, once there she began to have a series of panicky nightmares in which her legs developed a life of their own and would run away from her with her body still attached. Usually she woke in terror with the image of her legs running off down the mountain. Sometimes in the dream she could exert feelings of control and self-preservation by imagining that she chopped off her legs and let them run away by themselves, leaving behind her body, the 'real' part of herself.
When Peter dramatically hurls Clara's wheelchair down the mountain in a fury, he unwittingly becomes the instigator of her cure. Along with him, we watch the wheelchair turning and spinning, rolling over and over to its complete destruction. The wheelchair is the cage, not the liberator. Sitting alone in the wide open space of the mountains, free from the shackles of her wheelchair, Clara is not panicked by the thought of what will happen to her if nobody comes to fetch her, but for the first time contemplates the possibility that she can change her own life. The wheelchair, not the nameless illness, is the symbol of her dependency and once it is gone, she is able to set herself 'free'.
1. Anne Thwaite, Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Virago, London, 1974, p. 137.
2. Jenny Morris, Pride against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability, The Women's Press, London, 1991, p. 101.
3. Anne Thwaite, Waiting for the Party, p. 95. The British Library catalogue lists almost 50 English-language editions of Heidi.
4. Elizabeth Enright, 'At 75, Heidi Still Skips Along', in Virginia Haviland, ed., Children and Literature—Views and Reviews, The Bodley Head, London, 1973, p. 79.
5. Baroness Marenholtz Buelow, Child and Child Nature, translated by Alice M. Christie, W. Swann Sonnenschein, London, 1879, p. 32.
6. Juliet Dusinberre, Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art, Macmillan, London, 1978, p. 18.
7. Heidi is the only novel discussed in this book which English-speaking readers know through translation. For this chapter I have used the edition I read as a child (Regent Classics, Thames Publishing Co., J. M. Dent and Sons). The Puffin edition, translated in 1956, seems linguistically more feeble, less true to the sometimes stern mid-nineteenth century Protestant outlook. Clara's grand but benevolent 'Grandmamma' becomes the housewifely 'Mrs Sessemann', Heidi's grandfather, known everywhere as 'the Alm Uncle' becomes 'Uncle Alp.' Clara is no longer 'crippled', the word used by all Victo-rian novelists to describe the state of not being able to walk, but 'an invalid'. Clara's 'miraculous walking' is dissipated into the mild 'something attempted, something won' rather than grandfather's strong affirmation of self-will: 'You have made the effort and won the day.'
8. Both Clara and cousin Helen in What Katy Did travel in search of a cure. Both go to take waters, Clara at the town of Ragatz, which is still open.
Bauermeister, Erica, and Holly Smith. Review of Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, illustrated by Cecil Leslie. In Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Girls 2-14, p. 145. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1997.
Brief critical overview of Heidi.
Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. "Heidi." In Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, pp. 243-44. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Summary of Heidi's characters, plotlines, and publishing history.
Eaton, Anne. "A Broader Field: A Swiss Alp." In A Critical History of Children's Literature, edited by Cornelia Meigs, p. 191. New York, N.Y.: Macmillan Company, 1953.
Attempts to explain the enduring popularity of Heidi as a work of children's literature.
Hunt, Peter. "Heidi." In Children's Literature, p. 179. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
Offers a brief critical examination of Heidi.
Usrey, Malcolm. "Johanna Spyri's Heidi: The Conversion of a Byronic Hero." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 232-42. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1985.
Characterizes Heidi as a groundbreaking, though subtle, evolution from standard Victorian children's texts.
Additional coverage of Spyri's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 13; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 137; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vols. 19, 100; and Writers for Children.