Spyri, Johanna (1827–1901)

views updated

Spyri, Johanna (1827–1901)

Swiss author who changed the course of children's literature for Switzerland and the world with her book Heidi. Name variations: nicknamed "Hanni" and "Hanneli"; first name also spelled Joanna. Pronunciation: Spee-REE. Born Johanna Heusser on July 12, 1827, in Hirzel, Switzerland; died on July 7, 1901, in Zurich; daughter of Dr. Johann Jakob Heusser and Meta (Schweizer) Heusser; aunt of Emily Kempin Spyri (1853–1901, who was the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate of law degree, though she was prohibited because of her gender from practicing law); married Bernhard Spyri, in 1852; children: one son, Bernhard Diethelm Spyri.

Selected writings:

Heidi (1880, trans. from the German by Helen B. Dole and published as Heidi: A Story for Children and Those That Love Children, Ginn, 1899 [other editions illus. by Maginel Wright , Rand McNally, 1921; Jessie Willcox Smith , McKay, 1922; Gustaf Tenggren, Houghton, 1923; Dorothy Lake Gregory and Milo Winter, Rand McNally, 1925; Marguerite Davis, Ginn, 1927; Maud and Miska Petersham, Garden City, 1932; Hildegarde Woodward, Appleton-Century, 1935; Charles Mozley, F. Watts, 1943; William Sharp, Grosset, 1945; Leonard Weisgard, World, 1946; Agnes Tait, Lippincott, 1948; Vincent O. Cohen, Dutton, 1952; Jenny Thorne, Purnell, 1975; another edition with illustrations from the film starring Shirley Temple, Saalfield, 1937]); Red-Letter Stories (trans. from the German by Lucy Wheelock, Lothrop, 1884); Rico and Wiseli (trans. from the German by Louise Brooks, De Wolfe, Fiske, 1885); Uncle Titus (trans. from the German by L. Wheelock, Lothrop, 1886); Grittli's Children (trans. of Gritlis Kinder by L. Brooks, Cupples & Hurd, 1887); In Safe Keeping (trans. from the German by L. Wheelock, Blackie & Son, 1896); Einer vom Hause Lesa (F.A. Perthes, Gotha, Germany, 1898); Schloss Wildenstein (F.A. Perthes, 1900); Aus dem Leben (C.E. Mueller, Halle, Germany, 1902); Dorris and Her Mountain Home (trans. from the German by Mary E. Ireland, Presbyterian Committee, 1902); Moni the Goat Boy, and Other Stories (trans. of Moni der Geissbub by Edith F. King, Ginn, 1906); Heimatlos (trans. from the German by Emma Stetler Hopkins; illus. by Frederick Richardson, Ginn, 1912); Chel: A Story of the Swiss Mountains (trans. from the German by Helene H. Boll, Eaton & Mains, 1913); The Rose Child (trans. from the German by Helen B. Dole, Crowell, 1916); What Sami Sings with the Birds (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1917); Little Miss Grasshopper (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1918); Little Curly Head: The Pet Lamb (trans. of Beim Weiden-Joseph by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1919, published as The Pet Lamb, and Other Swiss Stories, Dutton, 1956); Cornelli (trans. from the German by E.P. Stork; illus. by Maria L. Kirk, Lippincott, 1920); Toni: The Little Wood-Carver (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1920); Erick and Sally (trans. from the German by H.H. Boll, Beacon Press, 1921); Maezli: A Story of the Swiss Valleys (trans. from the German by E.P. Stork; illus. by M.L. Kirk, Lippincott, 1921); Tiss: A Little Alpine Waif (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole; illus. by George Carlson, Crowell, 1921); Trini: The Little Strawberry Girl (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole; illus. by G. Carlson, Crowell, 1922); Jo: The Little Machinist (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1923); Vinzi: A Story of the Swiss Alps (trans. from the German by E.P. Stork; illus. by M.L. Kirk, Lippincott, 1924); Joerli: The Story of a Swiss Boy (trans. of Die Stauffermuehle by Frances Treadway Clayton and Olga Wunderli, B.H. Sanborn, 1924; The Little Alpine Musician (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1924); The New Year's Carol (trans. from the German by Alice Howland Goodwin; illus. by Grace Edwards Wesson, Houghton, 1924); Veronica and Other Friends (trans. from the German by L. Brooks, Crowell, 1924); Arthur and Squirrel (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1925); Children of the Alps (trans. from the German by E.P. Stork; illus. by Margaret J. Marshall, Lippincott, 1925); The Children's Carol (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1925); Francesca at Hinterwald (trans. from the German by E.P. Stork; illus. by M.J. Marshall, Lippincott, 1925); Eveli: The Little Singer (trans. from the German by E.P. Stork; illus. by Blanche Greer, Lippincott, 1926); Eveli and Beni (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1926); Peppino (trans. from the German by E.P. Stork; illus. by B. Greer, Lippincott, 1926); In the Swiss Mountains (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1929); Boys and Girls of the Alps (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1929); Renz and Margritli (trans. from the German by H.B. Dole, Crowell, 1931).

Johanna Heusser Spyri grew up in a lovely and charming village nestled into the Swiss countryside and later lived as a middle-class housewife in her nation's capital, Zurich. Yet, incredibly, this somewhat ordinary Victorian-era woman altered the direction of children's literature, first for her own country, and then for the world.

She was born the fourth of sixth children to Dr. Johann Jakob Heusser and Meta Schweizer Heusser in the village of Hirzel on July 12, 1827. Hirzel was a romantic place to grow up. Marguerite Davis , who illustrated Johanna's most famous work Heidi in the 1927 American centennial edition celebrating the author's birth, described the hamlet:

There are flowers everywhere. In the village the houses are neat and tidy, with vegetable gardens, and of course, flowers. Everything looks orderly, clean and comfortable. Just outside the village, and still higher up the mountain, is the white house that belonged to Joanna's parents. From the house, if you look down over the tops of the fir trees into the valley, you can see the great lake of Zurich, with snow-covered mountains behind it.

The Heussers' household was an extended one, including six children (Theodor, Anna, Christian, Johanna, Ega, Meta and Christel) and a maternal grandmother and two maternal aunts. This arrangement, which was not unusual for European households of the 19th century, seems to have offered Spyri a bright, happy childhood.

Certainly, the places to play surrounding the Heusser house at Hirzel stimulated her young imagination. The children amused themselves with hide-and-seek in the barn, carved their names in the tree trunks of the nearby woods, and the boys tried to capture their sisters' "castle," in reality a landmark stone which rested in the middle of the forest. Local legends abounded of fairies and gnomes who reputedly inhabited the glens and valleys about Hirzel. Johanna's childhood friend Anna Ulrich recalled that the future author was fascinated by the sound of the wind rustling amongst the firs. Her love for nature already had begun.

Ulrich described her friend as "lively, without being at all nervous, beaming with cheerfulness, with sparkling eyes in a narrow, florid face with regular features, scintillating with the joy of life and feeling neither cold nor heat nor weariness." More specifically, Johanna's hair was dark brown, her eyes gray-blue.

Surprisingly, given her later literary acumen, student Johanna disappointed her elders. Her teacher in the local village school called her a "dunce." She was particularly deficient in drawing, an art young girls were supposed to cultivate in that time. Before many years passed, she left the school and received private instruction from Pastor Tobler in the local rectory. There, with one of her sisters and the pastor's own daughter, she began to show promise.

Spyri early demonstrated an eagerness for poetry, and she received encouragement in this art both at the rectory and at home. Pastor Tobler featured poems as a regular part of his curriculum. One of her aunts recited ballads at home while her father made each of the children compose a weekly poem to be given to the family each Sunday evening. Often, the young Johanna composed for less interested and even less talented siblings. Her own mother lingered long at poetry and songs around the house.

A shadow of sadness entered Spyri's life at age nine. She lost her grandmother, and in the same year her mother and one of her aunts journeyed to the resort of Pfäfers "for the cure," in other words, most likely in order to receive treatment for tuberculosis. When her three older siblings traveled to the resort, she was bereft, and to cheer her Dr. Heusser temporarily sent her to stay with relatives near Zurich, located seven miles away from Hirzel. Johanna made the odyssey alone in five hours on foot. Several of her future child characters would also experience melancholy and undertake similar journeys.

Davis, Marguerite (b. 1889)

American illustrator of children's books. Born on February 10, 1889, in Quincy, Massachusetts; attended Vassar College and Boston Museum of Fine Arts School.

Along with the 1927 English translation of Johanna Spyri 's Heidi, Marguerite Davis illustrated many books in her 25-year career, including Christina Rossetti 's Sing-Song (1924); Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1924); Louisa May Alcott 's Under the Lilacs (1928); Laura E. Richards ' Tirra Lirra (1932); and Elizabeth Coatsworth 's The Littles House (1940).

Several other experiences factored into her young life. Father Heusser placed a lamb under the holiday tree one Christmas, thus inspiring the future children's story "The Pet Lamb." She also was enchanted by a harp purchased by herself and a friend on one of their excursions to Zurich and time-shared between them. In addition to dolls and a doll theatrical house, she took a particular interest in illustrated books including the Vertuch by Goethe.

One special friend, however, was destined to last a lifetime. One of brother Theodor's chums at gymnasium (high school) frequented the Heusser household on Saturdays, a tall, slender student named Bernhard Spyri. Bernhard shared the family's love of poetry and the theater and joined them in excursions throughout the local countryside. Gradually, warmth developed between Bernhard and the "little wild creature, who never failed to give a witty and clever answer." Johanna reminded him of a "clear, bubbling mountain brook." In the words of Ulrich:

[Bernhard] was faithful and true, a man of honor from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet; Johanna felt this even then. And he knew just as surely that the happiness of his life depended [on her]…. It was a child hood love, which lasted throughout life.

The two married in 1852 and settled in Zurich where Bernhard, who had studied law, became a respected town clerk. Thereafter, Johanna led a secluded life as a mother and housewife. Their first and only child, Bernhard Diethelm Spyri, was born in 1852. Unfortunately, his life was short. Some sources say he died of tuberculosis during his student years while others maintain he lasted until 1884, the same year that Johanna's husband died. Johanna's attachment to anonymity has left few details to posterity. In fact, no biography exists in the English language and most of her letters, personal papers and even original manuscripts seem to have been lost through the years either from accident or on purpose.

Before the deaths of her husband and son, however, Spyri began writing, a profession she would pursue to the end of her days. She penned her first stories in 1870, at age 43. In this year, France and the German states, neighboring nations to the north and west of Switzerland, were at war. Initially, she wrote in order to donate any proceeds to the orphans of this Franco-Prussian War. Spyri probably assisted the International Red Cross, a charity organized in Switzerland in 1864. Certainly, orphans figured prominently in her children's stories.

Her initial works were published anonymously. Her first story for adults, "A Leaf on Vrony's Grave," came out in 1871, the year the Franco-Prussian War ended. Throughout the 1870s, her writing blossomed. Her most famous work, Heidi, occupied several of these years and originally comprised two large stories which might properly be termed novellas—Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning (published anonymously, 1880) and Heidi Makes Use of What She Has Learned (1881, the first work published under her own name). Publishers combined these two large stories featuring the child-heroine Heidi into one book in the early 1880s. The product, known in the German language as Heidi's Years of Apprenticeship and Travels, was successful immediately and sold 13 editions over the next decade. Translators converted her work into English in 1884, the same year her husband and son died.

A timid shyness caused her to make the urgent request not to describe her life to the public, for she did not wish to have her innermost, deepest soul laid bare to human eyes.

—Anna Ulrich

The storyline in Heidi is familiar to most readers of children's literature. A five-year-old orphan girl, Heidi, presents a challenge for her Aunt Dete's family life at the Sesemann household in Frankfurt, Germany. Dete sends Heidi away to a mountain above the village of Dorfli in Switzerland to live with her grandfather who has become, through the years, a bitter and antisocial recluse. During the following three years, Heidi befriends the goatherd Peter and his blind grandmother and experiences the beauty of the alpine country while bringing out the latent warmth and caring of her grandfather. Dete then returns to Dorfli and convinces the grandfather that Heidi's future lies in Frankfurt where she can obtain proper schooling. Dete's motivation is to provide a friend for Dr. Sesemann's sickly and morose daughter, Klara. While in Frankfurt, Heidi touches the lives of all but becomes homesick for her mountain retreat and eventually returns to the arms of her grandfather. Longing for Heidi's companionship, Klara and the Sesemann family visit the mountain and all come together in friendship and understanding. Klara is healed.

The success of Heidi surprised Spyri but did not alter her desire for anonymity. Meanwhile, her stories continued. As with Heidi, two of her tales in German were translated into English and published as one volume, Grittli's Children: A Story of Switzerland in 1884. Other works followed in the 1880s and 1890s: The Story of Rico, The Mountain Miracle, Lauri's Rescue, The Pet Lamb, Moni, the Goat Boy, Cornelli, Mäzli: a Story of the Swiss Valleys, or Castle Wonderful, Trini, the Little Strawberry Girl, Tiss, a Little Alpine Waif, Eveli, the Little Singer, The Fairy of Intra, Gay Little Herbli, Jo, the Little Machinist, Francesca in Hinterwald, Arthurand Squirrel, Toni the Woodcarver, The Bird's Message, Vinzi: a Story of the Swiss Alps, What Sami Sings with the Birds, The Rose Child, The New Year's Carol, and The Children's Carol, are only a representative few of the over 50 stories produced by Johanna Spyri. Her last work, The Stauffer Mill, was published in Berlin in 1901.

Probably lamenting the recent loss of her loved ones, Spyri moved to a new home at Zeltweg 9, near the capital city's municipal theater, in 1886. Within years, she became an invalid, but kept gracing the world with her stories until her death on July 7, 1901. Johanna Spyri lives on, however, through her life's work. According to literary critic Anne Thaxter Eaton: "It is probable that no other book of its time, showing a background foreign to English and American young readers, had such a success or has implanted itself so firmly in youthful memories as did 'Heidi.'"

Indeed, Spyri changed the course of children's literature. She stated that she wrote not only for children, but for those who love children. During her latter years in Zurich, Spyri associated with C.F. Meyer and other intellectuals who did not believe in "talking down" to children in stories. In this way, she managed to write works which transcended age, and time itself. According to critic Bettina Hürlimann , the enormity of Spyri's very success heralded a certain danger for the path of Swiss literature:

These new tales created their effects from real life, a thing which few German books were doing at that time. Above all, religious and social questions figured in these tales and they were based on the actual experience of Johanna Spyri, who was the daughter of a country doctor. Almost everything she describes could actually have taken place. Even the rural elements played a bigger part here than in the corresponding German publications. The result was that the Swiss writers pounced on the salient features and would not let go of them. What in Johanna Spyri had been new and unique now became a general Swiss style, only a little modified or changed.

Surprisingly, no definitive volume of "collected works" exists in English nor does such a volume seemingly exist anywhere in the world.

Yet, Heidi and other story collections have appeared throughout the years translated into most of the major languages. Author Charles Tritten wrote two sequels to Heidi in English entitled Heidi's Children and Heidi Grows Up in the 1930s and both have been available in paperback as late as the 1980s.

Admirers of Johanna Spyri may locate more information from the Swiss National Tourist Office, the Swiss Institute for Juvenile Literature in Zurich, or by contacting the Heidi Museum in Hirzel, Switzerland. Travelers may enter the magic realm of Heidi from the town of Maienfeld near the Liechtenstein border and climb to Heidi's Alp from the Heidihof Hotel. Or, readers may simply enjoy the armchair romance of Johanna Spyri's enduring tales, for, as one writer noted: "They convey a message as sweet, pure and wholesome as the breeze which blows continually from the summit of her beloved Alps."


Carpenter, Humphrey and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford University Press, 1984.

Commire, Anne. Something about the Author. Vol 19. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1980.

Hardyment, Christina. Heidi's Alp: One Family's Search for Storybook Europe. London: William Heinemann, 1987.

Hürlimann, Bettina. Three Centuries of Children's Books in Europe. NY: World, 1968.

Ulrich, Anna. Recollections of Johanna Spyri's Childhood. Translated by Helen B. Dole. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1925.

Wilson, Katharina M., ed. An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. Vol 2: L–Z. NY: Garland, 1991.

suggested reading:

Doyle, Brian, ed. The Who's Who of Children's Literature. London: Hugh Evelyn, 1968.

Egoff, Sheila, ed. Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1981.

Fisher, Margery. Who's Who in Children's Books: A Treasury of the Familiar Characters of Childhood. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Spyri, Johanna. The Children's Christmas Carol. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957.

——. Heidi. Translated by Helen B. Dole. Illustrated Junior Library. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1994.

related media:

A Gift for Heidi (motion picture), RKO Radio Pictures, 1962.

Heidi (87 min. film), starring Shirley Temple (Black) , Jean Hersholt, and Arthur Treacher, directed by Allan Dwan, 20th Century-Fox, 1937.

Heidi (98 min. film), starring Elsbeth Sigmund and Heinrich Gretler, United Artists, 1954.

Heidi (94 min. film), starring Eva Maria Singhammer and Gustav Knuth, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, 1968.

Heidi (film), starring Sir Michael Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, and Jean Simmons , first presented as a television special on the National Broadcasting Network, November 17, 1968.

Heidi (musical play) by William Friedberg and Neil Simon, Samuel French, 1959.

Heidi: The Living Legend (motion picture), ACI Films, 1974.

Heidi and Peter (89 min. film), starring Heinrich Gretler, Elsbeth Sigmund, based on novel Heidi Makes Use of What She Has Learned, United Artists, 1955.

Heidi's Song (94 min. animated film), with voices of Lorne Greene, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Margery Gray , Hanna-Barbera, 1982.

David L. Bullock , Ph.D., author of Allenby's War: the Palestine-Arabian Campaigns, 1916–1918 (London: the Blandford Press, 1988)