by Johanna Spyri
It’s no coincidence that the 19th century’s invention of the concept of childhood as we know it also saw a flowering of literature written for children. Before that magical century, reading material considered suitable for children was limited to Aesop’s fables and a few collections of fairy tales, many of them aimed, fable-like, at adults. Then, with a suddenness that rivaled the explosion of novels for adults in the previous century, children’s literature – stories written for children, dealing with their concerns seriously and with as much artistry as literature for adults -- burst on the scene.
Stories like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And like Johanna Spyri’s Heidi.
Was this literary outburst the result of educational reforms that kept children in school well into their teen years? Of increasingly mechanized agriculture and industry that made unskilled child labor less exploitable? Or even of philosophical movements such as Romanticism and Transcendentalism that saw children less as beings steeped in original sin than as souls fresh from God?
One other thing happened to stories written about children – they didn’t die as much. In reality, children died quite often, subject to waves of epidemics and the century’s special scourge of tuberculosis. In literature, not so much. Stories for children aimed to show them how to deal with life in the now, not the hereafter.
So the tale of Heidi, abandoned last week to the mercy of her quite terrifying grandfather, becomes an idyll instead of a gruesome fable. In the company of the cleanest and gentlest flock of goats ever imagined, she romps through the green and flowery pastures of the Swiss Alps, mercifully free of an formal schooling.
|Heidi and Klara|
Although orphaned, Heidi was not without beneficent adults – her almost inexplicably tender grandfather and a blind old woman, the grandmother of the local goatherd. Only one thing had been lacking – a best friend worthy of a young girl. Then the wicked aunt who had abandoned her returns and takes her to – gasp! – the big city of Frankfurt (and schoolteachers).
But as Heidi learns, even city life with all its limitations of has a compensation in the form of the invalid daughter of her new household – Klara. Unable to walk, Klara is possibly a victim of poliomyelitis, whose epidemics swept through Europe and America in the late 19th century.
Twelve-year-old to Heidi’s eight, Klara is both an older, more sophisticated sister, and a friend in desperate need of something – and someone – to live for. Heidi’s tales of her life in the mountains stir a yearning in Klara to experience that free life.
Klara’s education, helps Heidi embrace the joy of reading. Not a bad lesson to learn from Spyri’s book. With Klara’s aid, Heidi is separated from her aunt’s grasp. She returns to the mountains, her grandfather and her beloved goats. Now if only Klara could join her.
But how can a girl who can only move in a wheelchair reach the little house perched on its high peak? Can Klara ever recover enough strength to view the frolicking goats and their flowery pastures for herself?
A few decades after the 1880 publication of Spyri’s Heidi, Frances Hodgson Burnett would conjure a similar Eden for a disabled child in The Secret Garden. In that book, aided by an almost inaccessible flowery paradise, orphaned Mary Lennox will help another child learn to walk again. Did Burnett learn the trope from Heidi? Will Klara also be healed to return to her family in triumph? And will Heidi learn that helping others is better even than being helped?
I’ll leave readers to discover the answer themselves, in a story available free at Project Gutenberg.