Friday, September 23, 2016

Adventure classics – The 19th century’s childhood romance


by Johanna Spyri

How could a woman so unhappy write about as much joy as Johanna Spyri put into her 1880 story of Heidi, the orphan who made everyone – well, almost everyone – around her so happy?

Unhappily married to a workaholic husband, suffering from long-term depression after the birth of her only son, and seeing that son edging ever closer to death from the 19th century’s curse of tuberculosis, Spyri poured memories of her golden childhood in the Swiss mountains into one of the world’s most beloved children’s stories, the epitome of the late 19th century’s neo-Romantic vision of the child as “no commonplace soul”, to quote a slightly later writer of the genre, L.M. Montgomery.
A bringer of emotional and physical health to those around her, Heidi would become the forerunner of such other child heroines as Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) and Mary Lennox of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911).

The Canadian Montgomery may well have been aware of and influenced by the work of Anglo-American Burnett -- already famous for her 1886 novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy -- and Burnett surely must have known about Montgomery’s book.

It's possible that both of them also owe an unacknowledged debt to Spyri’s work, which appeared in English at least as early as an 1885 American translation by Louise Brooks. (Although I’ll refer in this a subsequent post to the 1925 translation by Helen B. Dole from the Dallas Public Library.)

Like her spiritual sisters Anne Shirley and Mary Lennox, Heidi has been orphaned soon after her birth. Her dying widowed mother, Adeleide, entrusted the namesake baby to an aunt, but by the time Heidi is 5-years-old, her flighty Aunt Dete is eager to palm the child off on her only other living relative, her reclusive paternal grandfather.

Heidi & her grandfather
Even before the death of his only son, Heidi’s father, the old man had become bitter and estranged from the society of the tiny fictional village of Dörfli.

“He used to have the finest farm (around),” Dete gossips to an inquisitive neighbor. “But (he) would do nothing but . . . travel about the country, mixing with bad people that nobody knew about. He drank and gambled away the whole property. . . and disappeared. . . it was said that he had got into trouble, that he had killed someone.”

When the old man at last returns with his son, Tobias, he finds all doors closed to him. And although his son is well thought of and marries a local girl, bad luck dogs the family. When Tobias dies in an accident and his wife of a fever brought on by grief, neighbors call it a judgment on the old man, who abandons the village to live a hermit’s life on the mountain called Alm, high above the village.

“And now are you going to give the child to the old man up there?” the neighbor asks Dete. “I’m surprised that you should think of such a thing.”

But despite their shock and indignation, no one in the village is willing to take care of little Heidi. Turning the child over to the old man, Dete says insinuatingly, “You will have to answer for her, if she comes to any harm. You don’t want to have anything more laid to your charge.”

At those words, the old man angrily runs Dete away from his mountain hut. Heidi, meanwhile, has been exploring the area and is apparently unaware of the argument between her aunt and grandfather. Childlike, she finds the perfect place for a bed – the hayloft in the upper story of her grandfather’s hut. And after making a delighted acquaintance with her grandfather’s milch goats, and a meal of bread and cheese and goat’s milk, she climbs into her new bed, sleeping “as soundly and well as if she had been in the loveliest bed of some royal princess.”

And the old man, watching her innocent sleep, feels the first thawing of his heart begin.

Now if only other people would stop pestering him about how to bring up a little girl. . .

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a September of young adventurers with Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. Want to read ahead? Get this copyright-expired work free at Project Gutenberg.

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