Heidi by Johanna Spyri (1881)

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Johanna Spyri (1827 – 1901), the author of Heidi, has been called the “Swiss Louisa May Alcott.” Tens of millions of copies of this classic children’s novel (first published in 1881) have sold worldwide in translations of more than forty languages.

Originally written in German, Heidi was Spyri’s first published novel. None of her subsequent books — and there were many — achieved the level of success as did Heidi. It’s not only the bestselling Swiss book ever published, but one of the bestselling books in the world.

Heidi has also been adapted numerous times to the stage, including an opera, plus several movies and television series.

One of the most famous adaptations is the 1937 Shirley Temple film, which plays up on sentimentality, charming though it is. One of the most faithful adaptations is the 2015 German language film, with an accurately dark-haired Heidi — like she was described in the book.

Illustration from 1922 edition of Heidi by Johanna Spyri - Jessie Willcox Smith

It’s hard to account for the extraordinary popularity of Heidi. It’s a simple and rather sentimental tale of an orphan girl (of course) who is left by her aunt Dete, who has been caring for her, with her gruff grandfather, a veritable hermit living in the Swiss Alps with a few goats.

Heidi wins him over (of course) and grows to love him, the mountains, and the little goat herd Peter, her only friend. After a time, Dete comes back for Heidi, over Grandfather’s objections, having secured a place for her as a companion to the disabled young daughter of a wealthy businessman.

Heidi grows attached to the girl, and vice versa, but can’t shake her homesickness. She is returned to Grandfather, and, after some turmoil, all is well that ends well.

Heidi with Peter's grandmother - Jessie Willcox Smith

Johanna Spyri’s inspiration

The 1922 David McKay edition of Heidi featured the beautiful illustrations  by famed American illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith seen in this post. The introduction of this edition elaborates on what inspired Johanna Spyri:

Heidi is a delightful story for children of life in the Alps, one of many tales written by the Swiss authoress, Johanna Spyri, who died in her home at Zürich in 1891.

She had been well known to the younger readers of her own country since 1880, when she published her story, Heimathlos, which ran into three or more editions, and which, like her other books, as she states on the title page, was written for those who love children, as well as for the youngsters themselves.

Her own sympathy with the instincts and longings of the child’s heart is shown in her picture of Heidi.

The record of the early life of this Swiss child amid the beauties of her passionately loved mountain-home and during her exile in the great town has been for many years a favorite book of younger readers in Germany and America.

Madame Spyri, like Hans Andersen, had by temperament a peculiar skill in writing the simple histories of an innocent world.

In all her stories she shows an underlying desire to preserve children alike from misunderstanding and the mistaken kindness that frequently hinder the happiness and natural development of their lives and characters.

The authoress, as we feel in reading her tales, lived among the scenes and people she describes, and the setting of her stories has the charm of the mountain scenery amid which she places her small actors.

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Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heidi by Johanna Spyri on Amazon*
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A summary of the plot of Heidi

From the original review in The Boston Globe, August 5, 1940: The housewives stopped their work and ran out to talk with Dete. She had Heidi with her and they wanted to get a good look at the child.

Little five-year-old Heidi trudged along wearily beside her Aunt Deta, who had taken care of her the four years since her mother’s death. Because Heidi’s clothes would have made a heavy bundle, Dete had put them all on the child. Red-faced and hot, the child hurried along the uphill road in the June sun.

Heidi and her grandfather by Jessie Wilcox Smith

The village women scolded Dete when they heard that Heidi was going to live with her grandfather. He had a bad name. While Dete was arguing, Heidi spied Peter the goat-herd. Running toward him, she began to ask a thousand questions about her new home.

As she ran along, the heat became unbearable; so the little girl took off three dresses, piled them in the pathway, and skipped merrily along with Peter.

Meanwhile, Dete’s conscience was giving her a bad time. Had she not promised to take care of her niece? But there was now this position that would pay her well, which she could not take with Heidi on her hands.

Heidi and Peter - illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

When the two reached the hut of Heidi’s grandfather, he greeted them gruffly. He disliked Data and spoke harshly to her. Leaving the child without learning whether it was safe or not, Deteran down the mountain, pursued by her sense of guilt.

Heidi was entranced by her new world. Into every corner of the hut and stable she peeped, asking “Grandfather, what is this for?” The old man spoke slowly, watching the child. To himself, he commented, “She uses her head.”

Together they made a new bed, piling hay in the loft and covering it with a heavy sheet. The old man served a supper of bread and cheese with bowls of warm goat’s milk to the hungry child. She relished everything she ate.

Every morning Heidi went to the higher pastures with Peter. The boy was a simple person whose environment had not contributed to his learning. Heidi was his first companion.

Heidi and her Grandfather - Jessie Willcox Smith

As the summer passed, Heidi’s cheeks grew redder and her body stronger. Winter came, then June again. One, two, and three years passed. Heidi was now eight and had not yet been to school.

One day the village pastor called, urging the grandfather to come to the village in winter so that Heidi could go to school. But the old man refused, responding bitterly.

One day, quite unexpectedly, Dete returned. She brought word of a position for Heidi in the home of a rich man Herr Sesemann, where she would be companion to his ill daughter, Clara Heidi would share Clara’s tutors.

It seemed like a wonderful opportunity, but the grandfather stormed at Dete, who took Heidi by the hand and dragged her away.

Heidi and Clara - Jessie Willcox Smith

Dete quieted Heidi’s protests by promises of presents she could bring back to her friends, though she didn’t reveal that this return might not take place for years.

Heidi reached Frankfurt under the impression that she would return home that very night; when she learned the truth, her heart ached. To make matters worse, the housekeeper disliked children, Heidi most of all. The woman did all she could to make Heidi miserable.

As Heidi’s unhappiness grew deeper, Clara grew to love Heidi and found herself getting better for having her young, lively companion.

When some months had passed, life took a bad turn for Heidi. Under the constant scolding of the housekeeper, who would not let her cry, the child was repressing her homesickness and unhappiness, and she began walking in her sleep.

Heidi sleepwalking - Jessie Willcox Smith

The servants caught glimpses of a figure and thought a ghost had come to the house; but Mr. Sesemann and the family doctor began an all-night watch. When Heidi walked down and went out the front door, they woke her. The child began to sob, telling them of her nightly dream that is was with her grandfather in the Alps.

“Home you go tomorrow!” ordered the doctor. So Heidi returned to her home in the mountains, with boxes of gifts for her friends.

The grandfather had changed. Softened by his loneliness, he had decided to move into the village for the winter months, so that Heidi could go to school. Each Sunday morning they dressed in their best clothes and went to church. All the villagers were amazed by the old grandfather and his new ways.

Clara visits Heidi - Jessie Willcox Smith

After some time, a letter came, saying that Clara was coming for a visit. When Clara arrived, carried in her wheelchair by a group of men, Heidi was beside herself with joy. The two girls were together in the sunshine and fresh air.

For Clara, the experience brought rosy cheeks and a new strength to her body. But Peter was miserable. Jealous of Clara, he spitefully pushed her wheelchair down the mountainside.

Clara, Peter, and Heidi - Jessie Willcox Smith

Without her chair, Clara had to be carried everywhere, this hampered her fun so much that every day she tried to walk. And eventually, she did— even winning over Peter, who came to Heidi’s aid in assisting Clara to walk.

When her father came for her, he wept with happiness to see his daughter walking. The story ends with happiness in the hearts of all.

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Johanna Spyri

Learn more about Johanna Spyri

More about Heidi by Johanna Spyri

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