In childhood exile, there was, for Eva Ibbotson, ‘a wonderful sense of homecoming’ in… Heidi
‘Take up thy bed and walk.’
Wheelchair stories with miraculous cures make a dependable theme for authors seeking access to popularity (as we shall discover soon enough with this year’s junketing in the secret garden). And if you top them up with Fauntleroy stuff – young innocence melting the hearts of the curmudgeonly old – then classic status is assured.
It is unlikely though
that such mercenary thoughts ever crossed the mind of Johanna Spyri as she composed the text of Heidis Lehr-und Wanderjahre which was published in Gotha in 1880. (The German title is important, for this is to be what they call a Bildungsroman over there – a story about the maturing of a character – and it echoes the terms of the ancient trade practice of apprenticeship and journeying found also in Goethe’s account of Wilhem Meister: who had Lehrjahre and Wanderjahre of his own – two of Spyri’s favourite books.)
She was fifty-three
when Heidi was published and already the author of several of the books ‘for children and those who love children’ which in part celebrated her Swiss homeland (Blackie published an English translation of some of these in 1888 as Swiss Stories) and also partook of her earnest Protestant assurance that through all vicissitudes we are in God’s hands and can trust in Him. Heidi would be generated by motives implicit there rather than by anything so crudely commercial as the likely balance-sheet.
the recipe had an instant appeal. There is Heidi at the start, ‘about five years old’, cheerfully tackling a two-hour trail up a mountain where she is to be deposited on her reclusive and unsociable grandfather and his two goats. She relishes the climb once she has got rid of a mass of garments and her stay among the upper pastures becomes a celebration of a freedom and joy not often the lot of little girls in Victorian children’s books. It’s no wonder that granpa-on-the-alp is soon on the way to becoming a reformed character.
A necessary crisis
in this idyllic life obtrudes itself when Heidi is carted off to Frankfurt to be a (very young) companion to Clara, the wheelchaired invalid daughter of a wealthy businessman. This brings into play the contrast between the rural and the urban and also that between Granpa’s comradeship and the domineering rule of Clara’s governess, the dreaded Fräulein Rottenmeier. Despite much kindness from everyone else, including Clara’s Papa and Grandmama (who teaches her to read), a debilitating homesickness supervenes and she is returned to the rocks and fir trees and sunsets of ‘home’.
There it would seem
the apprentice’s journeyings are at an end, and even Granpa, through the words of that more ancient journeyman, the Prodigal Son, is reconciled to his village neighbours. But Spyri did not choose to leave the story there and in the following year she published a second volume showing the apprentice’s fulfilment: ‘Heidi Makes Use of What she has Learnt’. After paying a visit to reconnoitre the topography, Clara’s Grandmama organises a great shipment of the invalid – wheelchair and all – up the mountain to the alp where, by dint of some very superior goatsmilk and the health-giving mountain air, the girl is enabled to walk. (This is brought about not by any set plan, but fortuitously, since Peter the Goat-boy in a fit of jealousy has chucked the wheelchair down the mountain.) All ends with the cast in a grand finale when Papa and the Frankfurt doctor also ascend to the alp and bring about a measure of happiness and economic security to all.
With an interweave of sub-plots
which serve to deepen Heidi’s experience of both rural and urban life, it is easy to see how the two unified stories caught the taste and the imagination of their first readers. There was a clear affinity with the girls’ stories that were popular in the United States and the first translation into English was published there in 1884 and that land has seen more editions and abridgments than have occurred in Britain, to say nothing of the famous movie, featuring Shirley Temple in 1938. In typical fashion, sequels were also called for since Spyri did not see her story as needing any further Alcottish or Montgomery-esque continuations. Thus it occurred that Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children – sometimes thought to be by Spyri – were cobbled up by Charles Tritten who had been responsible for Heidi’s translation into French. Inferior illustrations in several popular editions do little to mitigate the story’s incipient sentimentality and it is unfortunate that the remarkable – and wholly unexpected – drawings by Tomi Ungerer for a Swiss edition in 1978 were partially excerpted for a wretched British abridgment five years later.
Great affection has been generated
for Heidi and her life-affirming story, as witness Eva Ibbotson, one of whose last pieces of writing before her death last year was an encomium for the story in the Puffin edition of 2009. Hence it was generally regarded as sacrilege when critics schooled in modern modes began to complain about the book ignoring the gritty realities of child life in pursuit of a fairytale idyll. Everybody, except the crudely caricatured Rottenmeier, is really too good to be true, while the pervasive insistence on God as a trustworthy arbiter of human affairs is hardly attuned to contemporary metaphysics.
neglect the hold which fairytale idylls can exert on the imagination of an uncritical public (is it necessary, for instance, that we explain Clara’s seemingly impossible cure to the likely cause of her illness being purely psychosomatic – and, if so, why?). Ibbotson – who would probably have deplored the sequel mania as dragging the story too far into a spurious ‘reality’ – notes how ‘it doesn’t shut like a trap, but allows you to go on dreaming and speculating and wondering’. With Belloc she would also surely have deplored ‘men who lose their fairylands’.
The illustrations are taken from the 2009 Puffin Classics edition, translated by Eileen Hall, illustrated by Cecil Leslie (cover illustration by Joe Berger), with an introduction by Eva Ibbotson (336pp, 978 0 14 132256 8, £6.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.