Heidi by Johanna Spyri is such a famous and well-loved children's novel I don't know how it is I've never read it before now! But, of late, I've been very much in the mood for late Victorian / Edwardian children's literature and I'm glad I've finally got to this one. It was first published in two parts in 1881: Heidi: her years of wandering and learning (Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre) and Heidi : how she used what she learned (Heidi kann brauchen, was es gelernt hat), and it has two main settings: the Swiss Alps, and Frankfurt in Germany.
The story is very simple: Heidi, an orphan, is taken by her aunt Dete to live with her grandfather in the alps around Dörfli (the Sertig Valley in Graubünden, Switzerland). He has the reputation for being awkward, bitter, and anti-social but Heidi's warmth, cheerfulness, and enthusiasm quickly wins him over and she spends several years with him, the goatherd Peter, Peter's mother Bridgget, and his grandmother. However Dete arrives once more to take Heidi away to Frankfurt to act as the companion of a girl a little older Heidi, Clara Sesemann, who is an invalid. The two become friends, however Heidi is constantly put down by the almost comically villainous Fräulein Rottenmeier, the housekeeper. She maintains her attempts to be positive, learns how to read and write, pray, and the ways of city life, however she eventually breaks down and becomes so homesick she is ill. The Sesemanns' doctor advises that she must be taken back home to her grandfather and the alps, but the question is what will become of Clara?
It's a fantastic tale with a fair amount going on: firstly, there is an idea of "wholeness". Heidi flourishes in the natural surroundings of the alps where she is most happy, a stark contrast with Frankfurt, the city (as is often in Victorian literature) represents the unnatural, the modern, the industrialised, and the harsh. Nature alone, however, is not quite enough: it is in the city where she is educated and taught to pray - on her arrival in Frankfurt the following scene takes place between Heidi and Mrs. Sesemann, Clara's grandmother:
"I tell you something, little girl," she [Mrs. Sesemann] continued. "If you have a sorrow that you cannot tell to anyone, you can go to Our Father in Heaven. You can tell Him everything that troubles you, and if we ask Him He can help us and take our suffering away. Do you understand me, child? Don't you pray every night? Don't you thank Him for all His gifts and ask Him to protect you from evil?"
"Oh no, I never do that," replied the child.
"Have you never prayed, Heidi? Do you know what I mean?"
"I only prayed with my first grandmother, but it is so long ago, that I have forgotten."
"See, Heidi, I understand now why you are so unhappy. We all need somebody to help us, and just think how wonderful it is, to be able to go to the Lord, when something distresses us and causes us pain. We can tell Him everything and ask Him to comfort us, when nobody else can do it. He can give us happiness and joy."
Heidi was gladdened by these tidings, and asked: "Can we tell Him everything, everything?"
"Yes, Heidi, everything."
The child, withdrawing her hand from the grandmama, said hurriedly, "Can I go now?"
"Yes, of course," was the reply, and with this Heidi ran to her room. Sitting down on a stool she folded her hands and poured out her heart to God, imploring Him to help her and let her go home to her grandfather.
With Heidi's return to the alps, and Clara's visit, a balance is found, a certain harmony that makes the two girls more "whole". There is as well the healing element of nature, something we see thirty years later in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Finally, there is an idea of adaption whilst maintaining inherent characteristics. Heidi is a good child, she is cheerful, kind, and loving, but she adapts as far as she is able to new information and surroundings. She changes in the sense that she is educated and, in a sense, becomes closer to God, as well as becoming more accustomed to the city ways. She is still Heidi, though, neither hardened by Frankfurt nor simple in Dörfli. It's a wonderful book, comforting and entertaining, and I'm glad I've read it at last.
To finish, some illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith from the 1922 edition published by David McKay Company: