Heidi has sold more than fifty million copies worldwide, and has been translated into fifty languages. Of the enormous number of people who have read Heidi as children, many no doubt will re-read it as an adult. This may be done simply as a trip down memory lane, or as an opportunity to recapture some of the magic of childhood. However, it can be argued that reading (or re-reading) Heidi as an adult will be a valuable experience for many other reasons.
Firstly, there is a certain fascination in re-assessing the personality of Heidi. She is often viewed as an unrealistic stereotype – a goody-goody created by an adult author who wished to impart a moral message. In fact, however, the depiction of her character is much more rounded and complex than this portrayal would suggest. She is a curious mixture of resilience and acute sensitivity, but her most striking feature is her enormously strong sense of self. However battered she is by her experiences, she retains an inner integrity, from which arises a charming capacity for spontaneity and honesty. It seems likely, therefore, that Johanna Spyri is basing the character on an intimate knowledge of a particular individual (herself, perhaps?) and this makes Heidi a much more interesting and thought-provoking character than she is usually given credit for.
Secondly, the book is underpinned by accurate geographical detail and historical fact. Often, it is a mere aside, such as Aunt Detie mentioning that she has worked as a chambermaid at Ragaz, or that Heidi’s grandfather served with the army in Naples, which alerts one to this. A little research (as is possible for those who read or create Book Drum profiles!) will then reveal the fascinating material which lies behind apparently throwaway remarks. The comment about having been a chambermaid at Bad Ragaz, for example, paves the way for an exploration of the suprisingly interesting history of the development of the thermal spa at Pfäfers and the subsequent development of the spa at Bad Ragaz.
Thirdly, an adult reading the book will realise that the depiction of the Swiss Alps as a spectacularly beautiful and healthy environment is not an exaggeration. An adult will appreciate, too, that Spyri accurately depicts the healing power of such places at both a physical and emotional level. Reading Heidi, therefore, provides a timely warning about the increasingly vulnerable position of such environments in the modern world.
One aspect of Heidi which is often missed by children, but which is abundantly clear to adults, is the considerable text devoted to religious material. Many older readers will recoil somewhat from this, feeling that Spyri is laying it on a bit thick, and that her objective is rather too evangelical. However, if one looks carefully at the religious material, it becomes clear that what is being emphasised is the way religious faith may develop or intensify in situations of distress or adversity (as in the case of Heidi and the blind grandmother). It could be argued, therefore, that Spyri is actually doing no more than illustrating two truisms about religious faith: that it often has its roots in a need for comfort under difficult cirumstances; and that it does indeed provide that comfort.
There is also no denying that there is a very large element of wish-fulfilment in Heidi, an aspect that, no doubt, explains its enduring attractiveness to children. At one level, this sense of ‘everything coming right in the end’ will inevitably lead to Heidi being categorised as a typical, rather unrealistic, children’s book. However, further examination of the particular situations which ‘come right’ – Heidi being able to return to the mountains; Peter being forgiven (indeed rewarded!) for pushing Clara’s wheelchair over the cliff; Grannie getting some home comforts in her old age – are not exactly miraculous. They simply illustrate that reasonable levels of kindness, compassion and tolerance make for a happier and more comfortable world. Moreover, Spyri does not idealise Alpine existence (as she is sometimes accused of doing). In fact, she often points out that it is a difficult and precarious one, as may be seen in her descriptions of Grannie’s rickety home, and Peter’s meagre diet. There is no attempt either to disguise the very real suffering that Heidi experiences in Frankfurt before she is given the relatively modest reward of being able to go home. Clara recovering her ability to walk could, of course, be viewed as more miraculous, but once again it is possible to see a more complex underlying dynamic. It is now accepted that some female illness in the Victorian period could have a psychosomatic basis, arising out of the restrictions and frustrations of the gender at that time. It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine that there may have been psychosomatic elements to Clara’s illness, and that her recovery in the freedom of the mountains could be attributed to more than the benefits of fresh air and goat’s milk.
A final reason why Heidi is enjoyable for adults: it reminds us that simple goodness and simple kindnesses go a long way towards making the world a nicer place to live in. And what is wrong with that?
Comments from the Internet:
I thought it was amazing because loads of miracles happen
(Holly - guardian.co.uk)
It still has the same charm in adulthood that it had in childhood
("Fairydust" - amazon.com)
Johanna Spyri was ridiculously preachy and gushing in her religious passages
(Jeanette - goodreads.com)
Read this one as a stressbuster for guaranteed results