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Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Fri, 03/17/2017 - 10:32

Heidi1 was written in German by the Swiss author, Johanna Spyri. It was originally published in two volumes. The first volume, consisting of fourteen chapters, was published in 1880 and entitled, Heidi: Her years of wandering and learning. The second volume, Heidi: How she used what she learned, was published in 1881. The first English editions of these volumes were published in 1882 by W. Swan Sonnenschein of London. In 1884 an edition published in Boston, America, contained the two volumes bound together, but with their distinction preserved. As time progressed, publishers not only merged the two stories, but abandoned the two-part division. The two volumes became one book with the simple title, Heidi. In modern versions there is generally no hint that the fourteenth chapter was originally the end of a first part and the fifteenth chapter the beginning of the second part. As will be shown, this has led to an oversimplified view of the story.

The English reader is confronted by an array of different translations. Since 1882 at least thirteen separate English translations have been published. These have been used in a myriad of editions. Susan Stan of the Department of English Language and Literature in Central Michigan University has produced an excellent bibliographic survey of these versions in an article entitled, Heidi in English: a bibliographic study.2 As she points out, not every edition credits the translator. A case in point is the 1946 edition used in this blog. However, at the end of her article she provides the opening paragraph from Chapter One from every published English translation, with the translator stated where known. By comparing my version with these examples it is possible to work out that the translator of the version used in this blog was Marian Edwardes, whose translation originally appeared in 1910. It is worth following the link above and browsing these samples as it gives a good idea of the variety of wording that exists in the different versions.

The story begins with Dete taking her orphaned niece, five-year-old Heidi, to live with Heidi’s grandfather. He lives in a hut high up on a Swiss mountainside. Halfway between the hut and the valley below is the hamlet of Dörfli. As they pass through Dörfli we learn that there is mutual antipathy between its inhabitants and the grandfather, who is known to them as Alm-Uncle. He is portrayed as a loner with a dubious past, which has been further embellished by malicious gossip, including supposed misconduct as a soldier when fighting at Naples. The inhabitants rebuke Dete for taking Heidi to live with him, but she maintains that she has no choice as she has been offered a job in Frankfurt which is too good to refuse.   

After a tense conversation with Alm-Uncle, Dete summarily leaves Heidi with him and abruptly departs. He had no prior warning of the visit or that he would be expected to look after the child. Yet, although initially ignoring her, within a short space of time he acquiesces to the situation and proceeds without demur to make her feel at home. At this stage it feels like an authorial misstep - in reality nobody, ogre or otherwise, would be so accepting so quickly of such a turn in events. But Spyri has other character developments in mind for the grandfather and others in the book. Central to these developments is Heidi’s love of her new mountain home. An ongoing reluctance on the part of the grandfather to have her live there would not have served the story and would only be a distraction from the other themes of the book.

The surrounding mountain environment of the hut is presented from Heidi’s perspective and is portrayed as an idyllic setting of meadows and flowers. As she heads up the mountain with Peter, the eleven-year-old goatherd, we read that: ‘Heidi went running hither and thither and shouting with delight, for here were whole patches of delicate red primroses, and there the blue gleam of the lovely gentian, while above them all laughed and nodded the tender-leaved golden cistus’ (p. 42). Spyri does not miss an opportunity to describe the mountainside in such detail, using a range of language to do so, but never does her writing seem overly florid.

The outside world, however, is never far away. The pastor from Dörfli visits the grandfather to encourage him to send Heidi to school. In addition he seeks to persuade him to move down into the village. But the grandfather is adamant he will remain and that Heidi will not attend school: ‘I am going to let her grow up and be happy among the goats and birds; with them she is safe, and will learn nothing evil’ (p. 76). At this stage of the story it seems that Spyri is encouraging the reader to take the side of not only Heidi, but the grandfather, who is clearly not the ogre many in the village perceive him to be. The pastor comes across as a threat to the idyllic existence of Heidi. In the same chapter, things then apparently go from bad to worse.Dete returns and, against the wishes of the grandfather, takes Heidi away to live with a family in the city of Frankfurt.

Heidi’s stay in Frankfurt sees her befriend the sickly child of the household, Clara, whose mother has died and whose father is away on business. Heidi is despised by the housekeeper, Fräulein Rottenmeier, but the arrival of Clara’s grandmother provides her with a sympathetic ear. As a result of her encouragement, Heidi begins responding positively to the teaching of the tutor who has been teaching her and Clara, and Heidi soon learns to read. Heidi’s physical condition nevertheless deteriorates and she begins sleepwalking at night. Upon his return, Clara’s father, in consultation with a doctor, concludes that the only remedy for the homesick Heidi is for her to return to her grandfather in the mountains. She is taken back to the mountain where she duly improves.

The Daily Telegraph summarizes the book as follows: ‘A manifesto for the Great Outdoors. Alpine Heidi is sent to school in Frankfurt am Main, but grows pale and sickly in the city smog. Back in the mountains, she grows strong again on goat's milk and sunshine’.3 However this is a simplification which hides a tension in the book. Yes, Heidi improves back in the mountains, but she is now able to read. What is more she uses this newly-acquired ability to cheer Peter’s grandmother by reading her hymns and to read to her grandfather the story of the prodigal son. Also, Heidi receives material help, such as a new bed, from the Frankfurt family which enhances the quality of her life on the mountain. She has undeniably benefitted from her stay in the big city. Yet Spyri was not embarrassed by this irony. In fact, that was the whole point of her, original, two stories. The first concerned Heidi’s ‘years … of learning’ and the second story, by which time she is back on the mountain, relates ‘How she used what she learned’. And this learning had taken place in Frankfurt.

The bed which Heidi eventually acquires typifies the tension between the idyll of the mountainside and the undeniable benefits of the city. When Heidi moved into her grandfather’s hut she did not have a proper bed, but slept in the loft on a makeshift bed of hay. On an early outing in the meadow she gathers flowers ‘for she wanted to take them all home and stick them in the hay, so that she might make her bedroom look just like the meadows outside’ (p. 42). When she returns from Frankfurt she has the money to buy a proper bed, but she refuses because, ‘she slept a great deal better, she said, on her bed of hay than on her fine pillowed bed in Frankfurt’ (p. 194). Yet Chapter 14, the final chapter of the original first story, ends with Spyri predicting that ‘without doubt a proper bed will be put up in the hay-loft, for wherever grandmamma [Clara’s grandmother] steps in, there everything is soon in right order, outside and in’ (p. 204). Sure enough, while Clara is staying at the hut, one day, ‘Two stout porters came up the mountain, each carrying a bed on his shoulders with bedding of all kinds and two beautiful new white coverlids’ (p. 287). These beds are installed in the loft, without complaint from Heidi. The bed of hay with its echoes of the meadow has been replaced by the sophistication of the city.

Heidi is a story in which we see character development in a range of people from the very young such as Peter, the goatherd, to the very old such as the grandmother of Peter and the grandfather of Heidi. We see old animosities resolved and former adversaries reconciled.  We see the invalid, Clara, revitalized by the mountain air. But at the centre of the story is the innocent and well-meaning girl on the mountain. She brings joy and enlightenment to people with whom she interacts both on the mountain and in Frankfurt. But this interaction is a two-way process. She first has to learn, and this learning entailed leaving, at least for a while, the mountain which she loved.

1. J. Spyri, Heidi, (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1946).

2. S. Stan, ‘Heidi in English: A Bibliographic Study’, [Online] New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, (2010), 16 (1):1–23, Available:

3. ‘The 100 best children's books of all time’, [Online] The Daily Telegraph, (2015),