I’ve just read ‘Heidi’ in German for the first time ever, which is odd, considering my bilingual state! As a child, I had a delightfully-illustrated English translation, long gone, alas, how I’d like to see some of those pictures again.
However, this blog is not about the pleasures of reading it in the original – I’d been hoping for Swiss dialect, and was disappointed. It did engage me, though. I loved, once again, the description of the child’s arrival at the Alm, of the grandfather’s care for her, of the high mountain pastures and the goats – all described so vividly, I could feel the wind, smell the flowers, see the blue sky. The goats were engaging, too, especially since I’ve been accompanying my small grandson to various city farms, where I’ve seen how nice they can be with children.
Then I got to the bit where aunt Dete comes back and takes her niece, willy-nilly, off to
Frankfurt, where she is to be a companion to little disabled Klara. It was at that point that the adult in me woke up and raged. Heidi is acquired by the Sesemanns as a cat or a dog might be, and when she proves not to be the docile animal the housekeeper had expected, she’s bullied and abused by this female, accused of ingratitude when she feels homesick, forced to repress all her grief. The picture of her, sitting in her room all by herself, desperately trying not to cry for fear someone might hear her, is utterly heart-rending. And her ‘pranks’ – such as trying to find a tower she can see the countryside from, or bringing home kittens – are distorted into proof of insanity or an evil nature by the housekeeper. She has friends in the house, the butler Sebastian, Klara herself, but they can't really help Heidi because what she needs most of all is not to be in Frankfurt. Of course then the good grandmother comes and tells her to confide all her unspoken troubles to God, and when God doesn’t give her what she wants, tells her she must go on praying because God will give her what she asks for only if it’s good for her. Meanwhile the child stops eating and wastes away almost unnoticed, and if she hadn’t started sleepwalking, would presumably have died before it occurred to Fräulein Rottenmeier to concern herself about her well-being.
Leaving aside the rest of the story, and the rather gruesome abject piety, what struck me most was this narrative about poverty, and the way the poor are exploited by the wealthy. It made me think of the unfortunate ‘Swabian children’, the children of desperately needy peasants in the high
Alps, both Swiss and Tyrolean, who were taken in droves to southern and offered to farmers at so called ‘child markets’. This was the time when mountain people often lived on nothing but polenta, when a piece of bread was absolute luxury to the children. Concerned contemporary commentators described the 'child markets' as slave markets, and the children were worked like slaves, paid virtually nothing, and frequently abused- but their parents were spared the expense of feeding them. Like Heidi, they must have to repress their desperate homesickness. Nobody cared, anyway, they were another kind of domestic animal, probably worse fed than the oxen and the pigs. I do wonder whether Spyri had their plight in mind – though her own story of depression, an abusive husband, and docile acceptance of her lot, seeking help only from God, has clearly also fed into these parts of the novel. Germany
Heidi is of course luckier than the 'Swabian children' – she gets back home, her rich pet-owners turn into rich patrons and assure her grandfather that they will always look after her, so she will never have to go out and earn her bread among strangers. The other family on the mountainside, goat-herd Peter, his mother and grandmother, also get some trickle-down effect from her good fortune, a bed and warm clothes for the grandmother, and a lifetime’s pocket-money for Peter. Luckier, too, than her creator, who only had a few years to enjoy independence and the friendship of other writers after her husband died. Her son predeceased her, too.