Hazel McHaffie

Johanna Spyri

Childhood revisited

Well, I’m currently taking a break from the serious research for my next novel and revisiting my youth!  Why? Because it’s time to start preparing for the family’s annual Christmas story/play, and as part of that I’ve been acquiring and re-reading books I loved as a girl. All very undemanding but very satisfying. And great fun.

Johanna Spyri’s Heidi is one of them. A delightfully innocent and gentle tale of a young orphan girl living with her grandfather high in the Swiss mountains, scampering in the meadows with the goats, bringing joy to the lives of assorted elderly and disabled people. And a classic.

Back then I simply revelled in the story. Sixty plus years on and a writer myself, I’m now much more curious about the author. Apparently she lived her whole life contentedly within a few miles of Zurich and even when her work became known in the bigger world, she personally shrank away from public acclaim, having no appetite at all for having ‘her innermost, deepest soul laid bare’. Maybe a lot to do with her sad life story; four years after Heidi came out she was widowed in her fifties, her only child having already died in childhood.

I was astonished to see that the book was published in 1880, a fact that entirely escaped me last time around. And that was ten years after Frau Spyri wrote it. It’s alleged that she completed it in four weeks; if so that was indeed time well spent given its success.

Thanks to Charles Tritten, Heidi’s story has been continued in two further volumes: Heidi Grows Up, and Heidi’s Children, neither of which I read as a girl. Tritten was intimately acquainted with the characters already, having translated the original tale into French. But more than that, he has drawn on the author’s own childhood and interests, and the Swiss valley she loved so much, and borrowed many of her literary foibles, to preserve the uniqueness of the world she created in Heidi. Some of the language feels very dated now reading it in the 21st century, and there are occasional inconsistencies, but the gentle moral messages are as relevant today as they were back then.

Working on this next story for the grandchildren nicely compliments ongoing work on the costumes. Yep, I’m wardrobe mistress and director as well as author – and I love it all. The youngsters have been involved in fittings over the summer and this authentic linen dress for Heidi met with an enthusiastic thumbs up.

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A short stay in Switzerland

Panoramic trainD’you remember the BBC film of this name, A Short Stay in Switzerland, a dramatisation of the last days of Dr Anne Turner who developed an incurable degenerative disorder (PSP)? She made the front pages of the papers with her letters to friends and relations to say, ‘By the time you read this I will be dead‘. In January 2006 she travelled to Dignitas to end her life, the day before her 67th birthday, while she was still able to move and voluntarily take the lethal medication. And a report this week says that almost a quarter of terminally ill people who avail themselves of the suicide clinic’s services are from Britain (second only to Germany).

MatterhornWell, I’m grateful to be able to report that my own short stay was of a quite different order. I had eight days to revel in the spectacular scenery, travel on the world famous panoramic trains, listen to the enchanting melody of cow bells in the mountains, and inhale the pure Swiss air, with no sinister intent. All I had to do was soak up the beauty and recharge the batteries. Wonderful.

I did my best not to let the Dignitas issue cast a shadow over my holiday, but of course, books featured. After all, this was real Heidi country, Johanna Spyri was born, lived and wrote in and around the rural area of Hirzel and Zurich, and used Graubünden for the setting of her books – all places I visited. Although Spyri struggled to find a publisher initially, the two Heidi stories went on to become by far the most popular works of Swiss literature: they’ve been translated from German into 50 languages, filmed more than a dozen times, and over 50 million copies have been sold world wide. Swiss pasturesSo evocative were they of the Swiss Alps that the real locations exactly conformed to my childhood mental images.Swiss cows

Switzerland is also the stuff of the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, another big part of my growing up. Stories of schoolgirls who spoke three languages fluently, whose lives were overshadowed by the sanitorium, and who seemed to grow up to have lots of children also destined for the Chalet School.  Old hardback Chalet School booksI collected most of the hardbacks (secondhand) in my youth, and passed them on to my daughter, who recently completed the set (58 books), paying a good deal more for rare copies than I ever did! Paperback Chalet School booksThe full complement are destined for the next generation. What a lovely legacy. I might even read them again myself some time – this time in the correct order! – and fill in all the gaps.

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A dramatic start to 2012

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x91rBzNKvlc

A friend sent me this – beautiful photography, excellent sentiments – and I thought I’d share it with you in this first post of 2012. It says what I’d like to say so much better than I could say it (spelling mistakes excepted). A wish for world peace, wisdom, courage, happiness; what more could we ask for? And the idea of that spotless tract of snow that will show every mark we make, fairly strengthens the resolve to do better, doesn’t it?

As for me, well, it’s back to work with a vengeance this week. One of my tasks has been preparing a resumé of the dramatic appeal of my books ready for an approach to filmmakers. And because my mind has been running along that track I’ve been acutely conscious of the number of films from books shown on TV over the festive period.

Dickens’ Great Expectations made the biggest splash, of course, with its millions of viewers at prime time.

Now, I confess I studied Great Expectations at school for O-level English, but I’m hanged if I remembered much about it decades later. What I do know, though,  is that seeing this adaptation was a hundred times more enjoyable – and I’m a self-confessed book addict. From the moment when Magwitch emerges from the eerie slime, to the point where Miss Havisham dons her bridal veil and sets fire to her lover’s letters and herself, I was gripped. The only jarring bits for me were the good-looking stars. Surely Miss Havisham was more crumbly and wrinkled than Gillian Anderson made her; and Pip was certainly not as prettily perfect a screen idol as Douglas Booth  – eclipsing Estelle, in fact. But I could easily overlook those anomalies, and concede that they together probably brought in far more viewers than ordinary everyday faces would have done.

Also on offer were repeats of the oldies – Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Dorian Gray, Little Women, Heidi, Mansfield Park, Emma, The Chronicles of Narnia … to name but a few on the main channels.

Now, usually I’m averse to watching a film of a book I’ve read. I like to retain the characters of my imagination unsullied by the interpretations of others. But I’m increasingly coming round to thinking that drama can bring these remote tales of bygone times to life for far more people. Some of whom will then go to the book with a headstart in understanding the rather dreary 19th century prose. Why, just today I saw a shelf full of paperback versions of Great Expectations curiously labelled ‘Vintage Dickens’ – with scratchy black and white covers too, not even a photograph of the TV stars in the Christmas version! So there must be a market for the book now amongst the folk of 2012 who buy ready-made cakes and polyester clothes and giant plasma screen TVs. Besides which, you can download the classics on your Kindle absolutely free of charge.

So, all power to the elbow of those who labour to resurrect the classics for the 21st century, say I. Andrew Davies screenplay of Little Dorrit was for me a masterclass in bringing fusty prose to life. Davies, you’ll remember, was the genius who created a Mr Darcy who cooled his ardour in the pond and emerged with his wet shirt and breeches clinging to his manly form in front of his lady love in Pride and Prejudice. A brilliant screenwriter.

One day I’m hoping to persuade some playwright and film director somewhere to do something similar for me! That’s what’s galvanising me this week. I used to worry about my stories being distorted, but Dickens has been dragged into accessibility and modern times by clever adaptation, so why not me?

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