Hazel McHaffie

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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