Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732
Johanna Heussel Spyri spent her entire life within a few miles of Zurich, Switzerland. The details of her youth have been preserved in an account by her childhood playmate, Anna Ulrich, entitled Recollections of Johanna Spyri's Childhood (1925). Far less is known about her adult life. Not only have her...
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Johanna Heussel Spyri spent her entire life within a few miles of Zurich, Switzerland. The details of her youth have been preserved in an account by her childhood playmate, Anna Ulrich, entitled Recollections of Johanna Spyri's Childhood (1925). Far less is known about her adult life. Not only have her personal papers and manuscripts been lost over the years, but she was said to be a deeply private woman who shunned public attention and considered the influence of her books more important than the details of her life. Her friends respected her wish for privacy by revealing little about her adult life.
Born in the village of Herzel, seven miles from Zurich, on June 12, 1827, Spyri was named Johanna after her father, Dr. Johann Jakob Heussel, a local physician. The family maintained a home of culture and activity, and Spyri's mother was a gifted poet and songwriter. The family enjoyed acting out charades together, and the children were required to write little verses, which they turned in to their father every Sunday night. Spyri enjoyed these writing projects and even wrote extra verses for her younger siblings. Besides her large family—Spyri was the fourth of six children—her home included her grandmother, two aunts, two female cousins, and sometimes even a few of the doctor's patients.
From all accounts, the young Spyri was just like Heidi, even sharing the same grey eyes and brown hair. "Hanneli" or "Hanni," as her family called her, enjoyed nature, frolicking out-of-doors, creative drama, storytelling, and music more than she liked academics. She studied with the pastor at the village school. Although lively and witty and a clever mimic, she lacked the talent in drawing thought essential for young ladies of her time. Her friend Anna Ulrich noted that Spyri used her eraser more than her pencil; indeed, she once submitted a drawing to her teacher with a hole in the middle of it. The teacher was not amused. Ulrich also quotes Spyri's sister, who remembered that Spyri loved the sound of the wind in the fir trees so much that she would stop playing just to listen. The two sisters also made friends with Franz Antoni, an old goatherd, who gave them bread with fresh cheese and butter to eat at his hut.
In Writers for Children, Catherine Eayrs notes that the kindly doctor in Heidi is much like Spyri's own father and that Clara's grandma and Peter's grandmother are storytellers much like her own grandmother. Heidi and Peter's difficulties in school come from memories of her own frustrations. Even the settings are real. She knew well the city of Malenfeld in eastern Switzerland, and Dorfli, although fictional, is much like the village of Jenins, where she spent much time between 1846 and 1852.
Bernhard Spyri, her brother Theodor's classmate, often came to spend Saturday nights and Sundays at her house. In 1852, while Johanna was studying in Zurich, they married. Bernhard Spyri was a lawyer and later became town clerk in Zurich. Their friends included the poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and the composer Richard Wagner. They had one son, Bernhard Diethelm Spyri, who died of tuberculosis in 1884 at the age of 29. The elder Bernhard died later that same year.
Johanna Spyri began writing for publication in 1870, prompted mainly by a desire to do something to help the soldiers wounded in the Franco-Prussian War. Many soldiers and war orphans came to Switzerland for shelter, but money for supplies to help them was scarce. Spyri had been active in the International Red Cross, begun in 1864, and she hoped to be able to donate all of her royalties to charities as well as to publicize the conditions of the orphans. Her first book, A Leaf on Vrony's Grave (1871), and the first of the Heidi stories, published in Germany in 1880, were both published anonymously. The second Heidi story, published in 1881, gave her credit for authorship. Originally entitled Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning and Heidi Makes Use of What She Has Learned, the two Heidi books are now published as one. Heidi ran through thirteen editions in its first ten years. After the death of her son and husband in 1884, Spyri's writing intensified, and in 1886 she moved near Zurich's municipal theatre. In time she became an invalid and something of a recluse, but she continued to write until her death on July 7, 1901. Her last story, Jorli, was published in Berlin that year.