Biography and Works of Johanna Spyri-Heusser

Johanna [Joan] Spyri,
(maiden name Johanna Heusser)
was born in a small village called Hirzel,
some 25 km [15 miles] southeast
of Zurich, Switzerland,
on June 12, 1827,
as daughter of a country doctor.
She died in Zurich
on July 7, 1901.

Johanna Spyri's story of Heidi, the girl from the Alps, became a world-wide success story already towards the end of the 19th century and children do still like it today - as a book, as a radio play and as a movie. Heidi is by far the most popular work of Swiss literature and has been translated from German into 50 languages, been filmed more than a dozen times, and more than 50 million copies of Heidi books have been sold world-wide (Switzerland's population is only 7 million ...).
> Summary of the story of Heidi

Johanna Spyri: Works

From 1879 to 1895 Johanna Spiry wrote 16 volumes of stories for children in a series entitled Geschichten für Kinder und auch für solche, welche die Kinder lieb haben [stories for children and for those who like them]. Among these, four have found special resonance, but only the two Heidi volumes have become really popular:

  • Heimatlos (homeless, 1879)
  • Aus nah und fern (from nearby and far, 1879)
  • Heidi's Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidy is learning while traveling around, 1880)
  • Heidi kann brauchen was es gelernt hat (Heidy makes use of what she has learnt, 1881)

From 1871 to 1901, Johanna Spyri published 27 books and 4 booklets containing a total of 48 stories / novels. All things considered, Johanna Spyri had a rather critical view on Switzerland's society in the late 19th century. Today her works - apart from the famous Heidi story - find probably more interest among historians trying to understand society in the 19th century than among people interested in literature.
Johanna Spyri took a special interest in the situation of children and young women. In 19th Europe children were regarded, treated (and disciplined!) as small, imperfect adults. So it was quite revolutionary when Johanna Spyri took sides with the children as having their own world and their own needs differing widely from the world of adults.

Johanna Spyri: Biography and Background

Parents, Childhood, Education

Johanna Heusser was born and raised in a small village named Hirzel, situated on the prealpine hills above Lake Zurich. Her father Johann Jacob Heusser was a country doctor coming from a rural background. Her mother Meta (Margareta) Heusser-Schweizer, daughter of a pastor and descendant from a family closely related to the 18th century literary circles in Zurich (Gessner, Lavater), wrote pietist religious poetry and hymns. Meta Heusser did not want that her works were published, and when she finally could be persuaded to do so, she insisted that her name would not be disclosed.
At the time, her works found widespread resonance, but only a few enthusiasts in literature do know her today. A selection of Alpine Lyrics by Meta Heusser-Schweizer was even translated into English in 1875, reflecting 19th century enthusiasm for the alps. Her letters and her chronicle (Hauschronik) show that Meta Heusser-Schweizer was a precise observer interested in politics and society.

Johanna Heusser had three brothers and three sisters, but one brother died as a small child. Johanna Heusser grew up in a sheltered upper class family environment, but also deeply rooted in a small rural community. At the age of 14 she was sent to the city of Zurich, where she lived with her aunt and could attend a high school. Two years later, she was sent to a residential school in the French-speaking city of Yverdon, western Switzerland - a typical choice for an upper class Swiss family at the time.
After graduation she returned home, helped her mother, taught her little siblings and read a lot. Politically, these years were quite turbulent in Switzerland with a short civil war between conservatives and liberals in 1847 followed by the foundation of a modern, democratic, federal national state with national parliament and government replacing a loose confederacy of small territories. Seen on this background, staying in Hirzel with her parents might have been a choice for safety.


Johanna Spyri's Marriage

In 1852, at the age of 25, Johanna married Johann Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer and journalist and moved to the pulsating city of Zurich again. Her husband became General Secretary of the city administration, at the time a very honorary position, in 1868. As Johann Bernhard Spyri was a workaholic and did not show too much interest for his wife, the marriage was not very happy.

Johanna Spyri suffered from depression during pregnancy and could not recover from it for several years. She had one son, Bernhard, who suffered from tuberculosis, a disease that affected quite a number of people and was not easy to fight until the 1960's. Bernhard died at the age of 28. The same year, 1884, Johanna Spyri's husband died as well.

Johanna Spyri's Career as a Writer

A friend of the family encouraged Johanna Spyri to write, and so she published her first story "Ein Blatt auf Vronys Grab" in 1871. The story is about a woman being maltreated by her husband, an alcoholic; Vrony prays to God and accepts her fate as she is advised by her pastor. This story is a dismal portrait of 19th century social reality. At the time this story was a success, and it certainly encouraged its authoress to keep on writing.

Johanna Spyri's personality is multifaceted. Earlier portraits focused on her depressive, introverted side.

Recent analysis of her letters shows some other aspects, however. As a widow, she traveled a lot, had many friends and was a very self-confident, independent woman. It would seem that writing stories helped her to find her personal road out of the traditional, all too devotional way of accepting suffering as an unchangeable fate - a way that had been paved by her family. Johanna Spyri did not, however, quit her faith and turn into a viperish social critic (as others would probably have done), but rather believed in personal development and in accepting challenges.

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