Johanna Spyri

Johanna Spyri (1827-1901) Spends several summers in the area around Chur (especially Jenins and Maienfeld), which was later to provide the geographic setting for "Heidi".

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 16 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 .

In 1852, at the age of 25, Johanna married Johann Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer and journalist and moved to the pulsating city of Zurich. Her husband became town clerk (general secretary), 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 escape from it for several years. She had one son, Bernhard, who died early at the age of 28 from comsumption.

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.


Tags: | Switzerland | Literature | Heidi | Nature |


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