Was Heidi in fact Harry Potter’s great-great-grandmother?

July 7, 2010, 5 Comments

Heidi, everyone’s favourite Swiss Miss, recently had her parentage brought into question by a German scholar (see this earlier post), but what about her offspring? And I’m not talking about those awful sequels (Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children) that certainly never came from the same pen. No, I mean that other famous literary wunderkind – Harry Potter. Heidi was the Harry of her day, in terms of worldwide success if nothing else, so how much does the boy who lived owe to the girl from the Alps? The girl who was the brainchild of Johanna Spyri, who died 109 years ago today. It’s startling how many coincidences there are, and not just that the characters’ names both begin with H:

  • Both children are orphans
  • who live with an aunt who doesn’t really want them.
  • Both end up in the hills in the middle of nowhere
  • where they are looked after by an old man with a white beard.
  • Both have to face up to evil (Frau Rottenmeier is really Voldemort in drag)
  • and suffer from disturbed sleep as a result.
  • Both discover the value of true friendship
  • and made a lot of money for their creators.

True, Heidi has only sold about 50 million copies in 130 years compared to Harry’s 400 million in just 13, but then again Harry has seven volumes to his name, which averages out at about the same. Both have had successful films made from them and been merchandised to excess. If you think marketing ploys, such as plastic figurines and Harry Happy Meals, are a new thing, just visit the endearing little Spyri Museum in Hirzel to see how Heidi has been used over the decades to sell everything from water and wine to sausages and cheese. She has been prostituted in the name of profit since the day she was born. Johanna Spyri must be turning in her grave, a sombre affair in Zurich’s Sihlfeld cemetery.

Funnily enough, there are few similarities between the two authors as well:

  • They have the same first name, just spelt differently in the two languages.
  • They had to hide that name to become a success – Heidi was first published anonymously, while Joanne became JK to make her book more appealing to boys.
  • They both used their fame and fortune to help children through charitable work.

Johanna Spyri truly was the JK Rowling of her day, the most celebrated children’s author alive. Born the fourth of six children, her father was a doctor, her mother the preacher’s daughter. She pretty much stayed put in the village of Hirzel until, aged 25, she met one Johann Spyri. It must have been a tad confusing, a Johanna with a Johann, especially given that her father was also called Johann, but that didn’t stop her marrying the Zurich lawyer and moving to the big smoke. But she never really took to city life and depression took hold, particularly after the birth of her son. Solace came from her writing and visits to the countryside around Maienfeld. Her greatest success came with Heidi in 1880, only to be followed a few years later by the deaths of her son and husband. She wasn’t exactly a merry widow, but she gave time and money to charities, and carried on writing stories until her death on 7 July 1901.

The question is, would children’s literature have developed the way it did without Spyri’s bestselling story of faith, hope and love? Coincidences aside, did Heidi make Harry possible? I like to think so. It seems that every children’s book since Heidi has a bit of her magic in it, Harry included. That’s quite some legacy for a little girl from rural Switzerland.

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5 Comments on "Was Heidi in fact Harry Potter’s great-great-grandmother?"

  1. Lea Sunday July 11th, 2010 at 03:13 PM · Reply

    You have a spelling error:

    Sypri Museum


    Spyri Museum

    • swisswatching Sunday July 11th, 2010 at 04:49 PM · Reply

      Thanks Lea. Of course is was highlighted as a link as well!

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