Diccon Bewes: Was Heidi’s father German?
German author, Hermann Adam von Kamp, wrote a story in 1830 about a girl living in the Swiss mountains half a century before Johanna Spyri wrote her 'Heidi'.
For millions of people around the world, Heidi is the personificaton of Switzerland, but it seems that the original Swiss miss may not be quite as Swiss as we thought. Did Heidi have German origins?
It’s almost tantamount to blasphemy to suggest such a thing but it’s a question that made front-page news in her homeland: Blick am Abend had the headline ‘Unser Heidi hat einen deustchen Vater!‘ or Our Heidi has a German father. Notice the ‘our’. The Swiss are very possessive of their little heroine, so you can imagine how much it niggles to have her parentage questioned. It’s on par with saying Robin Hood was French, or Tom Sawyer Canadian. Unimaginable.
Here’s the problem. A German-studies scholar has found a written story about a girl who lives with her grandfather, gets sent away to a foreign land, suffers terrible homesickness but lives happily ever after once she is back in the Swiss mountains. And her name was… Adelaide. This version was written by a German author, Hermann Adam von Kamp, in 1830, half a century before Johanna Spyri wrote her Heidi, the one we know and love. Is our Heidi nothing but a copy, albeit a much more succesful one? Did Johanna plagiarise a forgotten work? It’s a scandal up there with suggesting that Shakespeare copied Marlowe, and the penknives are already out.
Peter Büttner, the scholar behind the discovery (now being cast as Switzerland’s enemy number one), is adamant that Heidi is a second-hand version of a German original. She might have had a Swiss mother, but her father was clearly one Herr von Kamp from Germany. This is possibly an argument that will never end as, with both authors long since dead, there’s no-one to ask. Maybe it’s just a matter of faith, like believing that Jesus never had children.
Whatever the doubts about her origins, Heidi will remain an iconic Swiss figure. It was no surprise that she was recently picked as one of the top ten most important Swiss people of all time, despite being fictional. The Swiss love her and make the most of her fame, using her name to sell everything from milk to hamburgers – and the country itself. But even most Swiss people don’t know everything about the girl from Graubünden:
Heidi Fact 1 – her real name is Adelheid (not so different from Adelaide).
Heidi Fact 2 – the book we know today was originally published in two volumes, a year apart.
Heidi Fact 3 – it was first published without Johanna Spyri’s name on it.
There's a Shirley Temple film, a 1970s TV series, a line of dairy products in Swiss supermarkets, and even a region of Switzerland named after her. More than 130 years after her birth, Heidi is alive and well – and as Swiss as can be, no matter where the idea of her first came from. After all, it’s not as if anyone can do a DNA test on Heidi.
Diccon grew up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.
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