‘Heidi’ – an unschooling Classic? Part 2 – Learning to read


An important turning point in Heidi comes when in Chapter 10 “another grandmother” comes to visit Clara and Heidi in Frankfurt and shows Heidi a book:

“For a moment or two she looked at it with brightening eyes, then the tears began to fall, and at last she burst into sobs. The grandmother looked at the picture – it represented a green pasture, full of young animals, some grazing and others nibbling at the shrubs. In the middle was a shepherd leaning upon his staff and looking on at his happy flock. The whole scene was bathed in golden light, for the sun was just sinking below the horizon.”

The picture creates such a powerful reaction in Heidi because it reminds her of home in the mountains, but there is more to it than that. The “golden light” that bathes the scene takes her beyond the mountain landscape to the creator of the landscape, though she does not realise this at the time. I’ll return to this point in a minute.

In the meantime, however, the grandmother focuses on Heidi’s baffling inability to read, which Heidi herself suggests is a result of Peter, the goatherd, having told her that it was too difficult a task, “for he had tried and tried and could not learn it.” Suddenly the rural Swiss idyll doesn’t look so idyllic.

The grandmother’s response is to dangle a reward in front of Heidi in exactly the same way that King Alfred’s mother dangled a book in front of him (according to his biographer, Bishop Asser). Here’s the grandmother again:

“‘And now hear what comes after – you see that picture with the shepherd and the animals – well, as soon as you are able to read you shall have that book for your own, and then you will know all about the sheep and the goats, and what the shepherd did, and the wonderful things that happened to him, just as if some one were telling you the whole tale. You will like to hear about all that, won’t you?’

“Heidi had listened with eager attention to the grandmother’s words and now with a sigh exclaimed, ‘Oh, if only I could read now!'”

And, lo and behold, a few pages later she shocks her tutor by doing just that (and notice the tutor’s learned, but rather tedious, verbosity as he expresses his amazement):

“It is indeed truly marvellous, not only because she never seemed able to learn her ABC even after all my full explanations, and after spending unusual pains upon her, but because now she has learnt it so rapidly, just after I had made up my mind to make no further attempts at the impossible but to put the letters as they were before her without any dissertation on their origin and meaning, and now she has as you might say learnt her letters over night, and started at once to read correctly, quite unlike most beginners.”

She has learnt almost without effort and certainly without formal instruction. The natural world of the Swiss mountain meeting the kindly presence of the urban grandmother brings about a near miracle.

Maybe this part of the novel seems implausible to many modern readers. How could Heidi move from illiteracy to literacy so quickly? Surely this is Romantic nonsense?

Well, not necessarily if Dr Harriet Pattinson, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Liverpool Hope University is to be believed. In her book, Rethinking Learning to Read, she gives plenty of examples of unschooled and home educated children who seem to do just that.


There is a great deal more to be said about reading in Heidi but, for now, I want to return to the golden light that I mentioned before. Clara’s grandmother notices Heidi’s unhappiness and discovers that Heidi has no one she can speak to about her troubles:

“Then, dear child, let me tell you what to do: you know that when we are in great trouble, and cannot speak about it to anybody, we must turn to God and pray Him to help, for He can deliver us from every care that oppresses us. You understand that, do you not? You say your prayers every evening to the dear God in Heaven and thank Him for all He has done for you, and pray Him to keep you from all evil, do you not?”

“No, I never say any prayers,” answered Heidi.

“Have you never been taught to pray, Heidi; do you not know even what it means?”

“I used to say prayers with the first grandmother, but that is a long time ago, and I have forgotten them.”

This is a fascinating passage in all sorts of ways. Firstly, we might note that it, and many other passages like it, are omitted from many abridged versions of the novel (including the audiobook we own). Secondly, we might note the connection between the two grandmothers in this book from which parents are notably absent. Thirdly, we might note the remarkable impact of the grandmother’s words. She doesn’t teach Heidi how to pray – she is a guide from the side – but Heidi responds with great joy and a week later starts reading.

When Heidi first learns to read, it only makes her unhappy because, after reading one story, she realises for the first time that Peter’s grandmother might have died while she was away, but the impact of prayer is much more positive and long-lasting. When she returns to her beloved mountain, for example, she looks around with great joy at the beautiful scene:

“And as Heidi stood gazing around her at all this splendour the tears ran down her cheeks for very delight and happiness, and impulsively she put her hands together, and lifting her eyes to heaven, thanked God aloud for having brought her home, thanked Him that everything was as beautiful as ever, more beautiful even than she had thought, and it was all hers again once more. And she could not find words to thank Him enough.”

To the three stages of Romanticism that I mentioned in my last post, we should then perhaps add a fourth: when Nature points beyond itself, when the created world speaks once more of the creator (as it did for Wordsworth who, to the bafflement of some of the younger Romantic firebrands, gave up his pantheism for Anglicanism.)

The shepherd is no longer just a shepherd but the Good Shepherd, and the golden light no longer comes simply from the sun but from the Son.


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