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Telling Tales

David Blamires

6. The Swiss Family Robinson

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  • 1 Brian Alderson in Bettina Hürlimann, Three Centuries of Children’s Books in Europe, translated and (...)

1With The Swiss Family Robinson we come to one of the great classics of children’s literature in English. This story of a father and mother and their four sons who were wrecked on a desert island in the tropics, encountered all manner of birds, beasts, fish and reptiles as well as plant life and established themselves comfortably there has enjoyed extraordinary popularity for nearly two hundred years. Its combination of adventure, danger and discovery with paternal instruction in botany, zoology and geography made it irresistible to generations of youthful readers. Though Campe’s Robinson der Jüngere was by far the most successful Robinsonade in Germany, The Swiss Family Robinson, German too in origin, oustripped it in success in its various English guises. Brian Alderson estimates that from the late 1840s ’close on three hundred different editions must have been published in England and America’.1 The title of the book is known to virtually everybody in Britain even today, yet in Germany and even in Switzerland, where the book originated, it is nowadays scarcely known. The book’s success in Britain probably owes a great deal to pride in the achievements of British explorers and colonists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to the growth and consolidation of the Empire during this period. The book may be concerned with a Swiss family, but its experiences could easily be identified with imaginatively by British youngsters. These excited readers may well have had relatives or neighbours scattered across the colonies. They could revel in the exotic dangers and delights of the desert island, knowing that it connected up with the strange and marvellous realities of far-flung British settlements.

2The history of The Swiss Family Robinson is extraordinarily complex, and aspects of it still await detailed investigation. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the earliest English editions do not derive directly from the original German text, but from a version made in French by the Swiss Baroness Isabelle de Montolieu (1751-1832), who made a good many changes and additions to it. The earliest editions of the story in all three languages are now rare items and are difficult to find all in one place. The result is that most statements made about them tend to be made on the basis of secondary literature rather than stemming from examination of the original editions. When it comes to editions published after about 1850 the matter is no less complicated, and generalities abound. It might be thought that this is a task not worth undertaking, but a book that has enjoyed such popularity in English over nearly two centuries deserves this kind of attention from some future scholar.

  • 2 For a detailed account of the manuscript see Robert L. Wyss, ’Der Schweizerische Robinson. Seine E (...)

3The origins of the book lie in a story written by the Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss (1743-1818) for his four sons. It was written between 1792-98 and consists of some 841 pages in manuscript, together with illustrations. The manuscript is bound in four volumes and was placed on long-term deposit in the Burgerbibliothek in Bern in 1997.2 This text was edited and slightly adapted by Johann David Wyss’s second son, Johann Rudolf Wyss (1781-1830), and published as Der Schweizerische Robinson, oder der schiffbrüchige Schweizer-Prediger und seine Familie. Ein lehrreiches Buch für Kinder und Kinder-Freunde zu Stadt und Land. Herausgegeben von Joh. Rudolf Wyß (Zürich: Orell, Füßli und Compagnie, 1812-13) in two volumes (The Swiss Robinson, or the Shipwrecked Swiss Preacher and his Family. An instructive book for children and their friends in town and country. Edited by Joh. Rudolf Wyss). These two volumes covered only half of the original manuscript; the remainder was not published until 1826-27 in a further two volumes. The title-page of volume 1 actually gives the form ’Schweizersche’, though at p. 1 it appears as ’Schweitzerische’. Volumes 3 and 4 have the form ’Schweizerische’. Volume 1 contains a frontispiece by H. Lips portraying an extraordinary tree with large spherical fruits on the left, palm-trees with three monkeys on the right and in the background. Father and one son, both armed with a gun and accompanied by a dog, occupy the foreground. Volume 2 contains at the end a map of the island, which has been reproduced in very many subsequent editions of the book. An advertisement on p. 335 of volume 1 indicates that it was published ’Auf Jubilate’, i.e. the third Sunday after Easter. The text is divided into chapters with descriptive headings. Volume 1 contains fourteen chapters, the last headed ’Neue Beute von dem Wrack. Das Floß. Die Schildkröte’ (New booty from the wreck. The raft. The turtle). Volume 2 contains chapters 15-28, the last comprising ’Anlegung einer zweyten Meyerey. Kleine Entdeckungen. Das Brot. Die Klause. Neue Benennungen. Arbeiten in der Felsen-Wohnung’ (Establishing a second farm. Small discoveries. Bread. The hermitage. Giving new names. Work in the rock dwelling). The story then breaks off without any conclusion, leaving the family still on the island, living in Felsenheim and with no indication of possible rescue. However, at the end of volume 2 an editorial postscript explains how, three or four years after the family was shipwrecked, an English transport ship called The Adventurer returning from New Holland (i.e. the south-east part of what we now know as Australia) was blown by a storm to the island. A boat was sent ashore and took the journal of the Swiss family back to the ship, but was prevented from returning to rescue them. The journal was taken to England and from there to Switzerland. The captain was stated to be determined to return to rescue the family.

4This was the text that stimulated Madame de Montolieu to produce a French translation. It was entitled Le Robinson suisse, ou journal d’un père de famille naufragé avec ses enfans. Traduit de l’allemand de M. Wiss; par Mme de Montolieu. Orné de huit fig. En taille douce. (Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1814). It was published in four volumes, and there was a fold-out map at the end. Madame de Montolieu divided her text into thirty-six chapters, each with descriptive headings. The content covers the same material as appeared in the twenty-eight chapters of the German original, but with slightly different divisions and some additions, especially at the beginning and the end. The fact that Montolieu’s version occupies four volumes while the German has only two is explained simply by differences in font-size and lay-out in the two books.

5Montolieu created in her avant-propos a narrative and geographical context for the original story. She placed the island on which the Swiss family was wrecked as situated towards the south-west of Java, near the coasts of New Guinea, and the ship is described as the Russian vessel The Podesda, commanded by Captain Kreusenstern. Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1770-1846) was an admiral in Russian service and undertook the first Russian voyage round the world in 1803-06. Madame de Montolieu, in transcribing the details of the German editorial postscript, makes two odd mistakes. She talks about The Adventurer returning from New Zealand (rather than New Holland) and passing by ’Otaheïti’ (Tahiti) to the east (rather than the west) coasts of North America, collecting a cargo of furs there for China and then returning to England via Canton. Such a route is plainly absurd and must be attributed to misreadings of the German text.

6We now need to turn to the first English version. This appeared with the title first given as The Family Robinson Crusoe: or, Journal of a Father Shipwrecked, with his Wife and Children, on an Uninhabited Island. Translated from the German of M. Wiss. In two volumes (London: M. J. Godwin & Co., 1814). Each volume contains a frontispiece and one further illustration designed by H. Corbould and engraved by Springsguth. Volume 1 shows the family on board the ship in the storm and the landing of the ass, while volume 2 has engravings entitled ’Shooting the Kangaroo’ and ’The Family Congregation’. The translation is conjecturally attributed to William Godwin (1756-1836), but it is only ’Translated from the German’ at a remove. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature correctly states that ’it also incorporated some of Mme de Montolieu’s additions’, but closer inspection reveals that the whole book is dependent on Montolieu and not on the German original. The very title-page gives the game away: Montolieu spells the author’s name ’Wiss’, while the German gives the editor’s full name ’Joh. Rudolf Wyß’. The English subtitle follows the French ’journal d’un père naufragé avec ses enfans’, though the translator is sufficiently alert to give the wife’s presence some credit. The German sub-title refers to the father as a ’Schweizer-Prediger’, while neither the French nor the English mentions here that he is a ’preacher’.

7Looking at the actual text, we discover that the number and division of chapters of this first English version correspond exactly to those of the first two volumes of Montolieu’s French version. This portion of the narrative covers only thirteen of the fourteen chapters in the first volume of the German original. A comparison of the chapter-headings in German, French and English makes it plain that the English is in every instance a translation of the French. Moreover, both the French and the English divide the German chapters 11, 12 and 13 each into two parts with the result that they have sixteen chapters to the German thirteen. If the English translator had worked from the German edition, it would have been bizarre to translate only thirteen of the fourteen chapters contained in the first volume. The fact that the English text corresponds exactly to the French in its division and numbering of chapters makes the claim to be ’Translated from the German of M. Wiss’ utterly disingenuous. The further statement at the end of volume 2 of Godwin’s publication is also deliberately misleading: ’As soon as the German copy of the Continuation can be procured, the translation of it shall be made and published’. The second volume of the German text had already been published in 1813 and was thus theoretically, if not practically, available. Presumably Godwin had translated the first half of Montolieu’s version and was still waiting for the second half.

8One of the problems of The Swiss Family Robinson from the pedagogical point of view is the fact that the fauna and flora of the island do not match its supposed location on the globe. Animals, birds and plants are mentioned, usually for their utility to the family, as though anything might be found anywhere regardless of latitude or longitude. One early example is the agouti, a native of South America and the West Indies, which most children will only have encountered through The Swiss Family Robinson. However, the Swiss author was not particularly concerned about geographical verisimilitude, and Humboldt’s investigations into plant and animal ecology still lay in the future. Wyss’s aim was to provide not only a lesson in world zoology and botany, but also a practical, moral and religious education for the four sons who listened eagerly to his story. The trials and discoveries of the shipwrecked family were designed to build up to the establishment of a comfortable and civilized form of life that could be seen as a New Switzerland, an ideal of purity and the enjoyment of honest labour. The island was not a real place, and it became increasingly unreal through the additions made by Madame de Montolieu. The hotch-potch of natural life on the island was criticized by Captain Frederick Marryat, who, in the preface to his own Robinsonade Masterman Ready (1841-45), declared that ’it does not adhere to the probable, or even the possible’. This defect, however, does not seem to have affected the continuing popularity of Wyss’s book in its many forms.

9Among the many geographical impossibilities we find in chapter 6 of Montolieu a small incident in which twelve year old Ernest captures a penguin and says: ’Oui, mon père, je crois que mon gibier est une espèce de pinguoin, qu’on pourrait distinguer par le surnom de stupide’. Godwin’s translation reads: ’Yes, father, I believe that the bird which I have caught is a kind of penguin, or we might distinguish him by the surname of Stupid’. The German original has nothing about penguins in the corresponding chapter. There is, however, a brief allusion in chapter 2, where the family is making its first landing on the island: ’Nur das widrige Gekrächz verschiedener Pinguine und einiger Flamingos, die wir theils fliegend, theils ruhend auf den Felsenspitzen an der Einfahrt der Bucht erblickten, verstimmte in etwas die Harmonie unserer civilisirten Musicanten’. (Only the repulsive croaking of various penguins and some flamingos that we caught sight of, some flying, some resting on the points of rocks at the entrance to the bay, grated a little against the harmony of our civilized musicians.) This was presumably the passage that prompted Montolieu’s amplification, which then became a firm part of the story. The German text was overtaken in popularity by the French and English versions, and when it was revised by Heinrich Kurz after J. R. Wyss’s death for the third edition (1841-42), this new detail was incorporated with a slight modification: ’Ja, Vater! sagte Ernst, ich glaube mein Wildpret ist eine Boobie, oder ein Dümmling’ (p. 43) (Yes, Father, said Ernst, I think my game is a booby, or a fool). The booby is a kind of gannet, but it is hardly more plausible than a penguin.

10There are many more passages in which the French and English early texts differ from the original German, but the English does have occasional independent additions with no correspondence in Montolieu. Thus, in chapter 5 in the passage dealing with breakfast we find:

All this succeeded vastly well, and we sat down to breakfast, some biscuits and a cocoa-nut shell full of salt butter being placed upon the ground, round which we all assembled, and none of us failing from time to time to wish for a fairy’s wand, to have enabled us to add a little milk from the cow, or from some cocoa-nuts, to quench our thirst. We however toasted our biscuit, and while it was hot applied the butter, and contrived without the fairy’s wand, to make a hearty breakfast.

  • 3 Marjorie Moon, Benjamin Tabart’s Juvenile Library. A Bibliography of Books for Children Published, (...)

11The text is modified in the fourth edition (1820) so that the first italicized passage reads: ’from time to time wishing for a fairy’s wand, to procure a little milk from the cow, or from some cocoa-nuts, to quench our thirst’. There is no mention of a fairy in Montolieu, and the reference here to a fairy’s wand is quite surprising. Perhaps this comes indirectly from Godwin’s wife, Mary Jane, who edited and translated Tabart’s Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery (1804), which included a variety of French, Italian and English fairytales.3 In any case, the words italicized in the above quotation were omitted from later revisions of Godwin’s edition, at the latest by the ninth edition (1834).

12In the chapter concerned with the Swiss family’s change of abode Montolieu adds a comment on women that is taken over by Godwin as follows:

Women, for their part, never fail to have more things to carry than there are places to put them in, said I, also laughing: however, let us see how handsomely I shall be able to provide for what belongs to you, my love. Fortunately, I had already thought of making the ass’s load as light as possible, foreseeing that it would be necessary to carry our little one [i.e. six year old Francis] a part of the way (vol. 2, p. 49).

13This addition has a rather more worldly tone than we find in the austere Swiss original, which has little to say about the female sex as a whole. The mother is basically in charge of domestic life, cooking and sewing, and is treated with courtesy and affection by father and sons, but the fact that Johann David Wyss’s own family consisted of four sons and no daughters meant that the story centres on the education and adventures of boys alone. The passage quoted above does not figure in the 1834 English edition.

14Godwin published the second English edition in 1818 with the new title The Swiss Family Robinson, and this included the rest of Montolieu’s first French translation. This extended English version seems to have appeared in a variety of editions up to the early 1850s. Certain revisions to the 1814 text are apparent up to the end of chapter 16. For the most part these consist of abridgements of the religious, moral and philosophical passages that are so frequent and striking in Wyss’s original text and the first translations. Some idea of the kind of changes may be gained from looking at what happened to a short passage in the opening chapter. The 1814 edition reads:

Soon after the evening set in: the tempest and the waves continued their fury; the planks and beams of the vessel separated in many parts with a horrible crash. It seemed impossible for the boats, or any one of the persons they contained, to escape the raging of the storm.
Papa, cried my youngest boy, six years old, will not God assist us soon? Hold your tongue, replied his eldest brother. Do you not know that it is our duty not to prescribe to God, but to wait for his assistance with patience and humility?
Well spoken, my boy, said I; but you should not have reproved your brother so sharply. The eldest instantly ran and kissed the innocent little creature.

15The 1820 edition reduces this as follows:

Soon after, night set in: the tempest and the waves continued their fury; the planks and beams of the vessel separated in many parts with a horrible crash. We thought of the boats, and feared that all they contained must have sunk under the foaming surge.

16All the rest is omitted. It is not always easy to see why certain verbal alterations were made. Presumably the adapter supposed the new text read more smoothly or easily. The excision of some religious passages was probably concerned with reducing the Calvinistic tenor of the original. The simplification of technical explanations about zoology, botany and mechanics placed a greater emphasis on the adventure aspect of the narrative, playing down slightly the pedagogical tone of the book in favour of the excitement of making ever more discoveries that improve the quality of the shipwrecked family’s material situation.

17The extended and revised English translation of Montolieu’s first edition does not follow it in every particular. To the original sixteen chapters are added a further sixteen, which take the story up to ’Completion of two Farm Houses. – A Lake. – The Beast with a Bill. – A Boat’. However, these do not correspond exactly to Montolieu, who has a total of thirty-six chapters. Not only are there differences in chapter divisions, but the English text omits Montolieu’s chapter 25, ’Nouvelle excursion; le Vin de palmier’(New excursion; palm wine), and chapter 28, ’Origine de quelques arbres fruitiers européens’ (Origin of certain European fruit-trees). The reason is probably that alcohol was regarded with disfavour and that the treatise on European fruit-trees was considered an unnecessary digression. The father’s journal ends thus:

Nearly two years have elapsed without our perceiving the smallest trace of civilized or savage man; without the appearance of a single vessel or canoe upon the vast sea by which we are surrounded. Ought we then to indulge a hope that we shall once again behold the face of a fellow-creature? We encourage serenity and thankfulness in each other, and wait with resignation the event!

18There then follows the ’Postscript by the editor’ explaining about Captain Johnson and The Adventurer.

19Meanwhile, Madame de Montolieu had not remained idle. She had dedicated her original translation to her three grandsons and two great-nephews, and it appears that their enthusiasm and that of other young French readers led the baroness into penning a continuation of the story. In this way an extended French text by Montolieu actually predates the authentic German continuation that Johann Rudolf Wyss brought out in two further volumes only in 1826-27. This German second edition simply adds these two new volumes to those already published in 1812-13 and appends various editorial comments. In the preface to volume 4 Wyss alludes to the greater popularity of the work in France and England than either Switzerland or Germany and then comments on the Montolieu edition:

Bey der französischen [Ausgabe] sind die Verdienste der Verfasserin, Frau von Montolieu nicht gering, sie hat die Erzählung mit manchem Zuge bereichert, Einiges hinzugesetzt, den Ton auf die französische Jugend gestellt, und endlich das Ganze mit einer Fortsetzung bedacht, die viel Vortreffliches enthält. (In the French [edition] the merits of the author, Madame de Montolieu, are not small; she has enriched the tale with many details, made additions, adapted the tone to suit French youngsters and, lastly, provided the whole with a continuation that contains many excellent things.)

20A little further on Wyss mentions that the English translation is dependent on the French, as was also the Italian. He refers to the fact that the English edition contains notes on natural history taken for the most part from the French. He also observes that they are furnished with more copper-plates than the German edition, but that they all lack scientific illustrations, which actually would be the most useful. In this respect the German edition of 1841-42 (which came after J. R. Wyss’s death) was a considerable improvement. Even so, many of the illustrations depict incidents in the story, and those that portray animals, birds, plants, etc. do not identify their subjects by name.

21It was not until 1849 that an English version of the second part of the original narrative appeared, ending with the discovery of another castaway, the young Emily, alias Edward Montrose – she is called Jenny in the German text – and the arrival of The Unicorn, Captain Littleton and the Wolston family, who provide the means for the oldest and the youngest of the four brothers to sail back to Europe. Judging from the number of chapters and their length, this is probably based on the German edition of 1826-27, since the edition of 1840-41 has fewer, but much longer chapters. When the two parts were published in one volume in 1852, many of the Swiss author’s allusions and disquisitions were omitted and the number of chapters was reduced. Both the German and the English texts include the episode of the boa constrictor which kills the family’s ass, an episode that is generally credited to Madame de Montolieu.

22It is clear from this survey of the early German, French and English editions that Wyss’s story was subject to constant textual changes. Naturally enough, personal names were adapted, but only minimally with Ernst and Franz, who became Ernest and Francis, while Fritz and Jack (Jakob) retained their German forms. Perhaps more interestingly the two dogs, Türk and Bill, became Turk and Ponto in 1814, with Ponto being renamed Flora, certainly by the fourth edition. By the time of the sixth edition in 1826 Wyss’s name had disappeared from the title-page. It was, of course, a source of future confusions with later publishers that the book was written by J. D. Wyss and edited by J. R. Wyss, so the book may on occasion be attributed to a non-existent J. D. R. Wyss. But the omission of the author’s name is a plain enough signal that the story has become the English equivalent of an anonymous Volksbuch. What matters here is the story, and that can be manipulated, abridged or amplified, and details can be changed without any consultation with the author. Most English readers of today know the title of the book, but it’s doubtful how high a proportion will know the author’s name. Indeed, they will be completely unaware of the multiplicity of forms in which the story has circulated. How many will have any idea that in 1869 Mary Godolphin produced a version in words of one syllable? (She did this also for Robinson Crusoe.)

23Mary Jane Godwin’s edition of The Swiss Family Robinson was taken over by the firm of Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy by the sixth edition of 1826 (possibly earlier). By the time of the thirteenth edition (1848) it was being published by the combined firms of Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., Whittaker and Co. and Houlston and Stoneman. From the mid century onwards more and more publishers muscled in on the book’s popularity and produced a great variety of texts. These included not simply modifications of the well-known version, but also new translations based on material that had not been available to Godwin. A full German text had been available from 1826-27, but new versions in French also played an important role. Because the English forms feed on both German and French versions of varying provenance, the bibliography of Wyss’s book continues to be intricate, if not unfathomable, for most of the nineteenth century.

  • 4 Rowan Gibbs, The Swiss Family Robinson, Book Catalogue (Wellington, New Zealand: Rowan Gibbs; Smit (...)

24The Halifax firm of Milner and Sowerby even went so far as to have two quite distinct texts of The Swiss Family Robinson on its list. One appears to be a hybrid of Wyss and Montolieu and was published in the firm’s ’Cottage Library’ cheap format in 1859. There may have been an earlier edition.4 The other, dated 1862, follows the pattern of Wyss’s first two volumes, including the section on palm-tree wine that Godwin had omitted, then giving the ’Postscript by the editor’, after which comes the ’Continuation of the journal’, consisting of chapters 36-48. This second part derives from Montolieu’s continuation, which gives a quite different story from texts based on Wyss’s third and fourth volumes of 1826-27. It is more concerned with adventure than with further discoveries in natural history. It focusses first of all on an accident that befalls the mother and on the devotion that the sons display towards her. Later, mother and Francis disappear, but are eventually discovered in the care of missionaries and a tribe of savages. This version concludes with the arrival of a ship commanded by Captain Krusenstern and with the Zurich astronomer Horner on board. Ernest, the most passionate scientist among the four sons, departs with the ship, anxious to make observations concerned with the transit of Venus. The rest of the family remain in contentment on the island. The leader of the missionary team is called Willis, and he provided the focus for a continuation of the story by Adrien Paul called Le Pilote Willis (1855), of which an English translation was published in 1857 by C. H. Clarke.

25French books continued to provide material for further developments in the history of The Swiss Family Robinson. In 1841 Madame Elise Voïart produced a new French translation entitled Le Robinson suisse, with an introduction by Charles Nodier (Paris: Lavigne, 1841), which was then translated into English by W. H. D. Adams (London, Edinburgh and New York: T. Nelson & Sons, 1870). The prologue gives the father of the family the surname Starck (German for ’strong’) and names the sons as Frederick (15), Ernest (13), Rudly (12) (the diminutive for Rudolph is presumably an acknowledgement of Johann Rudolf Wyss’s part in editing the original work) and ’Little Fritz’ (8). The shipwreck takes place between Le Havre and Philadelphia round about lat. 40 degrees N., so the island is situated quite differently from that in the German original or the one in Robinson Crusoe. That is presumably Madame Voïart’s doing. The translation is stated to be unabridged. The book is copiously illustrated with black and white engravings.

26A further French translation was made by Pierre-Jules Stahl (pen-name of P. J. Hetzel) as Le Nouveau Robinson suisse (Paris, 1864), and this was translated and edited by John Lovell with the customary title of The Swiss Family Robinson (London, Paris, and New York: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, [1869]). The preface indicates that the work has been ’entirely remodelled’, largely to cut out things that the editor had learnt that young readers did not like, such as the father’s occasionally inadequate responses to the questions of young minds, and the youngsters’ cruelty to animals and lack of tenderness towards their mother. It is clear from remarks of this kind that people in the latter half of the nineteenth century were aware that moral positions occupied at the beginning of the century were not necessarily their own and that aspects of the text needed to be altered accordingly. The basic thrust of the book, however, still remained relevant and attractive.

27From 1870 onwards new editions proliferated. The German text was adapted by J. Bonnet (Bielefeld: Velhagen & Klasing, 1872), and this was translated anonymously (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1877). The pastor father is given the name Vetli, while the boys differ from their originals in that Ernest is the oldest at 16, Fritz is 14, Jack 8 and Franz 6. An odd connexion with Robinson Crusoe is made through Fritz seeing a man’s footprint in the sand the day after their arrival. This links up with the end of the book, when Jack is abducted by savages and then rescued by the help of an Italian called Auferi, who had been shipwrecked twelve years previously and had become the chief of a native tribe. Many of the natives are killed in the rescue process. Later, a ship called the Maritana arrives and takes Ernest and Jack to Europe, though four years later Ernest returns to the island with a wife.

28Among other English versions we have to note new translations by Mrs H. B. Paull (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1877) and H. Frith (London: Ward, Lock, 1878); edited versions by the noted writer of boys’ books W. H. G. Kingston (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1879) and Alfonzo Gardiner (Manchester: John Heywood, 1887); a severely reduced format by Julia S. E. Rae (London: Trischler & Company, 1891); and another edited version by Geraldine Edith Mitton (London: A. & C. Black, 1907). Finally, a text appeared in ’Everyman’s Library’ (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd; New York: E. P Dutton & Co., 1910) that continued to be reprinted right into the second half of the century. Unsurprisingly (or should it be surprisingly?), this text derives from one of the editions of the 1850s in which the two halves of Wyss’s narrative are first combined. It cannot be the Simpkin, Marshall, & Co. edition of 1852, as that does not contain the incident with the bears (beginning of chapter 48 in ’Everyman’s Library’), which is present in the German text. Just which edition it comes from is difficult to ascertain. This is an apt illustration of the problems that the bibliography of The Swiss Family Robinson involves. Many editions cannot easily be located in public collections, so it often proves impossible to find the information needed in order to establish the full derivation of a particular text. Publishers of popular children’s books are notorious for failing to indicate the origins of their texts (unless they are new) and for omitting dates of publication. Editions of The Swiss Family Robinson exemplifying all these problems have continued to be published throughout the twentieth century, but they are outside the purview of this study.

10. The Swiss Family Robinson [by 1883]. The donkey and the boa constrictor.

29With its proliferation of new editions adapted from both German and French versions of the book, the late nineteenth century was the heyday of English forms of this celebrated Swiss story. It had more or less ousted Campe’s Robinson the Younger, and the diverse forms in which it was cast were frequently reprinted. Kingston’s version seems to have been particularly successful. For us of more than a century later, it requires a considerable effort of the historical imagination to understand just why The Swiss Family Robinson was so popular. Geoffrey Trease, writing in 1948, says:

  • 5 Geoffrey Trease, Tales out of School (London: The New Education Book Club, 1948), p. 23.

Persistently pious, indigestibly didactic, it should logically have died long ago. Yet Alison Uttley says she read it seven times in succession, and even today, in a poll of ’Most Popular Books’ among secondary schoolboys in New Zealand, it comes out above King Solomon’s Mines and The Broad Highway.5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 63.

30Didacticism was a prevalent feature of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s books (and it still plays an important role in the twentieth century, though often more subtly), but Trease also said: ’I am not so sure that the didactic story worries the child as much as the adult. Has there ever been a more blatant example than The Swiss Family Robinson?’6 What carries the young reader along is the story with its incidents of adventure and discovery, dangers successfully negotiated and tasks completed that lead to an increasingly comfortable and varied life. But the facts, the discoveries of the abundant resources and variety of the natural world, are integral to the book. The science and geography lessons that it contains are of its essence. If the omniscient father’s explanations were too lengthy for some readers, they could be skipped. Certainly, the religious and moralizing passages were subject to abbreviation or omission as, with the passage of time, they no longer corresponded to the views of the new era.

31At the core of The Swiss Family Robinson there is the family. For the book’s young readers the four boys would be the characters with whom they would identify. They are skilfully differentiated. Fritz, the eldest, is ’a handsome, curl-pated (sic) youth, full of intelligence and vivacity’. Ernest is ’of a rational, reflecting temper, well-informed for his age, but somewhat disposed to indolence and the pleasures of the senses’; he is the scientist in the family. Jack is ’a light-hearted, enterprising, audacious, generous lad, about ten years old’, while Francis is ’a lovely boy six years old, remarkable for the sweetest and happiest temper, and for his affection to his parents’ (1834 edition, p. 17). This variety allows for a multiplicity of exploits to suit their ages. Moreover, as the family is able to take or retrieve a mass of tools and equipment from the wrecked ship, they are able to establish dwellings at Falcon’s Nest (Falkenhorst), Tent House (Zeltheim) and Rockhouse (Felsenheim). What child could resist the idea of living in a large house up a tree? The family’s possession of guns allows them to kill dangerous or even simply inconvenient animals and birds. For modern sensibilities, they are worryingly trigger-happy. Their colonization of the island involves a conquest of nature; their relationship is one of opposition and exploitation. But if one compares the Swiss family with either Defoe’s or Campe’s Robinson Crusoe, their positions clearly reflect the difference between early eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century manifestations of colonial settlement. The family’s achievement is to establish an island Arcadia, a self-sufficient economy and life-style, not simply to survive in basic circumstances. Is it any wonder that father and mother elect to stay there when The Unicorn provides an opportunity to return to Europe? The island is a romance-free zone, so Fritz has to leave it when the possibility of such a relationship with Jenny (Emily) Montrose arises. Francis, the youngest, leaves because he feels the need for a larger society in which to develop his talents and also because he thinks a member of the family ought to keep the connexion with Old Switzerland alive.

32The role of the mother is perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of the book. The father refers to her as ’my excellent wife’ and ’my good Elizabeth’, but, as in a fairytale, she has no independent existence apart from her two capacities of wife and mother, and it is as a mother-figure that she is most important. As the boys’ mother she presides over all their domestic arrangements, and in return the boys show her respect and devotion. The book, after all, centres on their exploits, not hers, though she often produces the solution to practical problems.

33The Swiss family’s island is the setting for an experiment in living in the smallest kind of community – the family. It is educational rather than true to nature and geography. Increasingly, later versions of the story found it necessary to state in editorial introductions that many features of this tropical island do not correspond to geographical reality. With this they made it explicit that the book was not to be understood simply as a disguised textbook, but rather as a work of imagination with roots in both adventure and exploration. Its moral qualities are a reflection of the age in which it was written and were no more than parents (and perhaps children) expected.


1 Brian Alderson in Bettina Hürlimann, Three Centuries of Children’s Books in Europe, translated and edited by Brian W. Alderson (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 111-12.

2 For a detailed account of the manuscript see Robert L. Wyss, ’Der Schweizerische Robinson. Seine Entstehung und sein Manuskript’, ’Stultifera navis’, Mitteilungsblatt der Schweizerischen Bibliophilen-Gesellschaft, 12. Jahrgang, Nr. 3/4 (Oktober 1955), pp. 122-35.

3 Marjorie Moon, Benjamin Tabart’s Juvenile Library. A Bibliography of Books for Children Published, Written, Edited and Sold by Mr. Tabart (Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies; Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990), p. 122.

4 Rowan Gibbs, The Swiss Family Robinson, Book Catalogue (Wellington, New Zealand: Rowan Gibbs; Smith’s Bookshop Ltd, 1997), no. 326.

5 Geoffrey Trease, Tales out of School (London: The New Education Book Club, 1948), p. 23.

6 Ibid., p. 63.

Table des illustrations

Légende 10. The Swiss Family Robinson [by 1883]. The donkey and the boa constrictor.
Fichier image/jpeg, 583k


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