A Note on Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson, Montolieu's Le Robinson suisse, and Kingston's 1879 text

Where indicated, the following is taken from The Oxford Companon to Children's Literature, edd. Humphry Carpenter and Mari Prichard (Oxford, 1995), p. 510; the other materials have been drawn from various scholarly studies and eighteenth-century texts as well as one 20th century anonymous review.

The famous child's classic known in English as Swiss Family Robinson was written by a Swiss Pastor, Johann David Wyss (1743-1818). He was born in Berne, became an army chaplain, and is said to have told the story episode by episode to his four sons. According to the The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, "he left the manuscript incomplete and disorganized ,and it was prepared for publication at Zurich in 1812-13 as Der schweizerische Robinson;" its editor was his son, Johann Rudolf Wyss (1781 - 1830) who was a professor of philosophy at Berne. Montolieu produced the first French adaptation/translation in 1814 which included material she had added herself; "the first English translation was by probably the work of William Godwin and was published by his wife, M. J. Godwin in 1814 [but see below] as The Family Robinson Crusoe and described as a transation 'from the German of M. Wiss,' though it incorporated some of Montolieu's additions. The Godwin version was re-issued in a longer version in 1816, and the book's familiar title first used in 1818. In 1824 Montolieu produced a yet larger version in French; she added the adventures of Fritz, Franz, Ernest and Jack" (Oxford Companion, p. 510). Still other writers added yet further (improbable) adventures; interestingly these as well as the adventures added by Montolieu are among the best known.

The story "as originally published lacked a clear ending, and concluded with the boys' father wondering (after two years on the island) whether the family wouldl ever see another human face again. An editor's postscript followed, explaining that three or four years later they were discovered by an English vessel whose Captain was given their journal, but the ship was driven away again before they could be rescued. Later texts introeduced the character of an English girl who is shipwrecked on a neighbouring rock and discovered by one of the boys. He returns to England with her while the rest of the family remain; others settlers join them, and the island eventually becomes a flouishing colony, 'New Switzerland'" (Oxford Companion, p. 510)

The reader will want to know that William H. G. Kingston's version of The Swiss Family Robinson is an Englished shortened version of Isabelle de Montolieu's Le Robinson suisse, ou, Journal d'un père de famille, naufragé avec ses enfans. Other English editions which claim include the whole of the Wyss-Montolieu narrative are by W. H. Davenport Adams (1869-0) and Mrs H. B. Paull (1879). As Carpenter and Prichard write, "with all the expansions and contractions" over the past two centuries (this includes a long history of abridgements, condensations, Christianizings, and Disney products), "Wyss's original narative has long since been obscured, and the book is chiefly characterized by its improbable profusion of animals -- penguins, kangaroos, monkeys and even a whale - conveniently gathered together on a tropical island" (Oxford Companion, p. 510).

As to its connection with 18th century thought and Montolieu, Wyss's attitude towards education is Rousseauist. The adventures are presented as the basis of lessons in natural history and the physical sciences and resemble numbers of other similar educational books for children in this period, for example, Charlotte Smith's Rural Walks: in Dialogues intended for the use of Young Persons (1795), Rambles Further: A continuation of Rural Walks (1796)A Natural History of Birds, intended chiefly for young persons (1807). In other words, Wyss's book belongs to the subgenre of children's literature which was developing at the time whose practitioners included the Edgeworths, Thomas Day (Sandford and Merton) -- and Montolieu's friend, Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, one of the earliest of the French writers (e.g, Les Veillées du Château or Tales of the Castle: Or, Stories of Instruction and Delight (1785). Wyss differs from all these because his book comes out of a German pietistic milieu, is long and involved, and is based on the model of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and is a genuine adventure story, though it is continuously didactic; as Carpenter and Prichard remark, "as the family's "ship founders at the beginning of the story, [the father] pauses to explain to one of the boys the principle of the lever" (Oxford Companion, p. 510). It should be noted that a number of Godwin scholars dispute the assertion that the English translation which appeared in 1814 was by William Godwin; they think the translation was by his second wife.

The book is also shaped in accordance with Christian thought and lessons. The following excerpt from an anonymous intelligent review on Amazon (written on April 26, 2001) reflects its strong Christian, idealizing and optimistic thrust, which help account for the book's appeal and continual reprinting and adaptations:

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe carved a literary niche for the survival story, and The Swiss Family Robinson is one of the many stories carved in that mould. Written from the perspective of the father, it chronicles the first-hand account of the shipwreck and survival of a Swiss family of six on a remote island somewhere near New Guinea. The family consists of a Swiss pastor who is a walking encyclopedia on agricultural practices from around the world; his wife who excels in equal measure with culinary skills, and four energetic sons. Displaying remarkable resilience and resourcefulness, they survive completely alone for over ten years until their rescue. In the process, they create their own European civilization, showing complete mastery over animals and plants, and creatively establishing houses. The bulk of the novel consists of their struggle for survival with their endless discovery of new species of plants and animals.. Readers should be warned that different versions of the Swiss Family Robinson abound. The Swiss pastor originally credited with the work - Johann David Wyss (1743-1818) - originally told many of these tales to his children, one of whom was likely responsible for the editing and publication of it. It was subsequently translated into many languages, with translators taking major liberties in abridgement or adding episodes of their own. The Disney film version, for instance, contains confrontations with pirates that are entirely absent from the original. Some versions speak of the shipwrecked lass as "Jenny", others as "Emily". The version I read (the Puffin Classics edition) was the translation of WHG Kingston, first published in 1879, and widely regarded as one of the best-loved English translations. Remarkably, however, it is not based on the original German version, but on an 1816 French version. Regardless of which version one reads, abridged versions sacrifice much of the charm of the original. The longer versions are eloquent, descriptive, and employ vocabulary and language that makes them far more satisfying than most contemporary condensed versions.

Given that the original author was a Swiss pastor, it's not surprising to find the narrative soaked with implicit Christian influences. There are frequent references to God's providence, commendation into God's care, keeping the day of rest, as well as the encouragement of Christian morals. The exercise and promotion of Christian virtue is a clear theme, evident especially in a final scene where the father charges his sons to be faithful as Christians. "In a long conversation with my sons I solemnly charged them with the future responsibilities of their life, in all its varied aspects, of duty towards God, their fellow men, and themselves, pointing out the temptations to which their different characters were likely to expose them, and exhorting them affectionately to hold fast to the faith in which they had been brought up." The boys all have different strengths and weaknesses, and Wyss presents this as a moral lesson for his readers: "Children are, on the whole, very much alike everywhere, and you four lads fairly represent multitudes, who are growing up in all directions. It will make me happy to think that my simple narrative may lead some of these to observe how blessed are the results of patient continuance in well-doing, what benefits arise from the thoughtful application of knowledge and science, and how good and pleasant a thing it is when brethren dwell together in unity, under the eyes of parental love." The importance of a wholesome Christian family working together is very central: "And my great wish is that young people who read this record of our lives and adventures, should learn from it how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of strong, pure and manly character."

The island proves to be a form of idyllic paradise, where animals from every continent around the world apparently co-exist in a rather impossible manner (Australian kangaroos and platypuses, Antarctic penguins, African lions and elephants, North American wolves, and bears, South American boa constrictors, not to mention walruses, tapirs, toucans, flamingos and ostriches). New species of plants and animals are conveniently discovered on a daily basis, and the Wyss family appears to have an inexhaustible knowledge of how to use these resources to create their own civilization. They are little troubled by sickness, storms or strife, and have few difficulties in taming nearly every animal known to mankind. They are able to cook every delicacy ever conceived. Whether their menu offers truffles or turtle, roasted bear-paw or buffalo, the food is always good and the meat never burnt. In fact their success sometimes becomes rather repetitive and tiresome, and is evidently rooted in an overly optimistic view of mankind and faith in the possibilities offered by scientific knowledge. But rather than become too frustrated by the utopianism, you should suspend your sense of disbelief and enjoy the ride. Certainly it is rather hard to believe that a Swiss pastor can immediately recognize a Myrica cerifera when he sees one and conveniently knows that its berries can be melted and strained to make candles, or that he knows that a sturgeon's bladder can be used to make isinglass, or that he remembers intricate details about Italian, Indian and South American practices of agriculture and animal husbandry. The production of chinaware, porcelain, soap, and rubber boots and the apparent skills in taxidermy and other exotic abilities may at times be hard to swallow. And the endless discoveries and conquests of nature are rather repetitive. But in the end it's enjoyable. It's little wonder that the Wyss family decided not to leave their "New Switzerland" at the end. For the same reason, so many people come back to the Robinson's island time and again. Some of the ideas in this book are certainly dated, but this book has stood the test of time, and spending time with the Swiss Family Robinson will continue to be rewarding.

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