Though the exact date is not known, an English translation of one version of the book which would eventually come to be known as The Swiss Family Robinson, was first published in London in 1814. And thus, came full circle back to England a Swiss children’s story which was based on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, written in England a century before.
How a Scotsman’s tale, written by an Englishman, went to Switzerland and came home again to delight generations of English children …
It all started in September of 1704, when a young Scottish sailor chose to maroon himself on an island off the coast of Chile rather continue on with a ship he knew was not sea-worthy. Alexander Selkirk had made the right choice, since his ship, the Cinque Ports, which was leaking badly, foundered off the coast of Columbia, where the captain and several of the crew were taken prisoner by the Spanish. They endured very harsh treatment before they were eventually released. But Selkirk had essentially imprisoned himself on one of the Juan Fernández Islands, where he would spend more that four years alone, with only feral cats and wild goats as his companions. Born the son of a tanner, Selkirk had the knowledge and skill to provide himself clothing from the skins of the goats he hunted for food. He also had the possessions which he had carried on board his ship, which included his Bible, from which he read aloud daily in order to retain his ability to speak.
Selkirk was eventually rescued, in February of 1709. Though perhaps it could be said he rescued his rescuers, for whom he provided food and drink while they recovered from scurvy. He joined the crew and continued sailing, completing a voyage around the world before finally returning to England in 1711. Upon his return, the story of Selkirk’s years marooned on an island made news across the country, and, eventually, the world. A merchant, some-time spy, and writer, Daniel DeFoe, was inspired by Selkirk’s real-life experiences to write a novel about a man marooned on a deserted island. One of the first English novels, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates, more commonly known as Robinson Crusoe, was published on 25 April 1719.
Defoe set his story on an island in the tropical latitudes of the Caribbean Sea, instead of the more temperate latitudes of the South Pacific Ocean. He also put two men on the island, a critical addition to the tale which enabled dialog to advance the story. Not to mention, it would have been very difficult to develop any real drama with a single protagonist. Defoe’s characters remained on their island for twenty-eight years, much longer than the four years that Selkirk was marooned. The novel was very popular and went through four editions in England before the end of 1719. Sales were so brisk that Defoe went on to write two sequels to the original novel, published in 1719 and 1720, respectively. Within a few years, the original novel appeared in translation all across Europe, where it proved to be equally popular. Robinson Crusoe remained in print throughout the eighteenth century, and, in fact, right up the present day.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, a Swiss army chaplain who had read Robinson Crusoe, hit upon the idea of a story in which a family is shipwrecked on a deserted island as a basis for a series of lessons for his four young sons. Johann David Wyss was also familiar with Émile, Or Treatise on Education, written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who advocated a "natural" education for children. Reverend Wyss saw the desert island of Robinson Crusoe as a ideal natural setting for the educational tales he was writing for his sons. Between 1792 and 1798, Reverend Wyss kept notes on the many stories of life on that desert island which he had crafted to amuse and provide moral and life lessons for his four young sons. His manuscript, including a number of illustrations he had drawn to accompany the text, ran to 841 pages.
In 1811, Reverend Wyss’ second son, Johann Rudolf Wyss, who had become a scholar and author, set to work editing his father’s manuscript. The Swiss Robinson, or the Shipwrecked Swiss Preacher and his Family. An Instructive Book for Children and Their Friends in Town and Country, was published in German, in 1812, in two volumes. These two volumes contained only the first half of the story, roughly the first 400 pages of his father’s manuscript, and ended with the family still on the island. However, an editorial postscript to Volume Two advised readers that a few years after the family was shipwrecked, an English ship was blown off course in a storm, and came in sight of the island. The sailors sent a boat ashore, at which time the family gave them their journal of their life on the island. The boat made it back to the ship, but the ship was driven off the island by high winds and was not able to rescue the family. According to the postscript, the journal was taken to England and then sent on to Switzerland. It was said the English captain vowed to return to the island to rescue the family.
A Swiss Baroness, Isabelle de Montolieu, enjoyed the book so much that she translated it into French. However, she did not just translate the story, she embellished the tale, enhancing the role of the mother as well as adding some additional incidents, among other things. The French version of The Swiss Robinson was published in four volumes, in Paris, in 1814. The book was just as popular in France as it had been in Switzerland and Germany. It is generally believed by most scholars, based on a close reading of the texts of all three editions, that it was the French version which was translated into English and published in London that same year.
Even before the Regency began, William Godwin, though a proponent of anarchism, also wrote and published a number of children’s books. His first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, died in September of 1797, and in December of 1801, he married Mary Jane Clairmont. It is generally believed that Mary Jane Godwin translated the story of the shipwrecked Swiss family from the French, even though the title page of the English version stated it was translated from the German. Since a number of Madame de Montolieu’s additions were included in the English edition, it seems highly unlikely that Mrs. Godwin had made her translation from the German edition.
The Family Robinson Crusoe: Or, the Journal of a Father Shipwrecked, with his Wife and Children, on an Uninhabited Island was published by Godwin’s Juvenile Library of Skinner Street, London, in 1814. Mary Jane Godwin wished to preserve the intent of the original author, Reverend Wyss, to produce a book which could be used as an educational primer for children. As had Madame de Montolieu, Mary Jane Godwin did not translate the story verbatim, she added her own embellishments, which she believed would appeal to an English audience. Even with the embellishments and enhancements added by both Madame de Montolieu and Mary Jane Godwin, the story was quite didactic. But that was of little consequence in Regency England, since the majority of children’s literature at that time followed much the same pattern. Curiously, though it was meant to teach family values and moral lessons, there were many errors in the types of flora and fauna found on the island, even the location of the island itself was never clarified. But Regency children loved this exciting story of a family’s adventures on a deserted island and the book sold steadily.
Like Robinson Crusoe, the Swiss family was shipwrecked on their island during a storm. But fortunately for them, they had been on board a ship taking colonists to "New Holland," which, as described, was very similar to the southeastern part of Australia. The ship did not sink immediately, but remained caught on the shoals long enough for the family, the only survivors of the wreck, to remove all the supplies and get them to dry land. The family comprised the father, a clergyman, his wife and his four sons. With the many supplies which they were able to salvage from the shipwreck, they had enough food for a long time. They also had books and all the tools they needed to build their own home, cultivate crops and hunt the abundant animal life on their island. In the German version, the mother of the family had little part to play in the story and, in fact, was barely mentioned, beyond occasional references to her as a good mother and a devout woman. Both Madame de Montolieu and Mary Jane Godwin had expanded the role of the mother so that she was no longer a shadow. Therefore, the tale published in England was a bit less male-dominated than had been Reverend Wyss’s original story. Nevertheless, the main focus of the story was the many adventures the brothers had on the island, each of which became a life lesson taught them by their father.
The Family Robinson Crusoe, published by Godwin in 1814, was actually the first volume of the tale. It ended with an editor’s postscript advising readers that the remainder of the tale would be published when it became available, despite the fact that the second half of the story was already available. The delay in publishing the second volume may have been due to the time-consuming effort of translation, publishing costs, or a concern on the part of the publisher that a story with German origins might not sell well enough in England to justify a second volume. Whatever the reasons, it was not until 1816 that the second volume of the tale was finally published in English. The second volume sold very well, as many who had read the first volume were eager to learn about the continued adventures of the Swiss family. Then, in 1818, the year of the death of the original author, Reverend Wyss, a single volume of the story was published by the Godwin’s. The title of that new edition was changed, to the one most of us know today, The Swiss Family Robinson.
In the end, it turned out that the Godwin’s need not have worried about the reception of a German story by English children. The Swiss Family Robinson would be constantly embellished and expanded in England over the course of the nineteenth century. New adventures and even some new characters were added. Some scholars believe that one of the reasons the story remained so popular in Britain as the century progressed was due to the expansion of the British empire. Most children, by the middle of the nineteenth century, knew someone who had spent time in some part of the far-flung empire, so these children were predisposed to curiosity for information about faraway places. The Swiss Family Robinson, in all its many expanding editions, brought the children of England tales of adventure in just the sort of place which intrigued them. And these were tales of adventure in which children like themselves engaged. It was all so very thrilling. Thus, the English version of The Swiss Family Robinson has remained in print for two hundred years, while in Switzerland, Germany, and even France, it is now almost completely forgotten.
And so, Dear Regency Authors, if you need the specific title of a children’s story for one of your novels set in 1814, or later, it will be quite historically accurate to have either the The Family Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson on the nursery bookshelf. Perhaps right along side a set of the books in Harris’s Cabinet. Mayhap a determined young governess is trying to pique some interest in reading in an incorrigible little boy, or even an especially tom-boyish little girl. The many exciting adventures of The Swiss Family Robinson might be just the thing to engage that child and inspire them to learn to read. And how could anyone, no matter how strict and proper, object to a story about a clergyman and his family living in an idyllic natural setting?