Wednesday 15 October 2014

The Swiss Family Robinson

I was intrigued to read The Swiss Family Robinson recently after many years, decades even. I remember that The Swiss Family Robinson was one of my favourite stories as a kid, but I did't remember all that much of the actual story. Sadly, my childhood copy is lost to the vagaries of time, and so I read an undated version from the local op shop. I suspect that my childhood copy quite a different book to the one which I read recently- I must have read an abridged version, I know that my childhood self could never have got through these 300 pages.

The Swiss Family Robinson was published in German in 1812, the year before Pride and Prejudice was published in England, and became an immediate sensation. It was first published in English in 1814. There are now several hundred English editions. The introduction to the Project Gutenberg version tells us that

No unabridged edition of Swiss Family Robinson exists in English. Indeed, the book has been rewritten so many times, by so many editors, that it can legitimately be said that no complete edition of the book exists in any language. 

Which is astonishing, and rather sad. Swiss Family Robinson recounts the troubles of a young Swiss family travelling by ship to the new colony of Port Jackson (Sydney). Like every good Robinsonade there is a ship wreck in the very first few pages. The family are stranded alone in their broken ship just off a rather amazing tropical island. This island is indeed rather special- there are flamingoes and penguins, kangaroos, buffalo and jackals, but I guess that was possible in 1812 (the much later The Coral Island also suffered from similar errors), and I don't remember it bothering my childhood self. Indeed I suspect that I was thrilled that they domesticated most species of animals that they came across- which kid doesn't want a pet monkey or parrot, or to go on buffalo and donkey rides?

I found the story somewhat slow really, even though the basic premise is exciting enough. A big storm, a stranded family (I remembered the names Fritz and Ernest after all these years, but Jack and Francis didn't leave as much of a mark), working together for survival, and keeping wild animals as pets. It’s an adventure story, but still safe enough- the parents are still there. I just wanted them to get on with it and build the giant treehouse of my memories. They did do that eventually, but not before stumbling on pretty much every useful plant known to man- sugar cane, potatoes, coconuts of course, and even cinnamon. And they shot and killed everything. I get that it's a survivalist tale, and of it's time, but there was a bit more butchery than my somewhat squeamish constitution enjoys. The language was quaint, and somewhat antiquated.

I sat down in this verdant elysium with my three sons. 

Johann David Wyss was a Swiss pastor with 4 boys, just like the father of the Robinson clan. It is said that one of his sons found his unfinished manuscript and persuaded his father to let him rewrite it, edit it and submit it for publication. This son, Johann Rudolf Wyss was a busy fellow as he was a professor of philosophy, and in 1811 he wrote the former Swiss National Anthem. Living proof I guess of Johann David Wyss's desire to educate and teach via The Swiss Family Robinson. Despite my reservations, I did finish the whole book, which is more than can be said for Robinson Crusoe, which still sits about, half read, and no progress made for several years.



Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

I remember how I loved reading this book. I think even if a bit boring at times it opens ones imagination. As you read you are also imagining what you would be doing in the same situation.

Brona said...

Revisiting childhood classics and favourites is an interesting thing.

Our memory is not as infallible as we believe and time is not always so kind to some of these stories either.

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

How interesting. I do remember reading this book but think that I was fairly young and certainly would not have thought about it being unabridged or not.

The backstory of Wyss and his family is great sleuthing on your part!