Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

Der Schweizerische Robinson was published in 1812 and tells the story of a pious Swiss family, a mother, father and four young sons, marooned on an island in the East Indies following a shipwreck. It is 600 pages long. The father, who narrates the book, uses the shipwreck as a pedagogical opportunity:

‘I believe,’ said Ernest [aged 12], ‘that mangoes grow on the sea-shore in marshy soil.’
‘You are partly right, my boy,’ I said, ‘but what you say applies to the black mango, not to the grey or red species, which bear small berries and do not grow so high.’

During their stay on the island the family undertake a destruction of its creatures. Among the species butchered are kangaroos, penguins, bears, giant land crabs, capybaras, apes, jackals, ostriches and turtles (the island contains the fauna of six continents). To keep themselves in comfort the family build a luxurious treehouse, plant and harvest corn, milk cows (rescued from the ship), boil up a whale, manufacture isinglass and cochineal, breed doves, gather honey, tap rubber and salt herrings. There is no difficulty of island life that their ingenuity and perseverance cannot resolve. By the end of the book they have created a Calvinist paradise in which nature has been subdued and largely exterminated, and where disease, sex and conflict (between humans) have been banished. In a final act of dour appropriation they christen their island ‘New Switzerland’.

The family is not, of course, called Robinson. They are never named. The title refers instead to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe of 1719 (see post 73). In an odd twist of literary fate the word ‘Robinson’ had taken on a life of its own in eighteenth-century European publishing, appearing in the titles of hundreds of adventure stories, mainly German and Dutch, but also French, Danish, Swiss, Swedish and Italian, known collectively as ‘Robinsonades’: Teutsche Robinson (1722), Americanische Robinson (1724), Nordische Robinson (1741), Hollandsche Robinson (1743), Dänische Robinson (1750), Walchersche Robinson (1752), Maldivschen Philosophen Robine (1753), Oude en Jongen Robinson (1753), Isländische Robinson (1755), Hartz-Robinson (1755), Robinson vom Berge Libonon (1755), Haagsche Robinson (1758), Robertson (sic) aux terres australes (1766), Steyerische Robinson (1791) and Böhmische Robinson (1796), among many others, all by different authors. ‘Robinson’ simply denoted an adventure tale. They didn't even have to take place on desert islands: there were Robinsonades set on mountain-tops, in jungles, among corsairs or in Turkish prisons. Many of the tales dispensed with the idea of the isolated adventurer altogether. There were even Robinsonades without ‘Robinson’ in the title.

Scholars first began to examine the Robinsonade phenomenon as early as the mid 1700s. Among the Robinsonade sub-groups identified by a French scholar were the robinsonnade gullivérienne, the robinsonnade en famille (such as the Swiss Family) and the robinsonnade de l’enfant. There were satirical Robinsonades, fantastical Robinsonades, Utopian Robinsonades and interplanetary Robinsonades. Life was a Robinsonade. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Robinsonade had mutated still further: Tarzan of the Apes, looked at in a certain way, is a Robinsonade (a robinsonnade de l’enfant?), and so is The Island of Doctor Moreau and Lord of the Flies (dystopian Robinsonades). In film and television, Lost in Space was obviously a Robinsonade (being based on the Swiss Family), and there were TV dramas such as Mountain Family Robinson and Swiss Family Robinson Lost in the Jungle.

But strangely, of the eighteenth and nineteenth century continental Robinsonades, only The Swiss Family Robinson took root when transplanted back onto English-speaking soil. Why, it is difficult to say. Perhaps the title had something to do with it. Originally, of course, it had been Der Schweizerische Robinson, and as such was indistinguishable from all the other Hollandsche Robinsons, Dänische Robinsons and Haagsche Robinsons. But the insertion of the word ‘Family’ in translation put it in a class of its own. ‘Family’ acted as a sort of pivot. Substitute anything for the ‘Swiss’ or the ‘Robinson’ and you get an infinite number of delightfully silly variations: Space Family Robinson, Beverly Hills Family Robinson, Swiss Family Treehouse, Swiss Family Orbison, Swiss Family Guy Robinson, Mouse Family Robinson, Swiss Family Mouse House, Stick Family Robinson, Swiss Bank Family Robinson, Swiss Cheese Family Robinson, and on and on (all real examples). The words ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ are close to nonsense in any case: tinkering with them reduces them to gibberish. Perhaps the reason only one Robinson made it back home was because it could be endlessly parodied.
Gove, Philip Babcock: The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (Holland Press, 1961)

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