The Swiss Family Robinson and… Frankenstein?

We have recently purchased a two volume set of The Family Robinson Crusoe (PT2583.W9 S313 1814 Undrsz). Later renamed The Swiss Family Robinson, this is the first complete English edition of Johann David Wyss’s Der Schweizerische Robinson. Issued in 1814 and 1816 by William Godwin’s Juvenile Library, the novel was translated by Godwin’s second wife, Mary Jane.

The Family Robinson Crusoe: Frontispiece

Volume one of the library’s copy is the second issue of the 1814 edition and contains a canceled title leaf. The original title page was removed and replaced with an updated version, listing the date as 1816 to correspond with the publication of the second volume. Together the two volumes form the first complete edition in English of the beloved story originally penned by Wyss and completed by his son, Johann Rudolf Wyss.

The Family Robinson Crusoe: Title Page

For many modern readers, the ending of Godwin’s translation is quite a surprise. In Godwin’s edition, as in the original German, there is no sweet shipwrecked Jenny Montrose, daughter of a British officer, to teach the family English and, eventually, bring about their rescue. There is no desert for the boys to explore, no threatening lions, tigers, elephants, and no pirates to attack their peaceful settlement. These changes all occurred as the novel was adapted and re-translated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by such influential people as French Baroness Isabelle de Montolieu, British children’s author W.H. Kingston, and even the Imagineers at the Walt Disney Corporation.

The Family Robinson Crusoe: Shooting the Kangaroo

Godwin’s translation preserves much of Wyss’s original intention, to use the book as an educational primer for children, but as the book was edited, translated and re-appropriated over its long history, it was transformed into the classic adventure story we more commonly recognize today.

The Family Robinson Crusoe: Foldout Map

On a related note, William Godwin is also remembered as the father of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein just a few years after the publication of The Family Robinson Crusoe. Special Collections holds the anonymously published Frankenstein, or, The Broken Prometheus first edition in the Factory House Library of 19th Century Fiction. This collection was once an entire circulating library for British merchants in Portugal between 1820 and 1890, and it provides a snapshot of the reading habits and taste of Britons living abroad over 120 years ago.

– Alison M. Greenlee and Jennifer Chapman Fuller

About Alison M. Greenlee

Special Collections Librarian, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa.
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