Johann David Wyss (1743-1818), a Swiss pastor, is credited with the writing of The Swiss Family Robinson. This is true, but it is also difficult to tell, at this late date, whether he was the author of any particular passage or episode in the book.
It is certain that Wyss told some of the episodes to his children (he had four sons just like the Swiss pastor in the story). His son, Johann Emmanuel, even made woodcut illustrations to accompany the 800+ page handwritten manuscript. In 1812, another of his sons, Johann Rudolf Wyss, a professor of philosophy, found his father's unfinished manuscript and persuaded his father to let him rewrite it, edit it, and submit it for publication. On publication, it became so famous that within the next fifty years it had been translated into several languages. Often new episodes were added at the whim of the translator, and it was even retranslated (in its expanded versions) back into German.
Although the first English version was translated by Mary Jane Godwin and published in 1814 by her husband William Godwin, other English translators include Mrs. H.B. Paull, Henry Frith, and W.H.G. Kingston, first published in 1879, and now considered the standard. This was based on the 1816 French version by Mme la Baronne Isabelle de Montolieu, rather than the original version of J. D. and J.R. Wyss. This blog post from the British Library explains more about the early translations of this story.
This tangled tale of publishing history is merely a result of the immense popularity of the book, which has by now appeared in over two hundred editions in English alone. It is by far the most famous imitation of Robinson Crusoe, and has itself spawned a host of imitations, some of which are famous in their own right—Captain Marryat's Masterman Ready (1841) and R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island (1857) for example. But the distinct excellence of The Swiss Family Robinson—and this is undoubtedly due to J. D. Wyss himself—is its ability to teach and educate. This is education in the best sense: education through the entertainment value of an exciting story.
Did you find this review helpful?