Swiss Family Robinson: Mother's Nerves

[Swiss Family Robinson Content Note: Drowning]

The Swiss Family Robinson, Chapter 1: Shipwrecked

   For many days we had been tempest-tossed.

Wait, no, we have to back up a bit.

Daniel Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719; the Swiss Family Robinson was published 100 years later in 1812. Wikipedia notes that SFR is "most successful of a large number of 'Robinsonade' novels" that followed Defoe's famous work. The book's name is itself is a reference to Defoe's influence: Der Schweizerische Robinson means "The Swiss Robinson". (We're lucky Wyss didn't name his work Der Schweizerische Crusoe; it just doesn't have the same ring.) I am only now in my 40s realizing that the family in the book is not probably not actually named Robinson, which seems pretty obvious in retrospect given that "Robinson" isn't a Swiss name. Wikipedia confirms this:

   Although movie and television adaptations typically name the family "Robinson", it is not a Swiss name. The German title translates as The Swiss Robinson which identifies the novel as part of the Robinsonade genre, rather than a story about a family named Robinson.

That's not even the end of our naming adventures! Our family patriarch and narrator doesn't have a name in the original and is just I/me (when narrating) and Father (when addressed by the children). His wife is Wife and Mother, respectively. For the sake of clarity, however, our translator has named them William and Elizabeth, names which seem to me to be more English than Swiss, but I am far from a recognized expert on Swiss naming patterns of the 1800s.

There are four boys in this book, and they too have names. Fritz is 15, the oldest, and thus is allowed to keep his Swiss name out of respect for his position as Eldest Bestest Boy. Ernest is 13 and has been slightly Englishified from the original Ernst with the addition of the extra E. Then we come to Jack, 11, who has been very hard done by in his alteration from Jakob. "Jacob" was right there, and it's Biblical too, but I have to assume that Mr. Kingston (our original, but far from final, translator) was overcome by English patriotism when he named Jack.

Franz is 8 and the youngest, and his name depends very much on which translation you read; he's variously either Franz (his original name) or "Francis" for no better reason than because otherwise we'd have two children with names that start with Fr, end with Z, and are 5 letters long. Given that many (most?) readers read by word-shape, that's a real problem. I must also here throw into the mix my dyslexia. The translation I'm reading uses "Franz" and we will just have to do our best.

Wikipedia also throws out these two names and I've been puzzling at them for a few minutes now:

   Turk (German: Türk) – The family's English dog.
   Juno (German: Bill) – The family's Danish dog.

Surely it would make more sense for the *English* dog to be the one named Bill, right? Right?? And I'm assuming that, when Bill was changed to Juno (the Roman goddess of marriage and long-suffering wife of Jove), a gender change was involved as well? I would not be surprised, as I remember well from Ursula Vernon's live-reads that the animals in this novel will become pregnant as the plot demands, rather than within the bounds of nature and her laws.

ANYWAY. We are not here to get bogged down in names, we are here for extremely impractical animal husbandry. But first, the storm:

   For many days we had been tempest-tossed.

I'm not sure if the book ever tells us this, but (per our reliable old Wikipedia again) the ship's intended destination right now is Australia. I would guess that the family is planning to emigrate there, although I think that too goes unmentioned and there is a surprising lack of personal items around them if they were planning to relocate permanently--but, on the other hand, I don't believe Australia is really much of a tourist spot at this time in history. Then again, I'm uncertain which period of history we are technically in; the book was published in 1812, yes, but written many years prior:

   Johann David Wyss, a Swiss pastor, originally wrote this book to entertain and instruct his four sons. Years later, his son Johann (or Jean—accounts differ) Rudolf Wyss, by then a professor of philosophy, persuaded his father to allow him to complete and edit the unfinished manuscript.

To sum up: we are on an unnamed boat with an unnamed narrator and his unnamed family on their way to an undisclosed location for unknown reasons in a year, month, and day which are uncertain to us. But we do know that the storm has been going on for 7 days, which may well be a terrific length for acts of Biblical creation but is not an ideal time for a storm to last. The crew is exhausted, the boat is taking on water, and the little family is staying out of the way below deck.

The narrator notes that the seamen "now uttered frantic cries to God for mercy, mingled with strange and often ludicrous vows, to be performed should deliverance be granted" which is obviously very silly and unserious of these frantic sailors. Our narrator is a calm and studious kind of fellow, not a fair-weather (or I suppose it really should be "foul-weather" in this circumstance) believer.

   'Dear children,' said I, 'if the Lord will, He can save us even from this fearful peril; if not, let us calmly yield our lives into His hand, and think of the joy and blessedness of finding ourselves for ever and ever united in that happy home above. Even death is not too bitter, when it does not separate those who love one another.'

I cannot think of a more comforting thing to tell an 8 year old after seven full days and nights of pitch-black storm, rolling waves, and encroaching cold water in their physical space. I'll bet that speech calmed the stomach nausea right down.

Fortunately, Wife/Mother/Elizabeth pitches in at this point and "began to cheer and encourage them with calm and loving words". I swear I'm not trying to go for Husband/Father/William's throat right away, nor for Wyss', but I'm terribly curious what calm and loving words, precisely, would "cheer and encourage" the kids in this situation and I'm a little annoyed that the narrator didn't find the time and space to record them alongside his sermonizing. I've been in some life-and-death kinds of situations where it felt like the outcome was out of my hands and we just had to wait to see if we were going to live or die. And, yeah, I've sometimes found it possible to be calm in those situations. But cheered and encouraged? And as an 8 year old (or 11 or 13 or 15 year old) boy? It's very hard for me to imagine cheering and encouraging children in (again) a pitch-black, roiling, and increasingly wet ship's hold while sailors scream for mercy over the unending din of the storm and various pieces of luggage and cargo slam into you unexpectedly.

What I am saying is that we are already very firmly into cozy territory and that's FINE, really, but I crave *details*. Give me the cheering and encouraging words over the religious instruction and proselytization.

Everyone takes turns in prayer and Father is impressed by Fritz's prayer, which is so focused on "deliverance for his dear parents and brothers" that he seems to forget about himself. "Our hearts were soothed by the never-failing comfort of child-like confiding prayer" and now I'm *very* curious how old Wyss' four sons were when he wrote this. I have known a LOT of pastors' kids in my time, and almost all of them without exception were old-beyond-their-time at 15. (Being privy to behind-the-scenes church workings will do that.) Certainly, one would not describe their prayers as child-like. Professional, maybe. Not child-like.

Prayer is interrupted by a sighting of land, which they hear over the storm, and then the shattering crash of the ship hitting *something* and coming to an abrupt stop. They're pretty sure they then hear the ship breaking apart and "roaring waters poured in on all sides" which makes me have a lot of questions ever since we experienced our own floods here at the house. William hears the captain ordering the life boats lowered and realizes that, given that they've been below deck for seven days, the sailors have probably forgotten about them. Whoops!

The children are understandably pretty scared, so William reassures them that they're still above water and land is in sight. He pulls out one of my least favorite aphorisms, "You know God helps those that help themselves!" which is NOT in the Bible and (funnily enough) seems to have been a saying about the Greek gods first before the Christians took it on. (Wikipedia notes there is a humorous version as well: ""God helps those who help themselves, but God help those who get *caught* helping themselves.", which gave me a nice chuckle.)

William tells them he's going above deck to see what's happening, then is instantly hit by a wave and washed overboard. I'm kidding, of course; he's hit by a wave and thrown to the deck, but manages to "find my footing" although I prefer to believe that he's scuttling about on all fours. Safety! The ship is "shattered on all directions, and on one side there was a large hole in the hull" which sounds very dire, but I'm not quite sure what it all *means* because the family will pretty much never be blocked off from anything they want to reach and gather.

The last of the life boats is being cast off just as William dramatically runs up and his "cries and entreaties" are lost in the storm. Even if the crew had heard him over the din, it seems impossible for the boats to return for him, given that the waves are "mountain-high". He takes a moment to collect himself and notices that (a) the portion of the ship "containing our cabin" is jammed between two rocks and seems relatively safe from the waves for the moment, and (b) there's a rocky coast on the horizon which means they at least have a chance at not-drowning. Meanwhile, I'm noticing that (c) they have a cabin so now I have to research ships for a moment because I *thought* the family was below deck.

Okay, this is from the New South Wales online library:

   Passengers travelling on emigrant ships from the United Kingdom to Australia in the 1800s were physically segregated according to class, marital status, and gender. Cabin class passengers were usually accommodated below the poop deck with steerage passengers below the main deck. Steerage passengers were further separated into single men, married couples and children, while single women were strictly segregated from all other passengers.

There we go: they can have a cabin and still be below deck. Interestingly, this would seem to strongly imply that any boat carrying passengers to Australia would have *several* passengers in it, not just a single cabin housing a six-person family. The book off-handedly mentions that the sailors are "forgetting the passengers" when they cast off with the last life boat. It's such a strange reference because it seems like an odd way for the narrator to refer to himself and his family. But it also means we can't headcanon that all the *other* passengers went away on the life boats and that only the Swiss Robinsons were left behind. After all, who can remember 6 people in a crowd of, say, 30 passengers spread across multiple life boats?

But, nope, we have it right there in black-and-white that the sailors forgot the passengers. Which means that either this boat wildly under-sold its tickets when heading out, or all the other passengers just fell screaming into the sea and the narrator didn't want to burden our spirits with that detail. Even so, however, the rest of the book will be noticeably silent on the subject of floating bodies disturbing the peace of the shipwreck (which will be visited several times) or washing up on the beach, so that doesn't seem to be right either.

Alas for us, William is entirely unconcerned with whether or not there are dead bodies in the water. He returns to the cabin with his good news: "'Courage, dear ones! Although our good ship will never sail more, she is so placed that our cabin will remain above water, and tomorrow, if the wind and waves abate, I see no reason why we should not be able to get ashore.'" The boys are immediately reassured and quite frankly just relieved that the boat has stopped moving and, presumably, the nausea can at last come to an end.

Wife/Mother/Elizabeth is not so easily cheered as the boys and perceives that the narrator is more concerned than he's letting on. He "greatly fears" how "her nerves" will manage at the awareness that all is not joy and rainbows from here on out, but is impressed to find that "not for a moment did her courage and trust in Providence forsake her". I feel like he should know by now what a badass his wife is, given that she's managed to raise 4 boys on a pastor's wages, and has been popping them out at a rate of one every two years (and then Franz, the "oh good, now we have 4 children under the age of 7" surprise baby). She then announces that they need to eat, which makes sense because they finally have a chance of keeping their dinner down for the first time in seven days, and we will leave off here for the night.


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