Oh for the safety of a desert island!

Oh for the safety of a desert island!
In this series, some literary collaborators will be giving suggestions for lockdown reading, books of all kinds to amuse and raise our spirits. This week: Ian d’Alton writes about The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)


For adults, children’s books often open a window onto a clearer, and different, vision of the world. In these self-isolating, social distancing times, my thoughts hark back to a book I first read when an eight-year-old. That was in 1958, when another pandemic, that of polio, struck fear into us and our parents – there had been a serious outbreak in Cork in 1956-7.

Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, was first published in 1812. The book is about a shipwrecked family which has to make a life for themselves on an island in the East Indies. Its resonance for today lies in the atomised life of that family who, in the absence of any other human beings, have to cope with little but their own company.

They also have to be resourceful. Wyss helps the narrative by setting them up as well-provided for – they rescue everything they can from the shipwreck, from livestock to posh silverware, and their island isn’t exactly a desert one either with abundant natural resources. The book, of course, has a moral purpose: careful husbandry, acting in concert with (rather than against) the natural world, co-operation, the value of family and self-discipline and self-reliance. All of which we need today, in abundance.

And if we are living through surreal times, what book is better than Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass? Everything is reversed and logic is upended – flowers can speak, unbirthdays are celebrated, imaginary figures come to life, to remain stationary you run, to walk towards something you need to walk away from it and so on. In these pandemical times, solemn press conferences carry echoes of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. How many hapless politicians seem like Humpty Dumpty?

The pen-name ‘Lewis Carroll’ failed to conceal the identity of a clergyman academic at Oxford who lectured in logic. But ‘Carroll’s’ imagination seems often to be at odds with the world of the Rev. Charles Dodgson.

The book’s ending – “Life, what is it but a dream?” – reflects what many of us in the ‘cocooning classes’ are experiencing at the moment.


Editorial note: Belloc article. Belloc’s pilgrimage on foot was from Toul (Meurthe-et-Moselle), in north-eastern France, to Rome, and not from Toulouse as appears in the text (IC 28/5/20) due to an editorial oversight and not a mistake by the writer.