Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

1. I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers…

2. Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints…

3. The auberge of Bouchet St. Nicolas was among the least pretentious I have ever visited; but I saw many more of the like upon my journey. Indeed, it was typical of these French highlands. Imagine a cottage of two stories, with a bench before the door; the stable and kitchen in a suite, so that Modestine and I could hear each other dining; furniture of the plainest, earthern floors, a single bedchamber for travellers, and that without any convenience but beds. In the kitchen cooking and eating go forward side by side, and the family sleep at night. Any one who has a fancy to wash must do so in public at the common table. The food is sometimes spare; hard fish and omelette have been my portion more than once; the wine is of the smallest, the brandy abominable to man; and the visit of a fat sow, grouting under the table and rubbing against your legs, is no impossible accompaniment to dinner…

In 1877, having had some success with his first book, An Inland Voyage, but racked with unhappiness that the woman he had fallen in love with – the married but separated American Fanny Osbourne – had returned to the States without him, Stevenson took himself off to the inaccessible countryside west of Avignon in the south of France, on a madcap scheme to walk 120 miles with a donkey and write another travel book about it. It took him 12 days (Monday September 23rd to Friday 3rd October, according to the text, which is written in diary format).

This book is more famous that An Inland Voyage but, in my opinion, less enjoyable. The Voyage was undertaken with a like-minded friend and the simple fact that there are two of them gives the narrative all sorts of dynamics, as one experiences setbacks which the other one fixes or falls around laughing at, as one goes off to find accommodation while the other is stared at by half a dozen mute peasant children, and so on.

But travelling by yourself in a foreign country is a much more intense and existential experience and Travels is, accordingly, a lot less light and funny. In fact some of it comes close to conveying a sense of misery. This is because:

a) the donkey Stevenson buys for the trip, Modestine, turns out to be as stubborn as… well, a mule, and a source of endless delay and frustration
b) so the early part of the book is littered with descriptions of how Stevenson learns to beat Modestine mercilessly to make her move, has a goad made which he uses to spike her rump and draw blood, or how his inexperienced packing of the bags over her back similarly cause chafing and the drawing of the poor beasts’ blood
c) but there is an underlying thread of melancholy because – as I learned from Claire Harman’s biography (pp. 160-164) – Stevenson was himself unhappy and fretful both during the trip itself and during the writing up of this account

And it shows.

It began to be dusk in earnest as I reached a wilderness of turf and stones. It had the air of being a road which should lead everywhere at the same time; and I was falling into something not unlike despair…

All seemed right at last. My thoughts began to turn upon dinner and a fireside, and my heart was agreeably softened in my bosom. Alas, and I was on the brink of new and greater miseries!

It was the most pointless labyrinth. I could see my destination overhead, or rather the peak that dominates it; but choose as I pleased, the roads always ended by turning away from it, and sneaking back towards the valley, or northward along the margin of the hills. The failing light, the waning colour, the naked, unhomely, stony country through which I was travelling, threw me into some despondency…

Over all this the clouds shed a uniform and purplish shadow, sad and somewhat menacing, exaggerating height and distance, and throwing into still higher relief the twisted ribbons of the highway. It was a cheerless prospect…

A naked hill commands the monastery upon one side, and the wood commands it on the other. It lies exposed to wind; the snow falls off and on from October to May, and sometimes lies six weeks on end; but if they stood in Eden, with a climate like heaven’s, the buildings themselves would offer the same wintry and cheerless aspect; and for my part, on this wild September day, before I was called to dinner, I felt chilly in and out…

The Trappist monastery

About half way through the trip Stevenson comes to a Trappist monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. For a start, he is surprised to discover himself physically afraid at approaching an outpost of Popery.

I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have had a Protestant education.

In the event, he finds the monks manly, healthy and friendly, but is subject to a campaign to convert him to Catholicism waged by a retired military man training to become a monk and the priest of a nearby village. It’s bad enough that he’s a Protestant, but when they discover that he is actually an infidel, with no Christian faith, they unleash all the Catholic descriptions of the torments of hell which he is scheduled to suffer.

Again, this feels harsh and confrontational and even the laid-back Stevenson finally loses his temper – and none of this puts the reader in a good frame of mind.

The Camisards

In fact this long sequence turns out to be an hors d’oeuvre, because the second half of the book devotes a lot of time to the history of a religious revolt here in central south France – the Camisard revolt. Around 1700 (after putting up with 15 years of intense persecution following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes on 1685, which effectively made Protestantism illegal in France) the Protestants of the region rose up in a bloody revolt, inspired by the religiously-inspired prophesying of their leaders. They massacred soldiers sent to attack them and leaders of the local Catholic Inquisition, before embarking on a prolonged guerrilla campaign, basing themselves in five strongholds in the trackless forests. Eventually, the French king was forced, much against his will, to grant them amnesty in 1715.

Stevenson discovers that the local population is still overwhelmingly Protestant, the local churches Protestant churches, and all of them still ready and able to discuss specific incidents, heroic stands, ambushes and betrayals from the revolt – very much as Scottish Highlanders recall incidents to do with the Covenanters, the extreme Protestants of the 17th and 18th centuries who were involved in similar battles a century or more earlier.

Stevenson’s Protestantism

Stevenson presents his own thought about God and nature as non-denominational – in fact, on numerous occasions he displays a bloodless theism, a Nature worship which would have been acceptable to young Wordsworth or Thoreau. But deep down (and sometimes not so deep) he realises he is helplessly Protestant by virtue of his Scots Presbyterian upbringing and culture.

Which explains why, in the polar opposite of the physical fear he felt approaching the Catholic monastery, he finds himself relaxing as he fully enters the overwhelmingly Protestant Camisard country.

I own I met these Protestants with a delight and a sense of coming home. I was accustomed to speak their language, in another and deeper sense of the word than that which distinguishes between French and English; for the true Babel is a divergence upon morals. And hence I could hold more free communication with the Protestants, and judge them more justly, than the Catholics.

Once introduced – in chapter 14 of the book’s 22 chapters – the history of the Camisards comes to dominate the whole of the rest of the text. (The mean-spirited might be tempted to think that Stevenson had so little actual incident of his own to write up that a thorough account of the Camisard revolt, and reference to every single one of the important Camisard villages, towns, mountain hideouts, rivers, bridges and so on that he passed, helped to significantly pad the book out to the required length.)

Poland and politics

It’s a small point but I was interested that Stevenson three times uses Poland as the epitome of a nation torn apart by civil dissension, worrying that France, still dismayed and demoralised after its comprehensive defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, risks similar civil collapse.

There are adherents of each of the four French parties—Legitimists, Orleanists, Imperialists, and Republicans—in this little mountain-town; and they all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other. Except for business purposes, or to give each other the lie in a tavern brawl, they have laid aside even the civility of speech. ’Tis a mere mountain Poland.

An interesting indication of how Joseph Conrad’s homeland was viewed at this time, a completely forgotten cultural reference.

Fanny Osbourne

I was alerted by Claire Harman’s biography to the thread of unrequited longing for his lady love, Fanny Osbourne, which occasionally rears its head. After a particularly lyrical description of the profound freedom and independence of spending the night sleeping in the open air, Stevenson adds a lovelorn note.

The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house. I thought I had rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists: at the least, I had discovered a new pleasure for myself. And yet even while I was exulting in my solitude I became aware of a strange lack. I wished a companion to lie near me in the starlight, silent and not moving, but ever within touch. For there is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect. And to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free.

The joy of the outdoors

I felt a noticeable lifting of mood in the second half of the book. He seems to have shaken off the feeling of misery and oppression which clouded the opening, and the latter chapters contain several long passages describing the joy of sleeping outside, and remarking particularly upon the changing light and sounds of night time. Take this joyous description of bathing in a river:

The valley looked even lovelier by morning; and soon the road descended to the level of the river. Here, in a place where many straight and prosperous chestnuts stood together, making an aisle upon a swarded terrace, I made my morning toilette in the water of the Tarn. It was marvellously clear, thrillingly cool; the soap-suds disappeared as if by magic in the swift current, and the white boulders gave one a model for cleanliness. To wash in one of God’s rivers in the open air seems to me a sort of cheerful solemnity or semi-pagan act of worship. To dabble among dishes in a bedroom may perhaps make clean the body; but the imagination takes no share in such a cleansing. I went on with a light and peaceful heart, and sang psalms to the spiritual ear as I advanced.

Later in his life, and even more so after his death, a mystique grew up around Stevenson’s ill health, portraying him as a kind of heroic invalid. But in both these travel books he comes across (eventually) as radiating unquenchable good health and bright humour.

By the second half of Donkey, the narrator has regained the confident buoyancy of An Inland Voyage, enviably ready to look on the bright side, to see humour in every situation, and quick to rejoice in the sheer wonder of walking, strolling, eating, sleeping and being alive, travelling the good earth.

Map of the route

Map of Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes(source: Wikipedia)

Map of Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (source: Wikipedia)

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: