"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go."
R. L. Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is about a twelve-day trip he took through the mountains of southern France in September and October of 1878.
That's already late in the year for the mountains, and Stevenson is told to expect cold weather, if not wolves and bandits. He takes a revolver. He designs a sleeping bag that will double as a sack to carry what he needs. And he acquires a donkey, Modestine, "a diminutive she-ass, not much bigger than a dog, the color of a mouse, with a kindly eye and a determined under-jaw."
The book is early in Stevenson's career, but not his first; he had previously written a book of travels The Inland Voyage and he identifies himself as a writer to people he meets. But he's more generally assumed to be a pedlar, though maybe of the higher sort: at one point he's taken for a dealer in brandy.
Stevenson is raised a Scots Presbyterian of a moderately severe stripe, but has by this time lost his faith. He's discreet but honest about this loss with the people he meets and even with us readers in the text, but clear enough. Still religion interests him. Though he camps out as needed, he doesn't every night. One of his stops (the 26th of September) is the Trappist monastery Lady of the Snows: "I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have a Protestant education." Nevertheless he quickly makes friends. "I was troubled besides in my mind as to etiquette. Durst I address a person who was under a vow of silence? Clearly not. But drawing near, I doffed my cap to him with a faraway superstitious reverence. He nodded back, and cheerfully addressed me. Was I going to the monastery?" An Irish deacon living at the monastery is thrilled to be delegated as Stevenson's guide: he's released from his vow of silence to play host and had had no occasion to speak English. (Though it would seem Stevenson's French is quite good.)
But a couple of retreatants at the monastery try to convert him until he's finally forced to say they're being impolite, a little too pushy, when they immediately back off.
Stevenson has done some reading in preparation for traveling the area. There's a legendary wolf of the area whose stories he's learned; of even more interest to him, the second half of his journey is in an area that's quite Protestant, and he's studied up on the history. The Camisards were French Huguenots whom Louis the XIVth tried to suppress in the early 1700s, and who took up armed rebellion with some success. Stevenson is full of their stories. (One of them involved a group of Protestants all stabbing a murderous Catholic Inquisitor, such that no one of them was responsible for the death, which reminded me of a certain Agatha Christie novel.)
Phylloxera is destroying the grapevines of southern France at this time:
"I could not at first make out what they were after, and asked one of the fellows to explain.'Making cider,' he said. 'Oui, c'est comme ça. Comme dans le nord!'"
The book has considerable charm; he's mildly ironic but forgiving about the people he meets. (Except for one man in Fouzilhac, who won't even give him directions; but that's OK, because these bad manners appal the people he meets in Fouzilhic. These would appear to be actual village names, now spelled slightly differently.) He's mildly ironic but forgiving as well about himself, about his inability to manage a donkey, or to load Modestine with the sleeping sack he commissioned.
I should say, I suppose, that while he's not cruel to Modestine by the standards of the time, he's certainly not enlightened by ours. In the end he sells her for thirty-five francs: "The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain." And even though he remembers her liking to eat out of his hand, Modestine's fate is no further to be thought of.
"The journey which this little book is to describe was very agreeable and fortunate for me. After an uncouth beginning, I had the best of luck to the end. But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of the world,--all, too, travellers with a donkey;..."
A French hiking club now maintains the route for walkers.
The book is also available from Gutenberg.
Stevenson's route now supports an entire industry. "Now" not meaning right now. Soon, again, though.ReplyDelete
In France, no matter where you are, there is always a legendary wolf. I am astounded by the number of famous wolves. And there are a huge number of children's books about wolves, scary or funny, a genre we do not really have in America.
I hope you keep reading more of Stevenson's travel writing. I think he gets more interesting, and writes better, over time. And he starts out pretty strong.
It's the first of his travel books I've read and I'm certainly inclined to read more, though I was thinking about going backwards first, with Inland Voyage.Delete
That book is good, too. I would rather actually do the trip, via kayak, in the first book than the one with the donkey. Although with most of the tours now you have a van carry everyone's luggage, and Modestine is sort of just along for the walk.Delete
Kayaking would be more my speed, too.Delete
We've been seriously talking about doing a stretch of the Compostela pilgrimage. These days I love the idea of somebody else carrying my backpack.
Antoinette dans les Cévennes/My Lover, My Donkey & I (nothing like giving away the plot in the title!) is an entertaining comedy based on the Stevenson industry.Delete
That does look like it could be fun.Delete
How have I not heard of this book before? I definitely need to read it. :)ReplyDelete
It is fun!Delete
RLS comes across as a mild-mannered inquisitor of sorts as he perambulates through a rather surreal civilization, i thought anyway... kind of a realized dream...ReplyDelete
A great deal of the fun in the book is RLS' persona--polite, curious, in on the joke.Delete
And Trappists may be a bit surreal, said the one educated by the Jesuits...
I was really hoping you would come back with a good report card for this one! You piqued my interest and now I'm keen to see what other travel journals Stevenson has written.ReplyDelete
And is that your cute little donkey sitting on top of the book in the image? Does he have a story too?
I'm now thinking about reading others of his travel books, too.Delete
He does have a story! though it's probably not that exciting...we'd go visit my grandmother in Texas when I was a kid and always go to Six Flags, the amusement park, where I would get an onyx figurine as a souvenir. The donkey's not the only one...
I'm glad you enjoyed this -- I've been kind of thinking I ought to read some of Stevenson's travels!ReplyDelete
First of them for me, but won't be the last!Delete
Awww, cute picture. I've been thinking about filling in some of my RLS reading gaps...but the mood for my classic reading is fleeting...and currently the library is fulfilling all my new book dreams. :)ReplyDelete
Even if I'm reading a bunch of new stuff, I still feel the need to mix in some classics, either rereads or ones I missed earlier.Delete
I wonder if that is where Christie got her idea? Hmmmmm.ReplyDelete
I have read a few online reviews on Goodreads that would beg to differ about the cruelty suffered by Modestine and that RLS thinks its funny? Other times, other morals, I know. But it might bother the animal lover in me.
Well, it's not the whole book, but it *is* a bit hard to take in places, and the only possible defence is that it's over a hundred years old. But Lucius as the beaten ass of Apuleius gets more sympathy than Modestine and that's two thousand years ago.Delete