Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson

When I was casting around for what to read after “Flights” it somehow seemed inevitable that my gaze fell on a travel book! 😀 I keep meaning to pick up another Robert Louis Stevenson volume, and his books about his trip through the Cevennes with a long-suffering donkey has been on the radar for a while. And I seem to own three copies…

*Why*, you may ask, do I have three copies? Well, I bought the Penguin copy first (I think). The Everyman edition was from a charity shop for 90p and as it had different stories included from the Penguin I thought I would have it as well. The Stanfords Travel Classics edition came as part of a set of three which came from The Book People with some book points I had amassed. All have points to commend them, which I’ll get onto later. But what of the content?

First published in 1879, “Travels…” was Stevenson’s third work to go into print and it tells the tale of his trip the previous year over the Cevenne mountains in the South of France with only a donkey for company. The eponymous ass, one Modestine, is purchased by Stevenson to carry his luggage while they stroll over the mountains, sleep under the stars and see what adventures life will bring them. Of course, RLS has a choice in the matter; the poor donkey does not, which I expect is why her behaviour is often so bad… This was not the first bit of travelling Stevenson had done, as the earlier publication “An Inland Voyage” was about a canoeing trip through France and Belgium in 1876. However, that trip had not been a solo one; this one was, apart from the donkey!

So RLS and Modestine head off through the mountains, encountering Trappist Monks, Catholics, Protestants, country folk and the great wide world. The writing is beautiful, with some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and also very funny in places. Stevenson has a dry wit, and despite his mostly genial good nature, he can’t resist the occasional snippy aside, like a little sideswipe at a book written about a notorious wolf that stalked the forests in one part of the region:

M. Elie Berthet has made him the hero of a novel, which I have read, and which I do not wish to read again.

He’s also very funny on the trials and travails of trying to steer a poor recalcitrant donkey the way he wants her to go!

In a path, she went doggedly ahead of her own accord, as before a fair wind; but once on the turf or among heather, and the brute became demented.The tendency of lost travellers to go round in a circle was developed in her to the degree of passion, and it took all the steering I had in me to keep even a decently straight course through a single field.

Interestingly, for a travel book, musing on religion occupies much of Stevenson’s time. Of the quiet of a religious Sunday, he observers: It is only a traveller, hurrying by like a person from another planet, who can rightly enjoy the peace and beauty of the great ascetic feast. The sight of the resting country does his spirit good. There is something better than music in the wide unusual silence; and it disposes him to amiable thoughts, like the sound of a little river or the warmth of the sunlight.

I found myself wondering about the motivation of this element of the book, but more of that later. It’s clear, however, that RLS loves to travel – his story could easily have fitted into “Flights”; with his eternal restlessness, searching for freedom from petty restrictions and a healthy climate for his tuberculosis, Stevenson could have stepped right out of its pages. He is, after all, the man who states in this book: 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. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting who can annoy himself about the future?

I enjoyed reading “Travels..” very much; Stevenson’s lyric and evocative writing appeals to me, and although only 95 pages the book brought alive the journey he made through the landscape in Southern France. However, as a vegan animal lover, I was less than comfortable with his attitude to the poor donkey. Whether factual or fictionalised, his treatment of her wasn’t very humane at time and I did get a little crabby at this element of the book.

The Everyman edition

As I said, I have three different editions of “Travels…” and it’s relevant to share a few thoughts on these for reasons which will become clear… Initially, I read the Stanfords Travel Classics edition, published by John Beaufoy Publishing Limited, and it really is very lovely. Although a paperback, it’s made up on three sewn signatures on very nice quality paper which are firmly fixed into the spine. I would recommend it wholeheartedly except for one slight issue – there is no extra or supporting material at all.

You might argue that the book should stand on its own as a travel classic and not need notes etc, and to a certain extent that might be true. However, I think because of its age, “Travels…” needs some context and the introductions/notes in the Everyman and Penguin edition provide that. Coyly, the back cover of the Stanfords edition declares that Stevenson was pining for a lost love when he undertook his journey, but the other editions give much more information, and necessary detail at that. RLS had fallen in love with Fanny Osbourne, a married women 10 years his senior, who had returned to America and whom he had no idea if he would ever see again. The journey in “Travels…” was undertaken to produce a book to sell and make enough money for the impoverished author to pursue his lost love (they did eventually marry and were together till Stevenson’s death).

The Penguin

Additionally, the Penguin supporting material is particularly useful in placing the religious material in context. RLS had majorly fallen out with his father over the son’s declaration of atheism; however, when faced by a predominantly Catholic society he found himself defending his Scots Protestant upbringing, and knowledge of this certainly helped this reader understand Stevenson’s musings.

Stevenson, looking rather elegant and fancy

I found myself pondering the whole historical context of the journey itself, in a France of less than 10 years after the Paris Commune. The country had entered its Third Republic and yet still was a country riven; here it was by religious differences as much as anything else, and RLS spends much time musing on the history of those differences. As a plain-speaking Protestant he’s wary of the Catholics although willing to waive conflicting beliefs in the pursuit of peace and harmony. Of course, the world of country France is very different from the northern capital city and even the variations between two different areas of his route was profound.

So “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes” is really much more than an account of a jaunt through some mountains with an ass. It reveals much, I think, about Stevenson himself; his beliefs, his convictions, his search for meaning and companionship; as well as the world he was moving through. And much as I loved the look and feel of the Stanfords edition, if I was recommending one I would really have to suggest going for the Penguin. The notes and introduction are superior, it is of course a nice-looking edition, and having read all the supporting material after reading the actual book I did get so much more from it. However, I shall no doubt be holding on to all three of my copies, because one is pretty and the other two have additional stories in them. That kind of attitude isn’t going to help with my attempts to declutter, is it??? 😀