Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes – Robert Louis Stevenson

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes – Robert Louis Stevenson

Book Review of Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes – Robert Louis Stevenson

Since buying a Kindle e-reader I’ve been tempted by the vast number of free books available on sites like Project Gutenburg (and many others).  I don’t think I’ll be spending a lot of time reading these as generally there are so many new books coming to my attention that its difficult to devote a lot of time to these often lengthy classics.  

However, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is a book I remember enjoying from a long time ago, and I thought it was about time I re-read it (the link is to a printed copy but there are many free e-versions available which can be reached from a quick search on Google).  And what a good read it turned out to be.

Travels with a Donkey, covers twelve days during which Stevenson made a 120 mile hike while in his late twenties.  His journey took him through the remote, mountainous region of the Cevennes in southern France, and to make his passage easier he decided to load his packs onto a donkey, whom he christened Modestine.  

Alas, poor Modestine proved to be a very difficult beast to manage, needing the stick rather than the carrot for the majority of the journey.  Even sticks proved to be largely ineffective in driving Modestine on, and it was only when the inn-keeper of Bouchet St Nicholas made Stevenson a goad (a stick with a sharp point on the end) that any progress was made.

By modern standards, Stevenson’s equipment seems extensive and it does not seem unreasonable that he needed the services of a donkey to carry it all.  He had a sleeping bag made up from green waterproof cart-cloth, with a lining of sheep-skin.  

He took a revolver, a spirit lamp, a lantern and candles, a jack-knife and a large leather flask.  Two complete changes of warm clothing were added, some books, a railway rug and an extensive larder including bottles of Beaujolais and brandy, and also a range of cooking equipment.  No wonder the donkey was required.  Stevenson didn’t take a tent with him as he was able to sleep in his “bivvy bag” and it seemed to do quite a good job of protecting him from the elements.

The book is pure travelogue, but with a humorous tinge, reminding me a little of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, particularly in the passages where Stevenson describes his troubles with Modestine.  

The Cevennes in 1878 was a wild region, with tiny town and villages providing little comfort after a day in the hills. When not sleeping in his sleeping sack, he stayed in some very basic inns, usually finding a communal bedroom, and with surprising room-mates –

The sleeping-room was furnished with two beds.  I had one; and I will own I was a little abashed to find a young man and his wife and child in the act of mounting into the other.  This was my first experience of the sort; and if I am always to feel equally silly and extraneous, I pray God it be my last as well.  I kept my eyes to myself, and know nothing of the woman except that she had beautiful arms, and seemed no whit embarrassed by my appearance.

Stevenson’s problems were often made worse because his days were long and he often had to knock on doors at night in order to find hospitality.  He spent quite a bit of his time completely lost, and the local population were not always keen on helping him find his way.  There was a fair amount of doubling back and frustrating diversions.  Sometimes however, Stevenson experienced that sense of elation and timelessness known to all walkers, and he was prompted to describe his walk in almost lyrical passages –

We struck at last into a wide white high-road carpeted with noiseless dust.  The night had come; the moon had been shining for a long while upon the opposite mountain; when on turning a corner my donkey and I issued ourselves into her light.  I had emptied out my brandy at Florac, for I could bear the stuff no longer, and replaced it with some generous and scented Volnay; and now I drank to the moon’s sacred majesty upon the road.  It was but a couple of mouthfuls; yet I became thenceforth unconscious of my limbs, and my blood flowed with luxury.  Even Modestine was inspired by this purified nocturnal sunshine, and bestirred her little hoofs as to a livelier measure.  The road wound and descended swiftly among masses of chestnuts.  Hot dust rose from our feet and flowed away.

Stevenson called on a Trappist monastery, the Monastery of Our Lady of the Snows (an interesting article about this can be found here, complete with photographs).  His strong Protestant background made this a challenging experience for him but he found himself impressed with the simplicity and quality of life of the monks who despite their Catholicism (and their attempts to convert him to it) seemed to be a fine example of Christian living –

Into how many houses would not the note of the monastery bell, dividing the day into manageable portions, bring peace of mind and healthful activity of body!  We speak of hardships, but the true hardship is to be a dull fool, and permitted to mismanage life in our own dull and foolish manner. . . There were none of those circumstances which strike the Protestant as childish or as tawdry in the public offices of Rome.  A stern simplicity, heightened by the romance of the surroundings, spoke directly to the heart.

In the century before Stevenson’s travel, the Cevennes had known religious persecution when the Protestant movement known as the Camisards raised an insurrection leading to suppression and martyrdom before peace was restored.   When Stevenson encountered the descendants of the Camisards he felt among his own people:

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.

Despite this he felt strongly that conversion from Protestantism to Rome or vice versa was not a good thing.  In a passage which would perhaps speak to those Anglican congregations who are currently leaving the Church of England to join the Catholic Church –

It’s not only a great flight of confidence for a man to change his creed and go out of his family for heaven’s sake; but the odds are—nay, and the hope is—that, with all this great transition in the eyes of man, he has not changed himself a hairbreadth to the eyes of God.  Honour to those who do so, for the wrench is sore.  But it argues something narrow, whether of strength or weakness, whether of the prophet or the fool, in those who can take a sufficient interest in such infinitesimal and human operations, or who can quit a friendship for a doubtful process of the mind.

I found this little book a delight all round.  Stevenson, although only in his late twenties when he made this journey, was already showing a breadth of mind which seemed far removed from what you expect from a 19th century Scottish Protestant.  

Since reading Travels with a Donkey I have read much more about Stevenson and found that he had a short but memorable life, all the roots of which can be found in his travels in the Cevennes. It would be an inspiring thing to walk the same route today and every indication is that it would not be all that different under modern conditions, apart from improvements in the hotels and restaurants along the way.