This is the first of two reviews.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes in 1879. The short (80 pp) Victorian travelogue was a best seller. It gave Stevenson financial freedom. He earned a reputation as a good writer, paving the way for his first major success, Treasure Island, followed by the novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped, both published in 1886. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey – the Kindle edition is currently free on Amazon – was one of the first travel books to popularize camping and hiking, now a category of its own in the literature. Stevenson made his beloved donkey, Modestine, a metaphor for a new friendships, one of the principal reasons to begin a trip.
We are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world—all, too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.
The Cevennes remains a sparsely populated, rugged region of 117 communes in the Departments of Lazère, Gard and Ardèche. Part of the region is a national park in the South of France between Auvergne and Languedoc. Stevenson and Modestine covered 120 miles in 12 days in September of 1878. Their path is now a hiking trail.
Stevenson’s prompts for his trek have motivated humankind to travel since agriculture and waste disposal gave us the means to stay put. After a night under the stars, he
strolled about to see in what part of the world I had awakened. Ulysses, left on Ithaca, and with a mind unsettled by the goddess, was not more pleasantly astray. I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers; and thus to be found by morning in a random woodside nook in Gévaudan [a small village in the Cevennes] —not knowing north from south, as strange to my surroundings as the first man upon the earth, an inland castaway—was to find a fraction of my day-dreams realised.
Prompt number 2 is more universally appealing.
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.
He just wanted to get away from it all.
Stevenson artfully weaves stories as he journeys through his itinerary. The most enduring one, of course, is his relationship with Modestine, his donkey, one of the first animals to be a protagonist in travel lit. One wonders how much influence Stevenson had on John Steinbeck to write Travels with Charlie, recently reviewed in this blog.
We realize how fond RLS is of Modestine only at the end, literally the concluding paragraph. Yet, he artistically and subtly, as if he is writing background music, does the spade work to make his attraction credible and central to his experience.
Next week Part II discusses Stevenson’s affection for Modestine and his prescient observations about religion.
— Tucker Cox – Zeteo Contributing Writer
Robert Louis Stevenson Day poster photo courtesy Pinterest
Today’s Reading photo (cropped by T. Cox) courtesy of “Walking in France.”