Robert Louis Stevenson ended his 'Travels with a Donkey' from Le Monastier Sur Gazeille to St Jean Du Gard in the Cevennes on the 3rd of October, 1878.
Robert Lewis ‘Louis’ Balfour Stevenson was a renowned essayist, poet, and author of fiction and travel books who surely has a special place in the hearts of many readers. He is best known for his adventure novels such as ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Kidnapped’, and of course, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. His passionate ambition was to become a writer and although he studied engineering briefly in 1867, and became an advocate in 1875, he couldn’t set his heart on a formal career. That was despite his father and grandfather both being members of the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’, who between them were responsible for building most of Scotland's lighthouses. Another factor, which was not inconsequential in his choice of career, was that Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis as a child and simply wasn’t capable of making a living as an engineer. As an adult, there were times when Stevenson could not wear a jacket for fear of bringing on a lung haemorrhage. He was born in Edinburgh on the 3rd of November, 1850, and at the age of eighteen, he dropped the ‘Balfour’ from his name, changed the spelling of ‘Lewis’ to ‘Louis’, and began to refer to himself as ‘RLS’. He produced his first story, a short historical tale, at the age of sixteen and by the time he was called to the bar, he had already started to write travel sketches, essays, and short stories for magazines. His first articles were published in ‘The Edinburgh University Magazine’ and ‘The Portofolio’.
His was a free and restless spirit who enjoyed travelling, adventure and the outdoors. He became a great traveller despite chronic ill health and in fact, he travelled extensively around the World in an effort to find a climate that would help his lungs. He famously wrote up his experiences in books such as ‘Inland Voyage’, which was an account of a journey through Belguim and France in a canoe, and ‘Travels on a Donkey in the Cévennes’. Stevenson's tone in his travelogues is often jovial or satirical and his trips provided him with many insights and inspiration for his writing. His ‘Travels with a Donkey’ was based on a walking trip in France with a stubborn donkey. “I travel for travel's sake,” and “The great affair is to move” wrote Stevenson. Here is a piece of ‘Songs of Travel’ to give you a sense of his inspiration:
“Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.”
In the summer of 1878, Stevenson was living in France as a struggling author and had yet to write the books that would make him famous. Notwithstanding his first book, about the canoe trip in Belgium, his future career as a writer was far from assured. He led an unconventional, bohemian lifestyle, matched by his daringly long hair and eccentric appearance and he had fallen in love with a married American woman, called Fanny Osbourne, ten years his elder. When she returned to California, Stevenson needed to sort himself out financially, become independent of his parents, and be able to chase after Fanny. Why should he be any different? So, he headed into the hills to reflect on the cross-roads in his life, contemplate his future, and write a book about it.
The result of his trip is considered to be the pioneering classic of the outdoor and travel genre of literature. The book, ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes’, recounts Stevenson's twelve day, one hundred and twenty mile solo hiking journey through the sparsely populated and impoverished areas of the Cévennes mountains in south-central France. Not only is it one of the earliest portrayals of travelling for pleasure as a recreational activity, it also describes the commissioning of one of the World’s first sleeping bags. Stevenson designed the bag himself and got the local villagers to make it by sewing together sheep skins, with the wool side in to form what he termed his ‘sleeping sack’. It was much larger and heavier than modern sleeping bags and so he needed a means of carrying it. The solution proved to be a stubborn, manipulative donkey called Modestine, of whom Stevenson could never quite get the better.
The book is highly ornamental and contains passages of French prose and references to historical people, places and events. It also contains allusions to literary and biblical passages and Stevenson’s famous ‘mottoes’; a technique also used by Sir Walter Scott. Those are the short poems that appear between various chapters and which are attributed to fictional authors. However, Stevenson wrote them himself as he explained in a letter to his friend and collaborator (on the play ‘Deacon Brodie’), William Henley, saying, “I can't get mottoes for some of my sections and took to making them [myself]; for I wish rather to have the precise sense than very elegant verses.” Stevenson used a number of sources in writing the book, for which he simply made notes during his travels. Later, he spent time at the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh and his favourite amongst the books he drew upon was the English editions of Jean Cavalier's ‘Memoirs of the War of the Cévennes’. He marked the library copy of that story of the legendary folk hero and rebel leader of the Protestant Camisards of France by commenting, “I fear [the memoirs] are to be taken with a very large allowance.”
The chapter, ‘A Night Among The Pines’, contains some wonderful descriptions of the out of doors. Here’s a taster:
“The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still. By the whiteness of the pack-saddle, I could see Modestine walking round and round at the length of her tether; I could hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound, save the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars.”