When I was a child, a dark red leatherbound copy of “Travels with a Donkey” lay unopened on a shelf for years as a classic I knew I ought to read. When recently I finally got round to downloading it on my Kindle, I was put off by hearing on the radio that Stevenson’s donkey Modestine had in fact been judged unfit for travel, so that the author had to include the last leg of his journey through the French Cévennes by stage coach. This, I discovered, was after only twelve days in which the poor animal, “not much bigger than a dog”, weighed down under a “monstrous deck-cargo”, was goaded, often by means of a whip or spiked stick, to trot some hundred and twenty miles up and down a succession of steep slopes.
Stevenson’s admission of feeling horror over his cruelty makes his persistence in this seem even worse – as when he rearranges his own load to free an arm with which to “thrash” Modestine, “two emphatic blows” needed for every “decent step” which the poor animal takes. Combined with his failure to plan in advance how best to reduce the load to manageable proportions, I set about reading this somewhat prejudiced against the famous author. To be fair, in the 1870s, lightweight synthetic materials were not available. But does it excuse the author that a local peasant insisted on making him a spiked goad as the only way of managing a donkey?
At first I was also impatient with Stevenson for undertaking the journey in late September, where he was likely to find “cold…grey, windy, wintry” weather four thousand feet above sea level. However, the weather seemed to improve as he travelled south, and I suppose it might have been too hot to walk earlier in the summer.
With overnight stops at a Trappist monastery “Our Lady of the Snows” where his admission of being an atheist prompted two visitors to combine in trying to convert him, at a number of remote inns or with a villager prepared to offer him hospitality for a small fee, Stevenson was able to portray the lives and attitudes of the local inhabitants. He was clearly impressed by a historical struggle which has deeply affected the area: the doomed uprising of the Protestant Camisards against the oppression of the Catholic majority in the early 1700s.
What finally won me over at least to the extent of appreciating why this novel was so famous for more than a century, is Stevenson’s ability, as he passed through the regions of Velay, Gévaudan, Mont Lozère and Cévennes to describe the landscape, and his wanderlust, in such vivid and precise terms.
“I lay….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. …I wear a silver ring. This I could see faintly shining as I raised or lowered the cigarette; and at each whiff the inside of my hand was illuminated, and became for a second the highest light in the landscape…..The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a habitable space…. I thought I had rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists: at the least, I had discovered a new pleasure in myself”.
In the valley of the Tarn, where Spanish chestnut trees have been so important to the economy, his portrayal makes it possible to visualise them without ever having visited the area.
“Some, trusting to their own roots , found strength to grow and prosper and be straight and large upon the rapid slopes of the valley; others, where there was a margin to the river, stood marshalled in a line and mighty like the cedars of Lebanon. Yet even where they grew most thickly they were not to be thought of as a wood, but as a herd of stalwart individuals; and the dome of each tree stood forth separate and large, and as it were a little hill, from among the domes of its companions…..autumn had put tints of gold and tarnish in the green; and the sun so shone through and kindled the broad foliage, that each chestnut was relieved against another, not in shadow but in light. A humble sketcher here had laid down his pencil in despair”.
It is probably an advantage at least to have passed through the area, stopping off at places like Florac or St. Jean-de-Gard, but the names of the the remoter points he passed are intriguing, prompting one to search the web for maps and images: Cheylard-L’Évèque, Chasseradès, Cassagnas, or Le Pont-de-Montvert.