By the time Queen Victoria was on the throne, Great Britain’s age of exploration was drawing to a close, and its age of tourism was beginning. There were few places left that a white (if not English) man (or woman) had not visited and written about. Meanwhile, travel agents and tour operators on both sides of the Atlantic were starting package tours for the middle classes, and the journal of exploration was beginning to give way to the guidebook. Germany’s Baedeker guides had the same status then that Lonely Planet or Rough Guide books have now—a higher status, possibly, for baedekering entered the slang of the time to describe a journey made purely to write a travelogue.
It was in this backdrop that Robert Louis Stevenson began to write. At the age of 29, he had only a few published short stories and a travelogue to his credit, and he needed money to get married. He baedekered, therefore, and went to the French Cévennes mountains to travel through them and write about it to raise money.
The vagabond: R.L. Stevenson. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The age of tourism had started, but it hadn’t reached the Cévennes by 1879. The Cévennes had no hotels or stagecoaches, and it’s doubtful if Stevenson would have been able to afford them in any case—or to find a market for his travelogue if they did. In those circumstances, he slept in any house that would put him up, or in the open fields (and invented a crude sleeping bag in the process), and bought a she-donkey named Modestine to carry his luggage. Travelling light wasn’t an option for Stevenson, considering he had to drag his bedding along with him.
It seems the problem of lemons exists for pre-owned donkeys as well as used cars, for Modestine was a slow and stubborn beast of burden. Stevenson’s travelogue is filled with a mixture of frustration and regret that Modestine wouldn’t move unless he beat her. Stevenson and Modestine are locked in a mutual Stockholm Syndrome throughout the book—neither is able to agree on the objective, but when Stevenson’s journey ends, he’s miserable at parting with her.
When not complaining about Modestine, Stevenson devotes his attention to the history of the Cévennes, a Protestant stronghold in Catholic France. The mountains were too rugged for the Catholic nobility to root out the local Protestants as they had done the Huguenots, but their militias harassed the population wherever they could. When Stevenson visited, Catholics and Protestants lived in peace, but completely apart. As a Scotsman, Stevenson had a heritage of both Highlands and of being a Protestant minority—and the Cévennes were an excellent place for him to explore.
Stevenson became an adventure novelist a few years later when he published Treasure Island, but he never abandoned travelogues, writing them almost up to his death. The sickly child who had been confined to his bed grew up to explore the physical and the fantastical world in his books—and enriched us, his readers.
The Cevennes mountain range. Photo: Thinkstock
Stevenson confesses that the reading public will not get the full deal
Every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him who writes it. They alone take his meaning; they find private messages, assurances of love, and expressions of gratitude, dropped for them in every corner. The public is but a generous patron who defrays the postage. Yet though the letter is directed to all, we have an old and kindly custom of addressing it on the outside to one. Of what shall a man be proud, if he is not proud of his friends?
Stevenson obtains a donkey
Now, a horse is a fine lady among animals, flighty, timid, delicate in eating, of tender health; he is too valuable and too restive to be left alone, so that you are chained to your brute as to a fellow galley-slave; a dangerous road puts him out of his wits; in short, he’s an uncertain and exacting ally, and adds thirty-fold to the troubles of the voyager. What I required was something cheap and small and hardy, and of a stolid and peaceful temper; and all these requisites pointed to a donkey.
The frontispiece of Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). Photo: Wikimedia Commons
At length she passed into my service for the consideration of sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy. The sack had already cost eighty francs and two glasses of beer; so that Modestine, as I instantly baptized her, was upon all accounts the cheaper article. Indeed, that was as it should be; for she was only an appurtenance of my mattress, or self-acting bedstead on four castors.
Modestine rejects the notion of speed
We got across the ford without difficulty—there was no doubt about the matter, she was docility itself—and once on the other bank, where the road begins to mount through pine-woods, I took in my right hand the unhallowed staff, and with a quaking spirit applied it to the donkey. Modestine brisked up her pace for perhaps three steps, and then relapsed into her former minuet. Another application had the same effect, and so with the third. I am worthy the name of an Englishman, and it goes against my conscience to lay my hand rudely on a female. I desisted, and looked her all over from head to foot; the poor brute’s knees were trembling and her breathing was distressed; it was plain that she could go no faster on a hill. God forbid, thought I, that I should brutalise this innocent creature; let her go at her own pace, and let me patiently follow.
What that pace was, there is no word mean enough to describe; it was something as much slower than a walk as a walk is slower than a run; it kept me hanging on each foot for an incredible length of time; in five minutes it exhausted the spirit and set up a fever in all the muscles of the leg. And yet I had to keep close at hand and measure my advance exactly upon hers; for if I dropped a few yards into the rear, or went on a few yards ahead, Modestine came instantly to a halt and began to browse.
Limestone. Photo: Thinkstock
Stevenson disapproves of dogs
I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf. A dog is vastly braver, and is besides supported by the sense of duty. If you kill a wolf, you meet with encouragement and praise; but if you kill a dog, the sacred rights of property and the domestic affections come clamouring round you for redress.
At the end of a fagging day, the sharp cruel note of a dog’s bark is in itself a keen annoyance; and to a tramp like myself, he represents the sedentary and respectable world in its most hostile form. There is something of the clergyman or the lawyer about this engaging animal; and if he were not amenable to stones, the boldest man would shrink from travelling afoot. I respect dogs much in the domestic circle; but on the highway, or sleeping afield, I both detest and fear them.
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