Stevenson is a writer I’ve always found personally appealing but very difficult to read. Despite the splendid plots of his famous books, his formal diction slowed things down for me and, in the end, pirates and kidnappees don’t interest me terribly. These are what I’ve always thought of as “boy books.”
Perhaps it’s the character of the (female) donkey Modestine who redeems Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. Stevenson has resolved to travel by foot through this remote, mountainous region in south-eastern France, and he needs help carrying his equipment. Hence his purchase of the donkey, whose owner, he claims, wept when he handed her over. She was “not much bigger than a dog, the colour of a mouse, with a kindly eye and a determined under-jaw. There was something neat and high-bred, a quakerish elegance, about the rogue…” She was not the ideal beast of burden, and one of the persistent themes of this lovely little book is Stevenson’s failure to secure Modestine’s whole-hearted cooperation.
Another motif is his enjoyment of the terrain and the weather. The area was then (1878) still very remote, and the people lived as they had for hundreds of years, herding or harvesting chestnuts. There was no train service, and few roads: an Englishman walking through the countryside was a matter for astonishment. Stevenson revels in his rough living, especially the nights he spends under the stars in his primitive version of a sleeping bag.
Of course, as travelers do, he talks to the folk he encounters, and one of the principal concerns in that area is religion, for the Cévennes was a Protestant stronghold in eighteenth-century France. Some villages are Catholic, and some Protestant. Stevenson spends a night at a Trappist monastery where he is urged to convert to the True Religion, but finds himself far more comfortable with the Protestants he encounters later in his travels. Having grown up in Presbyterian Edinburgh, he busily compares the Scottish and French versions of Dissent — and favors the French, as milder and more generous.
This voyage was not a long one — he spent only ten days on the road — and the book is correspondingly short but full of an effortless charm. Stevenson gently mocks himself, but turns a tolerant eye on everyone else he meets. And the writing that seems slow in fiction sets a thoughtful pace here. For instance, toward the end of the book, ruminating on a long-running village feud, he says, “I have never thought it easy to be just, and find it daily harder than I thought.” The elegant economy of that sentence is typical of his prose in this book.
Ultimately, Stevenson leaves Modestine, selling her in St. Jean du Gard. He sees this as betrayal: Modestine has learned to eat out of his hand, and “she had come to regard me as a god.” Like the old man who sold him to her, he weeps when they are parted. And then he immortalized her in print. Not a bad deal for her, in the end.
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