Monday, April 18, 2011

{review} travels with a donkey in the cévennes

Robert Louis Stevenson Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879)

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes
They told me when I started, and I was ready to believe it, that before a few days I should come to love Modestine like a dog. Three days had passed, we had shared some misadventures, and my heart was still as cold as a potato towards my beast of burden. She was pretty enough to look at; but then she had given proof of dead stupidity, redeemed indeed by patience, but aggravated by flashes of sorry and ill-judged light-heartedness. And I own this new discovery seemed another point against her. What the devil was the good of a she-ass if she could not carry a sleeping-bag and a few necessaries? I saw the end of the fable rapidly approaching, when I should have to carry Modestine. AEsop was the man to know the world! I assure you I set out with heavy thoughts upon my short day's march.
Was it W. C. Fields who said you should never work with children or animals? Apt confirmation of the tenet can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson's pioneering narrative of the solo-traveller's outdoor adventures in the Cévennes region of south-central France. This is a very early work by Stevenson, who would one day achieve world-wide fame with Treasure Island et al. Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is Stevenson's account of a two week ramble through the region with such innovative equipment as a custom-made sleeping bag (apparently one of the earliest in literature) and, of course, a donkey called Modestine.
Father Adam had a cart, and to draw the cart a diminutive she-ass, 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 that hit my fancy on the spot. Our first interview was in Monastier market-place. To prove her good temper, one child after another was set upon her back to ride, and one after another went head over heels into the air; until a want of confidence began to reign in youthful bosoms, and the experiment was discontinued from a dearth of subjects.
Buying Modestine to carry his packs and supplies, Stevenson soon finds that he is in possession of a demon in donkey form and before long he is both carrying the beast's burdens and also pushing/pulling her along:
A man, I was told, should walk there in an hour and a half; and I thought it scarce too ambitious to suppose that a man encumbered with a donkey might cover the same distance in four hours.
Modestine's performances are very amusing though they do not dominate Stevenson's account of a region of great natural beauty. A large strand of the narrative is concerned with the historical consequences of the upheavals undergone by the Cévenols during the great turbulence between Protestant and Catholic factions in the previous century. Stevenson - a Protestant Scot - brings great sympathy for the people whose lives had been destroyed by this religious war. 

His descriptions of the people he meets along his two week journey on foot are very lively as are the accounts of the delays to his travel arrangements. Rather like the effect of rail strikes on the modern traveller, Stevenson's four-legged "self-acting bedstead on four castors" frequently throws his travel plans into chaos. Of course, he claims not to have any plans, but there is no doubt that this ambitious young man is filled with purpose:
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. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?
The future is very important for Stevenson: he's undertaking this exotic trip through France in order to turn his experience into a book which would earn him enough money to marry.

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is filled with delightful descriptions: Stevenson's pleasure in sleeping outdoors under the stars, "where God keeps an open house"; in judging the figures of pretty barmaids ("...her figure was unworthy of her face. Hers was a case for stays; but that may perhaps grow better as she gets up in years); and in hugely romanticising what appears to have been a very ugly religious war. But the donkey was the heroine as far as I was concerned; a sentiment with which Stevenson must concur:
It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver, and rattling through a rocky valley with dwarf olives, that I became aware of my bereavement. I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone, 'And oh! The difference to me!' For twelve days we had been fast companions; we had travelled upwards of a hundred and twenty miles, crossed several respectable ridges, and jogged along with our six legs by many a rocky and many a boggy by-road. After the first day, although sometimes I was hurt and distant in manner, I still kept my patience; and as for her, poor soul! she had come to regard me as a god. She loved to eat out of my hand. She was patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, and inimitably small. Her faults were those of her race and sex; her virtues were her own. Farewell, and if for ever - Father Adam wept when he sold her to me; after I had sold her in my turn, I was tempted to follow his example; and being alone with a stage-driver and four or five agreeable young men, I did not hesitate to yield to my emotion.
Rating: 8/10

If you liked this... I read this book because of a mention of it in Rosy Thornton's The Tapestry of Love {REVIEW} which is also set in the Cévennes. Stevenson mentions the infamous "child-eating beast of Gevaudan, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves", which reminded me of Fred Vargas' wonderful Seeking Whom He May Devour {REVIEW}.

The Tapestry of Love Seeking Whom He May Devour: Chief Inspector Adamsberg Investigates (Chief Inspector Adamsberg Mysteries)

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