Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson

Cèvennes

Like all his adventures, Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the French highlands led him deeper into his own experience. Near the summit of Mont Lozère, he marvelled at how light the world seemed to him on a perfumed night in a forest under the stars

And yet even while I was exulting in my solitude I became aware of a strange lack. I wished a companion to lie near me in the starlight, silent and not moving, but ever within touch. For there is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect. And to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free.

Well before he became known as a novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson was an essayist and travel writer. And like many Scots, he had an affinity with France, feeling free and at home there. The French attitude that considered art to be an essential part of ordinary life seemed more adult to him. His stepson Lloyd Osborne wrote that Louis was attracted to the French ‘universal indulgence towards all sexual problems – their clear-sighted toleration of everything affecting the relations of men and women’. In this respect he believed France to be the most civilised country in Europe, showing up a British outlook ‘blinkered by chaste puritanism and prejudice’.

He must have thought about this a great deal when setting out on a journey through the French Cévennes, consumed as he was by pent up sexual longing of which he did not openly speak. The woman constantly on his mind was Fanny Osbourne.

Meeting Fanny

They met in 1876 at an artists’ gathering at the Hotel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Loing, on the fringes of the Fontainebleau forest. Fanny was staying there with her daughter Belle and son Leon. She had originally come to France with her family, to study art with her seventeen-year-old daughter; her young son Hervey had died shortly afterwards. Her philandering husband was back in America, and the little family had come to this artistic community to grieve and recover.

Fanny’s son Leon remembered Stevenson’s unusual entry into the room.

Then in the dusk of a summer’s day, as we all sat at dinner about the long table d’hote, some sixteen or eighteen people, of whom my mother and sister were the only women and I the only child, there was a startling sound at one of the open windows giving onto the street, and in vaulted a young man with a dusty knapsack on his back. The whole company rose in an uproar of delight, mobbing the newcomer with outstretched hands and cries of greeting. He was borne to a chair; was made to sit down in state, and still laughing and talking in the general hubbub was introduced to my mother and sister. ‘My cousin, Mr Stevenson,’ said Bob, and there ensued a grave inclination of heads, while I wriggled on my chair very much overcome and shyly stole peeps at the stranger.

Fanny was sensuous, self-assured and swarthy. Ten years older than Louis, she was feminine but also comfortable with the opposite sex, one of the boys. From a young age she had been allowed to roam freely on ranches in the Midwest where she toted a gun and rolled her own cigarettes. Her sister said that in their youth, Fanny’s initials were carved into just about every tree in the place.

Falling in Love

She was, as Louis observed, ‘in no sense ordinary’. He had fantasised about the ‘Powerful Matrons’ in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: ‘They are tann’d in the face by shining suns and blowing winds, Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength.’ And here she was, this dusky-skinned mythical being with wild dark hair, sitting with his bohemian friends at the local inn and regaling them with tales of the American Midwest.

Louis described falling in love as ‘the only event in life which really astonishes a man and startles him out of his prepared opinions’, adding that it was ‘the one illogical adventure, the one thing of which we are tempted to think as supernatural, in our trite and reasonable world.’

Fanny had initially been drawn to his more handsome cousin and aspiring artist, Bob, but Louis had a compelling presence. American painter Will Lowe, who was with him in France at this time, said:

It was not a handsome face until he spoke, and then I can hardly imagine that any could deny the appeal of the vivacious eyes, the humor or pathos of the mobile mouth, with its lurking suggestion of the great god Pan at times…

He was struck by the way Louis was prone to emotional outbursts and easily reduced to tears. And although he felt that his fascinating and almost feminine ‘charm’ was not usually the province of Anglo Saxons, ‘it was undoubtedly this attractive power which RLS held so strongly through life.’

Cousin Bob diplomatically withdrew from the race for Fanny’s affections and encouraged her to transfer her feelings to Louis who was, he assured her, a gentleman she could depend on. Fanny was wary as Louis had been a sickly child, and chronic ill health had followed him into adulthood. This gaunt, weak-chested man, with his wispy moustache, bohemian wide-brimmed hat and velvet jacket seemed to her like a boy. In a letter to a friend she described him as a joyful but ‘hysterical fellow…with a face like Raphael’. Yet once Fanny moved to Montmartre, Louis became a regular caller. She was a long way from home and lonely. Gradually she warmed to his charm, becoming content with his ardent, sometimes neurotic attentions.

After they became lovers, Louis felt torn. He had written professionally for five years, producing essays for the London reviews, but at the age of twenty-six he was still struggling to establish his independence from his family in Edinburgh, and was in no position to support a young family. Knowing financial help would not be forthcoming from his strict Presbyterian father, he was unable to propose marriage. He was conflicted by marriage on a personal level too, and wrestled with the prospect in a series of essays he wrote for the Cornhill magazine between 1877 and 1879:

Times have changed with him who marries; there are no more by-path meadows, where you may innocently linger, but the road lies long and straight and dusty to the grave…To marry is to domesticate the Recording Angel. Once you are married there is nothing left for you, not even suicide, but to be good.

The fact is, we are much more afraid of life than our ancestors, and cannot find it in our hearts to marry or not to marry. Marriage is terrifying, but so is a cold and forlorn old age.

After a year of indecision, Fanny received a letter from her husband, Sam Osbourne that decided matters. He threatened to withdraw her maintenance unless she and the children returned to America. In August 1878 they travelled to London to take the transatlantic voyage home and a pale and silent Louis saw them off.

Heading for the Cévennes

Louis was wretched. Not knowing whether he would ever see Fanny again and loathing his own company, he headed for France and the warmer climate of the Cévennes to take a walking tour. He wrote to a friend: ‘I hope you may never have cause, to feel one half as sad as I feel.’

He had been enticed to this part of the midi after reading George Sand’s Le Marquis de Villemer and hoped he would find its granite uplands similar to his beloved Highlands.

After weeks of indolence in Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, a village in the Haute-Loire, he roused himself from his sadness and prepared for a journey south through the highlands (which did seem similar to those of Scotland ‘but not so grand’). He aimed to replicate the success of his earlier travel book An Inland Voyage. This journey would be like a boy’s own adventure: he would walk alone, sleep under the stars and draw on his survival skills.

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 clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.

Modestine

Louis’s provisions included bottles of Beaujolais, chocolate, books, even a whisk for the egg-and-brandy nog that he liked to drink with his morning coffee. Everything was stuffed into a sheepskin-lined sleeping bag of his own design. Like all novice travellers he took way too much and to carry it all, he bought a mule:

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 quaker-ish elegance, about the rogue that hit my fancy on the spot.

He called her Modestine and wrote to his mother:

You must not expect to hear from me for the next two weeks; for I am near starting. Donkey purchased: a love: price, 65 francs and a glass of brandy. My route is all pretty well laid out…

The journey took twelve days and covered an astonishing 120 miles, over some of the wildest and highest terrain in France. Louis’s route crossed four departements: the Haute Loire, Lozère, Ardèche and Gard, requiring him to traverse two highland ridges (the Goulet and Pic de Finiels) that rise between 4,000 to 5,500 feet.

Setting Out

On 19 September 1878, ‘Mr Steams’ (as the locals called him) and Modestine began their journey. Louis, who was really more interested in relationships than the walking tour, made Modestine a feature of his book.

She soon gave him grief. For the whole of the first day, over steep country roads baking in the sun, she refused hills; continually she shed her saddle bag, swerved into the coolness of village shop doorways and proceeded at a snail’s pace.

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.

Poor Modestine was trembling under the weight of all those ‘basic’ provisions before they had even left Monastier.

Instructed by a local, Louis resorted to belting her with a switch, becoming ‘sickened’ by his ‘own blows’. In his journal he added: ‘Once when I looked at Modestine, she had a faint resemblance to a lady of my acquaintance who once loaded me with kindness; and this increased my horror of my own cruelty.’ Modestine meekly tolerated the blows and welcomed the stray gentleman donkeys that showed interest in her along the way, ‘nickering for joy’.

Longing and Absence

The realisation that Modestine was on heat saddened and disturbed him on the lonely, loveless autumn journey. Having undertaken the toughest walk of his life in order to keep his mind off Fanny, Louis was given continual reminders of what he was missing.

At Le Bouchet, he had to share a room at the inn with a married couple. The woman was unsettlingly young, and Louis wrote that he was:

sufficiently sophisticated to feel abashed. I kept my eyes to myself as much as I could, and I know nothing of the woman except that she had beautiful arms, full white and shapely…

Another time he came across a woman singing a ballad that, ‘seemed to be about love and a bel amour, her handsome sweetheart, and I wished I could have taken up the strain and answered her.’

His preoccupation with Fanny pervades the book. She is present when he observes that his sleeping bag might have room for two ‘at a pinch’. And near the summit of Mont Lozère beneath stars ‘clear, coloured and jewel like’, while exalting in the solitude of the pine forest, he is aware of ‘a strange lack’ of the woman he loves, and writes what was in effect a proposal of marriage to Fanny:

The woman whom a man has learned to love wholly, in and out, with utter comprehension, is no longer another person in the troublous sense. What there is of exacting in other companionship has disappeared; there is no need to speak; a look or a word stand for such a world of feeling; and where the two watches go so nicely together, beat for beat, thought for thought, there is no call to conform the minute hands and make an eternal trifling compromise of life.

The Landscape

Louis began travelling through the gentler, rolling farmlands of the Velay to Pradelles, then down to the little market town of Langogne on the river Allier. From here, he arrived at new, wilder country that set his Scottish heart alight:

On the opposite bank of the Allier, the land kept mounting for miles to the horizon; a tanned or sallow autumn landscape, with black dots of firwood, and white roads wandering far into the Gevaudan. Over all this, the clouds shed a uniform and purplish shadow, sad and somewhat menacing, exaggerating height and distance, and throwing into still higher relief the twisted ribands of highroad. It was a cheerless prospect, but one stimulating for a traveller. For I was now upon the limit of the Velay, and all that I beheld lay in another country – wild, Gevaudan, mountainous, uncultivated and but recently disforested from the terror of wolves.

Near Mont Lozère, he stood on upward rises five and a half thousand feet above sea level, with views of ‘intricate blue hills’. On a clear day, one could see across the whole of the lower Languedoc and the Mediterranean:

I have spoken with people who either pretended or believed that they had seen, from the Pic de Finiels, white ships sailing by Montpellier and Cette.

From here he descended to Le Pont-de-Montvert in the Tarn Valley and was delighted to find himself in the land of the Camisards, those Protestants who had rebelled against the ‘tyranny of the Church’.

Trials

Aspects of the journey sorely tested him. In response to one crisis he wrote in his ‘disgusting journal’ about feeling like a dead man on the edge of illness, with ‘black care’ sitting on his knapsack.

Within less than a week the warm weather had turned bleak and bitterly cold. In alternating gusts of rain and hail, he guided Modestine, ‘like an unruly ship’ around bogs and through dense black forest, losing his bearings.

The wind was whipping into a gale as night descended and at last he stumbled on the god-forsaken hamlet of Fouzilhac. Soaked and covered in mud, he went from house to house asking for the way to Cheylard, but the superstitious inhabitants were too frightened of a mythical monster to open the door to him. In desperation he pressed on. With a drenched and exhausted Modestine, he found a cave in a forest to stop for the night, where he shared the last of his black bread with her.

But the next morning he awoke in a wash of blue dawn light to see Modestine tranquilly waiting on the path before him. His spirits lifted at once: he had survived a gruelling experience, later writing:

I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers; and thus to be found by morning in a random wayside nook in Gevaudan – not knowing north from south, as strange to my surroundings as the first man upon the earth, an island castaway – was to find a fraction of my daydreams realised.

St Germain de Calberte

Louis arrived here on the eve of his last day, walking along a winding road through a forest of chestnuts. As darkness fell he drank to the majesty of the moon with the last of the ‘scented Volnay’ he had brought from Florac. It made his blood flow ‘with luxury’. The advent of ‘nocturnal sunshine’ had even enlivened Modestine’s pace. A warm wind rustled the fruit and foliage of the chestnuts, filling his ears with ‘whispering music’.

Without warning, they came across St Germain de Calberte. The village seemed silent and asleep, ‘buried in opaque night’, but the last two gossips of the evening, talking by a wall, directed him to the inn.

Waking early in his comfortable room and seeing a ‘sunshiny’ vale of chestnuts through his window, he took a walk around the village. Stevenson describes how this hamlet had been besieged by the wild neighbouring legions of Camisards during the Wars of Religion in 1703, but they had been pushed back. Its turbulent past difficult to reconcile with the quiet place he now encountered. Walking its streets, he was watched by locals, not rudely but with a ‘pleased and wondering scrutiny’ and trailed by boys from a distance, ‘timid sort of lion-hunters’.

He took to the green terraces, surrounded by chestnuts, noticing that the hill was like an amphitheatre, lit with sunlight: ‘I have not often enjoyed a place more deeply. I moved in an atmosphere of pleasure, and felt light and quiet and content.’ But he wondered if it was not only the place that had led him to such feelings: ‘Perhaps some one was thinking of me in another country’. Or he continued to muse, could it be that an unnoticed and most beautiful thought had vanished before he could fully comprehend it, like a god who looks into a doorway, gives a fleeting smile, then leaves?

Was it Apollo, or Mercury, or Love with folded wings? Who shall say? But we go the lighter about our business, and feel peace and pleasure in our hearts.

At the inn, Louis shared a meal with two old men. Instead of wine, they drank an ‘economical juice of the grape’ called La Parisienne, made from whole fruit placed in a cask of water. One by one the grapes burst as they fermented, releasing their strength into the water. It was past three in the afternoon before Louis and Modestine headed out of St Germain de Calberte, on the the final leg of their journey to Saint-Jean-du-Gard. After reaching the summit of the hill of St Pierre on a clear night, they shared their last meal together, ‘she standing by me in the moonlight and decorously eating bread out of my hand.’

And so Stevenson’s most famous travel book is full of longing and absence. He confessed as much to his cousin Bob Stevenson in a letter written to him in 1879: ‘lots of it is mere protestations to F, most of which I think you will understand.’

In his dedication addressed to his friend and mentor Sidney Colvin, he writes:

…when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent. 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.

Frequently sickly, Stevenson was in need of a woman who would be part nurse, part mother and part adventuress. He had found her in Fanny. And it does indeed seem that Fanny accepted these private messages and assurances, for three years later she married him. It was a tempestuous, stormy and largely unsuccessful marriage that took them from Grez, Paris and Edinburgh to California, back to Edinburgh, down to Hyères in the South of France, and the South Seas via America, to Tahiti and Samoa where Louis finally succumbed to his ailments in 1894, at the age of forty-four.

Music: Aigue Linda La Guilhaumèla

One night, while experiencing an exquisite mix of enjoyment and longing, Louis became aware of a faint noise stealing towards him from the woods. At first he thought it was his imagination, but no, there was something there. The sound of a rooster or a dog perhaps? As it grew louder, he realised it was a man singing as he passed through the valley below.

There was more goodwill than grace in his performance; but he trolled with ample lungs, and the sound of his voice took hold upon the hillsides and set the air shaking in the leafy glens; and what could be more striking in sentiment to me as I lay above in the high woods, than this lighthearted, strong-lunged voyager, chanting in the contentment of his soul as he footed it through the valley in the glimmering starlit night?

Here is a traditional song of the Cévennes.

Connection

Robert Louis Stevenson is regarded as the father of modern travel writing. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Graham Greene (his cousin), Bruce Chatwin, Jack Kerouac and Redmond O’Hanlon all owed him a debt.

Although he produced just two books and a number of essays, they are strikingly modern and full of his warmth and curiosity. Instead of the Victorian tendency to patronise or generalise about popluations and cultures, he met people in a spirit of fellowship. He cast himself in a central role as a hapless, confused, sometimes inept traveller, as much a character as those he met on the road. He avoided the the noble idealism of his contemporaries and was powerfully honest about his private thoughts and longings. And rather than glossing over his difficulties, he let readers know about the effort and level of discomfort involved in getting back to nature.

Travels with a Donkey in the Cèvennes captivated the writer and biographer Richard Holmes at an early age. In 1964, at the age of eighteen, he went in search of traces of the Scotsman through a land bearing names that were magic to him. He could picture the lonely figure ‘laughing, beckoning, even mocking: follow! follow!’

In a van smelling of apples and cambembert, Holmes tried to explain his reason for coming to the grocer who was giving him a lift to Le Monastier. After numerous failed attempts he pulled from his rucksack a copy of Travels with a Donkey. ‘Ah, that,’ shouted the driver. ‘I understand, I understand! You are on the traces of Monsieur Robert Louis Steamson. Bravo, bravo!’

Holmes was entranced by Louis’s attitude to travel. In some respects he was a hippy from the Victorian era. Referring to an earlier trip to France Louis wrote that he had been ‘about as near Nirvana as would be convenient in practical life…A pity to go to the expense of laudanum, when here is a better paradise for nothing…’

And as Louis had rejected his family’s Calvinist outlook, so too was Holmes trying to cleanse himself of ten years at the mercy of Catholic monks in English boarding schools.

I was desperate to slip the leash. Free thought, free travel, free love was what I wanted. I suppose a foreign affaire de coeur would have been the best thing of all; and that, in a way, was what I got.

In his book Footsteps, Holmes describes Stevenson’s expedition as a journey of initiation: overcoming hardship and loneliness, while trying to decide whether he would take the enormous risk of marrying Fanny.

The journey became an initiation for Holmes too. Like Louis, he came to realise that travel becomes a journey into one’s interior experience, and instead of writing about the scenery, he found himself wrestling with his own demons on the page. And by following in Louis’s footsteps, deep in contemplation about his life and work, Holmes had his first experience of entering a biographer’s ‘time warp’ in which he established an imaginative friendship with the writer. He describes this as a type of haunting that he regards as an essential process in writing biography. It became his life’s work.

Notes

The Cévennes comprise 3,000 square kilometres of mountainous national park that were crossed by drovers for centuries. There are just a handful of hamlets within its borders. The landscape is varied, from ancient chestnut forests, sub alpine meadows, sheltered valleys of sub tropical species, to acres and acres of pine forests.

The pictures were taken between Mont Mars and St Jean-du-Gard, mostly around the village of St Germain-de Calberte (constituting the final leg of Louis’s journey) and a little of the hamlet of Saint-Etienne-Vallée-Françoise which Louis also passed through.

At the café in St Etienne a group of young musicians who played traditional songs were making use of a corner of the terrace for a practice session. Vases brimmed with the early June roses that spilled over the hamlet’s ancient stone walls and garden fences. There were plenty of reminders of Robert Louis Stevenson on our walk: a poster advertising an exhibition of his journey at the local tourist centre, an information board hung by an ancient door, and his words painted on the wall inside the café at St Germain: ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.’

Just as we were leaving St Germain, we asked a group of people where Louis had stayed on his last night. They pointed to a little room above the patisserie next door to where they were seated. Louis had arrived just after the landlady was putting her chickens to bed. ‘The fire was already out and had, not without grumbling, to be rekindled’.

On the outskirts of St Germain are the green terraces Louis described, opposite the hill stands like ‘an ampitheatre’. Somewhere there, amongst the chestnuts, Louis heard the woman singing the romantic ballad. He later expanded on this, one of his last encounters on his journey.

How the world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again into distant and strange lands; but to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden; and ‘hope, which comes to all’, outwears the accidents of life…

Weblinks

You can read Travels with a Donkey online at Gutenberg.org.

The Stephenson Trail (GR70) traces Stevenson’s route through the departments of Haute-Loire, Ardeche, Lozere and Gard, deep in the Massif Central.is

Association sur le chemin de R.L. Stevenson is the official website for the Stephenson Trail. The

RLS Website is a comprehensive web resource on Robert Louis Stevenson.

In this article Christopher Rush describes how following in Stevenson’s footsteps helped him mourn for his wife.

The National Federation of Donkeys and Hiking website is where you can book a donkey trek with a professional guide all over France and beyond.

Robert McCrum on why Travels with a Donkey deserves to be placed among the 100 best nonfiction books.

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes was made into a film in 2015. It is directed by Francois Marret and stars Aline Amouret, Jean-Pierre Bernard and Jacques Brier.

The trailer for writer/director Caroline Vignal’s Antoinette in the Cévennes (2020), starring Laure Calamy.

The Cévennes Tourist Information Centre.

 

Sources:

Callow, Philip. Louis: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, Constable, 2001

Harman, Claire. Robert Louis Stevenson, HarperCollins, 2004

Holmes, Richard. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Harper Collins, 1985

Rankin, Nicholas. Dead Man’s Chest: Travels after Robert Louis Stevenson, Faber, 1987

Stevenson, Robert Louis, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, Oxford University Press, 1992

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Comments from others

  1. Rick Charland on

    So interesting to read and so clearly and thoughtfully written! The photos captured my interest (and promoted a moan of envy from my wife) but the story added so much depth and a much better understanding of this famous author. Bravo Jo!!!

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      I’m delighted you enjoyed the story, Rick. My sister and I were moaning over the photographs along with your wife. Did we really go there, we wondered. Seems like another world away now. Thank you for taking the time to send feedback. I’ll see you back on Insta soon.

      Reply
  2. Barbara Cail on

    This is a fabulous story! I was totally transported to the wonders of the French countryside as well as into RLS beautiful mind – his self discovery.
    Please keep writing wonderful stories like this.
    Im passing it onto my friends so that they too can enjoy it.
    Barbara

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      I so appreciate your support Melanie. Sorry about the absence. It felt good to be back here, absorbed by the course of another life.

      Reply
  3. Jo Wing on

    Thank you so much Barbara. He did have a beautiful mind – a unique person by all accounts. I’ll try to keep the stories coming!

    Reply
  4. Bob Ashworth on

    I wanted time and a quiet moment to study this; RLS is one of the great Scottish writers. I have visited the Cevenne a few times, it is beautiful. Not too bothered by mass tourism. It suits the more discriminating visitor. Louis was physically fragile but goodness what a mind and imagination he had. His empathy with France in so far as he ‘believed that France to be the most civilised country in Europe’ is entirely in accord as my own feelings.
    I now print off your blogs and ring-file them; I still believe that you should find an editor/publisher. An anthology of distinguished authors would surely be sought after by teachers and students.

    Reply