The Annotated 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes'/Background

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Robert Louis Stevenson, 1879

Robert Louis Stevenson was 28 years old in the summer of 1878, recently out of law school, living in France as a struggling and unestablished author, he had yet to write the books that would make him famous - Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. His future career as a writer was far from assured, having only published one travel book, An Inland Voyage, and a few essays. Stevenson's unconventional bohemian lifestyle matched his daringly long hair and eccentric appearance, much to the chagrin and worry of his conservative parents in Scotland who were still supporting him financially.

Stevenson had recently met and fell in love with an American woman in Paris, 10 years his elder, named Fanny Osbourne, although she was still technically married to a husband in San Francisco. Late that summer she returned home to California and Stevenson was unsure of what to do next; needing money to become financially independent from his parents, and chase after the woman he loved, he headed into the hills of southern France to gain travel experience, reflect on this cross-roads in life, escape from the pain of separation from Fanny, and write a book about it.

Stevenson enjoyed traveling, adventure, and the outdoors, a trait inheritance from his sea-faring family, but he had also been sickly much of his life with lung problems. The 12-day solo hiking trip through the Cevennes mountains in the south of France would be, up to that point in his life, the greatest adventure he had ever undertaken, an opportunity to leave the cloistered life of school and the sick-bed for the wide open out of doors.

In the genre of Outdoor literature, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is considered an early pioneering classic. Not only is it one of the earliest portrayals of traveling in the out of doors for pleasure as a vacation, it also describes the commissioning of one of the first sleeping bags; of Stevenson's own design and idea, it was made by local villagers with sewn together sheep skins (wool-side in), forming what he called a "sleeping sack". Although much larger and heavier than modern sleeping bags (he would need a Donkey to carry it), it would prove to be influential.

Stevenson grew up reading stories of the Covenanters of Scotland, Protestant rebel bands who fought in a number of Scottish civil wars in the 17th century. So it was natural that he would similarly be interested in the story of the Camisards of France, bands of Protestant rebels who in the early 18th century conducted a successful 2-year unconventional military campaign against the royalist forces of the King of France. In particular, Stevenson was drawn to the story of the main rebel leader Jean Cavalier, a legendary folk hero. It was part of Stevenson's greater goal to eventually write historical fiction about Scotland that would help unify it as a separate nation, and he eventually did just that with his famous novel Kidnapped; Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes can be seen as the young Stevenson honing his skills to that end.

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is one of Stevenson's earliest works and, as one critic said of it, a highly "filigreed" (ornamental) work. There are passages of French prose; references to historical people, places and events; a vocabulary that includes not only some now-archaic Victorian words, but Scottish and ecclesiastical; and allusions to literary and biblical passages.

Stevenson includes mottoes (short poems between chapters) that he attributes to fictional authors or plays, but which he actually wrote himself. In a letter to his friend William Henley in March 1879 Stevenson explained his reasoning, saying "I can't get mottoes for some of my sections and took to making them [myself]; for I wish rather to have the precise sense than very elegant verses". Sir Walter Scott had employed similar techniques.

Stevenson's memoir of his 12 day excursion in 1878 remains popular to this day. The chapter "A Night Among The Pines" contains some of the most beautiful descriptions of the out of doors. There is a tourist industry in the Cévennes region that caters to hikers who re-trace Stevenson's route on an established GR-70 trail. There are even Donkey-rental companies for those wishing to hike with a Donkey.

External links[edit]

Stevenson's sources[edit]

From Narrating Scotland: The Imagination Of Robert Louis Stevenson by Barry Menikoff.

Stevenson used a number of sources in writing the book. He spent time at the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh, and we still have his reading list to know which books he used.

He drew upon:

  • A Complete History of the Cevennes (1703)
  • the English editions of Jean Cavalier's Memoirs of the War of the Cevennes, 2nd ed 1727
  • A Cry from the Desart; or Testimonials of the Miraculous Things Come to Pass in the Cevennes, 2nd ed trans with an introduction by John Lacy (1707); which is a translation of François M. Misson's Le Theatre des Cevennes (1707);
  • Antoine Court's Histoire des Troubles de Cevennes (1760);
  • David Augustin de Brueys's Histoire du Fanatisme (1692).
  • Napoléon Peyrat (1809-1881), a French historian who wrote Histoire des Pasteurs du Desert depuis révocation de l'édit de Nantes jusqu'à la Révolution française, 1685-1789 (1842), which includes the history of the Protestant insurrection in France between 1765 and 1789.

His favorite book was Cavalier's Memories, although he remarked, in the library copy which he marked up, "I fear [the memoirs] are to be taken with a very large allowance".

Annotation sources[edit]

Sources used in creating this annotated version.

Most of the annotations were originally sourced using Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Google, the Oxford English Dictionary, and various other online sources. Other sources consulted include:

  • Bowman, James Cloyd, ed. (1918). An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey. Some helpful notes.
  • Dumas, Alexandre. Massacres of the South. Chapters II through V is an entertaining history of the war of the Camisards by one of the greatest 19th C novelists.
  • Golding, Gordon, ed. (1979). The Cévennes Journal: Notes on a Journey through the French Highlands. This is the actual journal that Stevenson wrote during the trip and contains numerous differences from the published edition. The Christopher MacLachlan edition contains differences between the two in the end notes. ISBN 0800814142
  • Hammerton, J.A. (1907). In the Track of R. L. Stevenson. Hammerton follows Stevenson's footsteps via bicycle in 1903, about 25 years later. Includes many photographs.
  • MacLachlan, Christopher (2004). Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and The Amateur Emigrant. ISBN 0141439467 - excellent introduction and helpful notes.

Further reading[edit]

  • Christopher Rush (2005). To Travel Hopefully, ISBN 186197793X - Personal memoir by Scottish novelist re-tracing Stevenson's journey.
  • Hillary Macaskill and Molly Wood (2006). Downhill All The Way: Walking with donkeys on the Stevenon Trail. Travel literature by two British ladies who travel the trail in stages offering a modern perspective of the trail.
  • Sabine Baring-Gould (1907). A Book of the Cévennes, early car journey through the mountains, with photos of places Stevenson went and quotes from Travels with a Donkey.

The Annotated 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes''