One good book almost invariably leads to another, and another, and another…
Have you read R.L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey about his walking tour in the Cévennes in southern France? It was published in 1879 and is a classic and pioneering work of travel literature. Stevenson designed what sounds like the first ever sleeping bag to take with him, and as well as making a physical journey, he took an emotional one. He was pining for Fanny Osborne, the woman he loved, who had gone back to America to try and arrange a divorce from her husband. The heroine of Stevenson’s book is Modestine, the donkey (named because she was his ‘modest inn’ as he travelled) who is “the colour of an ideal mouse” (isn’t that a magical description!!). He doesn’t realise until after the journey that she is on heat, so the attentions of male donkeys have to be fended off, and Stevenson is sometimes cruel to Modestine when she throws his luggage off her back. But he weeps when he loses her at the end of the walk.
There is now a wonderful Stevenson Trail in the Cévennes, which attracts thousands of R.L. Stevenson pilgrims and walkers every year. I have done a small part of it, complete with donkey (who was exactly the right shade of mouse grey) and it is fabulous. You can join my South of France tour in 2018 and do that same tiny bit of the walk (contact Australians Studying Abroad on 1800 645 755 to register interest). To do the entire walk will take you about 12 days – we do half a day on my tour.
One walker who followed in Stevenson’s footsteps is Richard Holmes, the biographer of Shelley and Coleridge. His superb book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer has a chapter about his walk in the Cévennes which is really good (actually every chapter in this book is truly wonderful for anyone who loves classic authors). It was published in 1985.
Scotsman, Christopher Rush had always loved the writings of Stevenson. When his wife died from cancer, leaving him with two children and a mind so gripped by grief he could barely function, he turned to Stevenson for therapy and decided to go walking in the Cévennes. So he bought a donkey, disappeared into the hills, shouted chunks of poetry to the wind and rain, and emerged greatly healed. The result is his deeply moving book To Travel Hopefully: Journal of a Death not Foretold, published in 2005. Rush also loved Richard Holmes’ book and takes the Stevenson and Holmes books with him, referencing each along the way.
There is another book inspired by R.L. Stevenson – Downhill all the Way: Walking with Donkeys on the Stevenson Trail by Hilary Macaskill and Molly Wood, but this book is very feeble in comparison with the books mentioned above.
So do yourselves a favour and take a walk in the Cévennes with a donkey through the pages of a book that inspired two more books and an entire tourist industry.
I’d love to know if you’ve travelled some of the Stevenson Trail, either with or without a donkey. Share your comments below.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
To Travel Hopefully; Journal of a Death Not Foretold by Christopher Rush
Project Gutenberg: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
Librivox: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
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