Travel writing classics: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes,
by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)
"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake."
Travelling for travelling's sake is a popular refrain amongst the travel writing classics we've discussed so far in this series but the man who would rise to fame as author of novels like Treasure Island did have other motives for his journey in late 1878.
Not only did he see his twelve-day hike through the French mountain range as a potential source for literary inspiration that might provide him financial independence from his parents, but it was also a way of trying to forget his love for Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married woman he had entered into an affair with. His parents were probably quite pleased to see the back of their love-lorn, freeloading son for a few weeks.
As the title suggests, Stevenson is accompanied on his trek through the Cévennes by a donkey, Modestine, who more often than not proves to be less ally than adversary as they negotiate the barren, rocky terrain of the southern French mountain range. There's plenty of insight into the everyday lives of the people of the Cévennes - and its historical context as the seat of a Protestant revolution some 180 years earlier - but Travels with a Donkey... is potentially most important in the canon of travel writing for its depiction of camping for recreation rather than necessity. In fact, Stevenson is so much on the cutting edge of camping that he has a "sleeping-sack" designed and made especially for the trip:
"A sleeping-sack... is always ready—you have only to get into it; it serves a double purpose—a bed by night, a portmanteau by day; and it does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by."
Ultimately then Stevenson's trip did succeed in inspiring a work of non-fiction considered a classic to this day. It wasn't as successful in its aim of taking his mind of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne; they were married a year later.