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Travel Books - Robert Louis Stevenson, Donkey Drover

Stevenson is best remembered as a novelist—as the author of Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it was as an essayist and a travel writer that he began his career. Travels with a Donkey, his second book (his first, An Inland Voyage, described a canoeing trip on the waterways of France and Belgium) was published in 1879, and although it will seem somewhat dated to the modern sensibility, it is worth re-discovering; for Stevenson is an elegant writer and can evoke in a phrase what it would take most of us paragraphs to communicate.

Stevenson’s twelve-day journey takes him on foot through the sparsely populated Cevennes in south-central France, famous as the home of a man-eating wolf, the Beast of Gévaudan, and of the Camisards, a rebellious Protestant sect who were cruelly suppressed by the armies of the Catholic king. Stevenson purchases a small donkey at the outset to carry his gear. Remember, this is 1878, before the age of freeze-dried food and down-filled mummy bags, and that Stevenson suffered most of his life from ill health (he would later be diagnosed with tuberculosis), so we should not view this as weakness on his part. Besides, Stevenson’s four-footed companion is one of the most charming characters in travel fiction. Modestine, whom Stevenson describes as “patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, and inimitably small,” is a reluctant travel partner. Stevenson’s uphill battle as a novice donkey drover is part of the appeal of the book. Indeed, it is Stevenson’s droll, self-deprecating sense of humour which makes the book so enjoyable.

Stevenson also sums up the appeal of the open road more succinctly than any other writer I’ve read: “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 civilization, and to 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.”

My edition is illustrated with charming sketches by Edward Ardizzone (I’ve reproduced one above), which perfectly compliment the text, capturing its spirit exactly. Ardizzone is one of my favourite book illustrators. I think I would buy a book for his illustrations alone, but here the pleasure is doubled.

When Stevenson concludes his trip and sells his companion, he is shocked by his loss: “Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone….” And he bursts unashamedly into tears.


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