Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his walk through the mountains in 1878, was my mother’s favourite book, which automatically made it one of mine. The brown cover of her 1906 edition is faded with fingering, its pages frayed and loose from her rereadings. Many of the fictional characters who figured largest in my childhood were full of machismo, because they were in books filched from my brothers. Stevenson’s donkey Modestine, on the other hand – ‘patient, elegant, the colour of an ideal mouse’ – was a comforting antidote, domestic and affectionate for all her perceived obstinacy. But Stevenson himself fitted my expectations of a dashing young adventurer, setting off alone in a foreign land. His Travels with a Donkey filled me with romantic ideas – the independence of the lone explorer; the rapport with natural beauty; the almost sacred duty to record experiences.
Though I didn’t know it when I first read it, Stevenson had started a new tradition in travel literature – he had set out on his journey in order to write a book about it. (He had a pressing need to earn money.) Now the genre has been badly abused, and anyone tempted to find a new gimmick (such as walking with a fridge) should go back to Travels with a Donkey and see how he did it – properly. Stevenson’s account of his chequered relationship with Modestine the donkey is both pithy – ‘she tried, as was her invariable habit, to enter every house and every courtyard . . . and, encumbered as I was, without a hand to help myself, no words can render an idea of my difficulties’ – and poignant: on the same page he strikes Modestine and then almost weeps with remorse. His encounters with the locals are recalled with a mixture of dry humour and sensitivity, from profound debates with the monks at the abbey of Notre Dame des Neiges to absurd exchanges with villagers near Sagnerousse who are reluctant to hel
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