Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Review by Lottie (History)
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes may, at first, seem an odd choice of book for a history undergraduate. In brief, the book is a description of Stevenson’s travels through the Cevennes, an area in central France. It is a commentary on his journey, the people of that region, unusual in France for their Huguenot, French Protestant heritage, and his trials with his mode of transport, Modestine, a donkey. This book, short in length and filled with Stevenson’s dry humour is an easy and enjoyable read. Yet, it is also an unusual and valuable historical source. Stevenson travels an area mostly inaccessible to the outside world. He encounters the people of the region, so different to those near Paris or those in urban France. They are almost medieval. His tale is riddled with folk stories recounted to him by the farmers and peasants he meets. One such tale is of a wolf, which, it is claimed, ate “women, children and ‘shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty’”. His fame was such that a price was put on his head.
The Cevennes, as portrayed by Stevenson seems almost imaginary in its backwardness. Yet, this portrayal illustrates the extent to which France as a nation, even after the French Revolution, was hugely varied due to its size and diversity of natural landscape. This book also, is a rare portrayal of the marginalised in a society. Stevenson meets peasant men, women, children, many of whom have never left their village or valley and whose dialect is, in places, an entirely different language to the French spoken in Paris. Its historical value matched with its humorous and wry observations, truly showcase the eccentricities and interest that can be found in the study of history and historical sources.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson