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Deuxième partie : Voyages horizontaux et voyages verticaux

In the Footsteps of Footsteps: Holmes and Stevenson in the Cévennes

Ellen Levy
p. 119-128


Cet article traite de deux "pélerinages du coeur" dans les Cévennes : celui de Robert Louis Stevenson en 1878 (The Cévennes Journal, 1878, et sa version publiée, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, 1879) et celui de Richard Holmes en 1964 (décrit dans Footsteps’. Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, 1985). Nous essaierons d’y montrer comment la montagne est utilisée par deux jeunes écrivains comme métaphore : métaphore d’une temporalité stratifiée qui permet de lire le passé et de lui surimposer d’autres significations ; métaphore d’une quête spirituelle, d’une religion naturelle qui remplacerait tous les dogmatismes ; métaphore qui donne la mesure du courage de celui qui va sur les sentiers de la vie ; et finalement, métaphore d’une vocation : celle de l’écriture, l’équivalent d’une ascension

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"A voyage is a piece of autobiography at best."
(Robert Louis Stevenson, The Cévennes Journal)

  • 1 Holmes's books include: Shelley: The Pursuit (1974); Coleridge (1982); Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (19 (...)

1In 1964 when he was eighteen, Richard Holmes, later to become the biographer of Shelley and Coleridge as well as the elucidator of Samuel Johnson’s relations with his biographical subject Richard Savage,1 set off in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson across the mountainous region of the Cévennes. Stevenson had tramped through the area for twelve days in the autumn of 1878 in the company of Modestine, a diminutive, mouse-coloured donkey purchased at the beginning of his expedition.

2Holmes was neither the first person nor the last to attempt to re-live Stevenson’s pedestrian excursion: at least two brochures were published by walkers inspired by Stevenson’s Travels with A Donkey in the Cévennes (1879): there was Robert T. Skinner’s In the Cévennes Without a Donkey (1926) and Andrew J. Evans’ Across the Cévennes in the Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Donkey (1965). Holmes’ account of his 1964 walking tour only appeared twenty years later, in 1985, as part of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. In Holmes’ case the ass was replaced by a pet hat named Le Brun which, although not possessed of Modestine’s unforgettable mélange of obstinacy and patient forbearance, in the course of his travels took on a personality of its own, allowing Holmes to develop pleasant relationships with those he met on his way. In a passage imbued with Stevensonian whimsy, he writes:

This hat, Le Brun, besides performing the normal hat-like functions of keeping sunstroke at bay, and mildly redirecting heavy rain on to my left or right shoulder (at choice), had several magical virtues. One was deflecting lightning. Another was helping me see in the dark. A third was giving me the most vivid dreams about Stevenson whenever I slept with it tipped over my nose.
But most important of all, perhaps, was Le Brun’s power to make other people laugh.
(Footsteps 19)

3Finally, as recently as the summer of 2006, France-Inter broadcast the ten-part Voyage avec un Âne in which Hervé Pauchon pursued the same route in the company of a four-legged friend named Sardane.

4Stevenson dedicated his account of his walking tour to his friend Sidney Colvin, writing that "we are all travellers in what Bunyan called the wilderness of this world" (RLS Travels, 5). It was in the mountains of the Vivarais, of the Gévaudan and of the Cévennes that our two travellers, at an interval of some eighty-six years, sought to face a wilderness not only of world, but of soul. Each saw the mountains as a palimpsest, as a place imprinted with time, where thoughts of the past, the present and the future might be overlaid. Both understood the mountains as the locus of pilgrimage, as appropriate for quests both spiritual and artistic and, in the case of Stevenson, as a place allowing the expression of the natural religion that was fundamental to what Holmes would later call his "tolerant but skeptical mind" (Footsteps 32). Each considered the mountains as a place of adventure, physical and moral, as a place for testing one’s mettle on life’s journey but also of testing one’s skill in life writing—a task, in its way, like a mountain to scale.

Mountains as palimpsest

5Halfway through his journey, climbing to the monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges, Stevenson looked over crests receding into the distance:

High rocky hills, as blue as sapphire, closed the view, and between these lay ridge upon ridge, heathery, craggy, the sun glittering on veins of rock, the underwood clambering in the hollows, as rude as God made them at the first. There was not a sign of man’s hand in all the prospect; and indeed not a trace of his passage, save where generation after generation had walked in twisted footpaths, in and out among the beeches, and up and down the channelled slopes. (RLS Travels, 38)

6And later, standing where the Camisards had stood over a century and a half earlier, he gazes over "peak upon peak, chain upon chain of hills [...] surging southward, channelled and guttered by winter streams, feathered from head to foot with chestnuts and here and there breaking out into a coronal of cliffs." (RLS Travels, 88). On this hilltop, he meets a very old shepherd wearing a liberty cap who seems to him a sort of Rip Van Winkle, awakened after a century to find his Camisard companions unaccountably gone.

  • 2 These phrases are from Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (London (...)
  • 3 Robert Louis Stevenson, "A Mountain Town in France" in The Cevennes Journal: Notes on a Journey thr (...)
  • 4 As an adolescent, Stevenson had written a history of the Battle of Rullion Green (1666) in an essay (...)

7The "great stone book" of the mountains, providing in their geology "archives of the earth"2 becomes a metaphor for the layers of history that the traveller recognizes in their receding peaks and ridges. In the Cévennes, Stevenson sees other places, other times. "On the whole," he writes, "this is a Scottish landscape, although not so noble as the best in Scotland; and by an odd coincidence, the population is, in its way, as Scottish as the country".3 Hence, he notes not only a physical resemblance to his native land, but a cultural and historical parallel that will preoccupy him throughout his tour: it was here that in the years 1702-1705 the Protestant Camisards rose up against their persecutors, just as in a previous century the Scottish Covenanters had rebelled against Charles 11 as head of the church, breaking away and being persecuted for it—to form the Church of Scotland.4

8Thus, the twenty-seven-year-old Stevenson is on a voyage away from but also back to the Scotland of his childhood and youth. Lying in his green, wool-lined, sleeping sack à la belle étoile he listens to the wind singing a lullaby through the trees, trying to hear in its song familiar melodies of old. The country contains its own future, too: beholding the only railway line in the region, he wonders whether in another year or so, the lonely region before him may not have been transformed into another world entirely, a "desert beleaguered" by the advent of modernity (RLS Travels, 38).

  • 5 "It is a vivid picture, and standing on the same high, lost ridge, it was easy to imagine Stevenson (...)

9When Holmes, in his turn, comes to stand on the top of the Mont de Mars he looks back on Stevenson looking back into the past. He notes how Stevenson transported himself into the mind of the Camisard as the latter stood watching for promised help from England, projecting himself in imagination into the mind of the imagining Stevenson.5 Holmes, too, has deserted the faith of his parents. Educated in a closed Catholic tradition as Stevenson was in a narrow Calvinist one, Holmes empathizes with the religious uneasiness of his subject. At the same time, he postulates that the Camisard material, added to Stevenson’s Travels when the manuscript was being prepared for publication and taking up little room in the original Journal, is the author’s way of covering up a deeper dimension of concern. Following Stevenson’s trail, Holmes notes that Stevenson’s walk, as recorded originally, grows more haunted, more intense, more exhausted as it extends into its latter reaches. There is depression; there are mood swings; the river that he follows through the valley of the Mimente becomes the dark stream of his thoughts, his knapsack grows increasingly burdensome: early in his journal Stevenson had compared it jocularly to Christian’s burden of sin, but the joke has worn thin. Holmes records his own feelings of depression as he follows the same itinerary, diagnosing "symptoms of the solitary walker travelling too long alone in high bare places" but appreciating more specifically the concealed theme of Stevenson’s narrative as the crisis brought on by the departure of Fanny Osbourne a few weeks before the beginning of his walking tour and the decision he would have to take about whether or not to follow her to America (Footsteps 50).

  • 6 An Inland Voyage (1878), the account of a canoe trip on the canals of Belgium and France.

10Parallels across time: Stevenson at this point in his life has only just published his first book6 and Holmes is a fledgling writer, about to discover his vocation. In the early stages of his walk, Holmes tells the helpful strangers he meets—the driver of a grocer’s van with whom he hitches a ride, another hiker with whom he spends an evening—that he is searching for someone. Until he explains otherwise, they take him literally. And gradually Holmes himself comes to realize that he has, in fact, been looking for Stevenson, expecting to find him waiting for him on his path. It is at the bridge at Langogne that he has an epiphanic moment, that he sees not into the past but into what will become his future. Indeed, it is he, Holmes, who is waiting for Stevenson, pacing back and forth on the bridge over the Allier where Stevenson’s presence has taken on the force of a hallucination—until he suddenly realizes that the bridge he is waiting on is modern and that the old bridge, which Stevenson would have known, is fifty yards downstream, in ruins: "There was no way of following him, no way of meeting him. His bridge was down. It was beyond my reach over time, and this was the true sad sign" (Footsteps 26). But, in fact, this "true sad sign" is the impetus of a deeper, more fruitful reflection:

  • 7 Holmes would re-use the image of the river separating past and present again years later when writi (...)

Even in imagination the gap was there. It had to be recognised [...] You could not play-act into the past [...] The adult distance—the critical distance, the historical distance— had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic. (Footsteps 27)7

Mountains as pilgrimage

11In the mountains, Stevenson is aware not only of the strata of history that the landscape enfolds but of the strata of literary response to landscape contained in culture. His account of his walk through the hills echoes the writings of other pedestrian tourists from Bunyan to Wordsworth to Matthew Arnold. Indeed, the chapter devoted to his visit to Notre Dame des Neiges uses as its epigraph lines from Arnold’s "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" (1855): "I behold/ The House, the Brotherhood austere—/ And what am I, that I am here?". During a tour of the Alps the poet contemplates a monastery which encloses its inhabitants in a sort of death-in-life and wonders what, as a non-Catholic and, even more, as a non-believer, he is doing in such a place. Like Stevenson and Holmes after him, Arnold was deeply moved by the gentleness of the monks and by their simple faith. This sympathy is disarming for all three generations of travellers. Arnold recalls the teachers of his youth and how they weaned him from irrational belief. Stevenson, when asked by one of the brothers if he is a Christian, feels compelled to respond in the negative. Holmes, the lapsed Catholic, approaches the monastery in a defensive funk but is quickly charmed to discover that the monks know all about the man whom he is tracking: a hundred years, they explain, is not very long in the eyes of eternity. Both Stevenson and Holmes are generously fed by the monks who are approaching the time of year, from October to April, when they will only eat once a day. Stevenson mocks his attachment to the world by remarking that Father Michael, who brings him a glass of liqueur from the pantry to tide him over till dinnertime, "listened to [his] prattle indulgently enough, but with an abstracted air, like a spirit with a thing of clay" (RLS Travels, 41).

12In both Arnold and Stevenson there is a sort of nostalgia for a faith that has been lost but that it would make life easier to possess. In fact, despite his declarations to the contrary, it is not long before Stevenson is defending the Protestant faith of his ancestors when confronted by two individuals on retreat at the monastery who take it upon themselves to save his soul (the monks themselves are tolerant and do not proselytize). This identification with the religion of his forebears grows even stronger as he enters Camisard country. And yet, also reinforced, is the wish to embrace a religion that embraces all religions: "there is no sect in the world," he declares in his journal, "that I do not count as mine" (RLS Journal, 101).

  • 8 Each monk has a chosen activity (bookbinding, road-building, bread-making) that he pursues. The day (...)

13The monastery and its peaceful inmates cause Stevenson to call into question his choices in life. Holmes notes that they provoke a meditative state that Stevenson is reluctant to call prayer, since prayer implies a kind of special pleading in one’s own interests. This state allows one to see things with greater clarity. The Trappists appeal to the artist’s soul: their sweetness and good nature, the regularity of their lives, the tranquillity with which they pursue their collective and individual work impress the craftsman in him.8 Yet, Stevenson sees, paradoxically, that he was not meant to lead a solitary life: hearing the bells calling the monks to prayer at two in the morning, he blesses God that he is "free to wander, free to hope, and free to love" (RLS Travels, 49).

  • 9 "The bed was made, the room was fit; By punctual eve the stars were lit:/ The air was sweet, the wa (...)

14It is in "God’s green caravanserai"9—a beautiful dell slept in after passing the summit of Mont Lozère—that he finds his sublime and that, in his own way, he joins the monks in their holy observances. Here, in a grassy glade among pine trees, served by a streamlet which, in tumbling over stones, provides him charmingly with a spout resembling a water-tap, he feeds Modestine and, after buckling himself into his sack, lies down in peace, freed momentarily from what he calls the "Bastille of civilisation" that prevents a man from being "a mere kindly animal and a sheep in Nature’s flock" (RLS Travels, 57). He awakens at a certain hour—it is the hour of the monks’ devotions—to participate in the communion of nature:

... and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet. It is then that the cock first crows, not this time to announce the dawn, but like a cheerful watchman speeding the course of night. Cattle awake on the meadows; sheep break their fast on dewy hillsides, and change to a new lair among the ferns; and houseless men, who have lain down with fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night. (RLS Travels, 56)

15What is the purpose of this "nightly resurrection," as Stevensons call it? For the awakened traveller, it brings a moment of utter serenity beneath clear, jewel-like stars, in a silence broken only by Modestine’s nearby motions and by the gentle trippling of the local runnel. It brings a realization that the fear we have of nature is misplaced, for "night after night... a man’s bed [i]s laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house" and that what should disturb, nay, horrify, him are the sordid promiscuities of the life in society that he deludes himself into believing provide security (RLS Travels, 57). And yet, at the same time, Stevenson acknowledges that solitude would be yet more perfect if shared with the companion of one’s heart.

  • 10 Stevenson undercuts the solemnity of his declaration by adding an aside to the reader: "I did not k (...)

16Despite the uncertainty of his mood, Stevenson is satisfied that in climbing he is elevated, that in striving he is purified of strife. The fruition of his pantheistic ruminations comes a few days later, descending the valley of the Tarn, when he meets upon his way an old man who greets him by asking, "Connaissez-vous le Seigneur?" By this point in his journey, the agnostic Stevenson can only admit that he does. The two wayfarers—Stevenson refers to himself and his fortuitous companion as Christian and Faithful—have a curiously accommodating theological discussion. Stevenson addresses the old man, who turns out to be a member of a fundamentalist Protestant sect resembling the Plymouth Brethren, thus: "My father... it is not easy to say who knows the Lord; and it is none of our business. Protestants and Catholics, and even those who worship stones, may know Him and be known by Him, for He has made all." (RLS Travels, 75-76)10 The old man is delighted to agree and, continuing their route together, leads his new acquaintance to the peaceful village of La Vernède. Holmes, walking the same path, sees this moment of the journey as containing the sort of "transcendental glow" that is produced by the hard physicality of a ten-day’s march. And in the transient friendship between the young walker and the old Plymouth Brother he recognizes a conjuring of reconciliation, across a spatial and mental divide, with the real father, Thomas Stevenson, whose heart young Louis had broken some years earlier with his declaration of non-belief.

17Holmes takes up the contradictions in Stevenson’s journey: the seeking of solitude that draws him closer to the decision to follow Fanny Osbourne to America (his attitude towards women is deeply ambivalent, adventures being performed, as Paul Zweig has written, for women but also against them (Zweig 62)); the ultimate rejection of Trappist self-abnegation, despite a moving description of the joyful resignation with which the monks accept their destiny, that leads Stevenson to write a series of prayers in his journal—prayers, however, which he expurgates from the published Travels most likely because, in their sincerity, they contradict the image of debonair detachment that he wishes to cultivate (Footsteps 33). His own journey makes Holmes realize that an undertaking like the walking tour in the Cévennes was more than a piece of youthful bravura. In the beginning, he writes,

I had conceived of Stevenson’s journey—and experienced it for myself—as a physical trial, a piece of deliberate "adventuring", a bet taken against himself, that he could survive on his own. His ill-health, his struggle against consumption, together with the real wildness of the Cévennes a hundred years ago made this trial a genuine enough affair.
But here was a new element, a metaphysical one. Stevenson was making a pilgrimage into the recesses of his own heart. He was asking himself what sort of man he should be, what life-pattern he should follow. (
Footsteps 38)

Mountains as life-journey

  • 11 "The evident design of Providence in placing difficulties before man is to sharpen his faculties fo (...)

18Explorers were the nineteenth century’s pop idols: there was a fascination with the conquering of new territory, with going where no man had ever been before. For those who could not go to the far-flung corners of the earth, as Stevenson would do later in his life, more local mountaineering provided a stage for exploration—exploration that was also a form of self-exploration. Robert Macfarlane writes that as the century advanced "the more entangled become the concepts of risk-taking with concepts of selfhood and self-knowledge". He cites an editorial in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for November 1847 that suggested that the wild unexplored places of the earth had been placed there by Providence specifically so that man might test himself against them.11 Stevenson’s wanderings, which were only just beginning, certainly fell, in their as yet modest way, into this category:

I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers; and thus to be found by morning in a random woodside nook in Gévaudan—not knowing north from south, as strange to my surroundings as the first man upon the earth, an inland castaway—was to find a fraction of my day-dream realised. (RLS Travels, 32)

19Holmes relates the term "inland castaway" to his own experience of the need to get lost in order to find oneself. Real travel, he notes, is concerned as much with disorientation as with distance. The traveller casts himself into the laps of the gods—and where better to do so than on a mountain top?—in order to find out what will happen (Footsteps 29). The undertaking becomes then a challenge to fate as well as to the traveller himself: rough roads or no roads at all, sudden darkness, plummetting temperatures, wind and rain, rats in the underbrush at night, ants in the sleeping sack, the unfriendly native, the suggestion of a fever—all these must be faced, outwitted, overcome. "For my part," writes Stevenson, "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 civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints" (RLS Travels 35). To do so builds one’s character; so what if on a mountain slope the path breaks up into a labyrinth of by-ways leading senselessly round to their own beginnings—is this not sometimes the way of our enterprises in life? And when a bewildered Stevenson searches in vain for help at the village of Fouzilhac, where the inhabitants will not open their doors let alone direct him on his way, only to discover that in neighbouring Fouzilhic kindness itself awaits him in the person of an elderly cottager who guides him out of his difficulties—well, are we not all sent shuttling between the Fouzilhics and the Fouzilhacs of existence, aided or abandoned, cherished or forsaken by our fellows?

20In a later essay on "Walking Tours" Stevenson would emphasize that although not the only way to travel, walking had the advantage of being an end in itself, a way through physical exertion of bring "peace and spiritual repletion" to one involved in a process of achievement: from the exhilaration of the outset to the satisfaction of arrival (RLS Essays, 28). Above all, a walker is free: he chooses his direction and pace, he is open to impressions of every sort; he becomes part of the landscape, incorporated into its materiality and made more sensitive to its deeper meanings. Walking alone purges one of narrowness and pride; curiosity is given free reign as though one were a child or a man of science. The romance of such sentiments recalls Keats’ remarks on a pedestrian excursion through the Lakes and Scotland in 1818. Such a mode of locomotion, he claimed, could only "give me more experience, rub off more Prejudice, use [me] to more hardships, identifying finer scenes, load me with grander Mountains, and strengthen more my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among Books even though I should read Homer" (cited by Wallace 167).

  • 12 Macfarlane discussing Sir Thomas Browne's natural theology, 208.
  • 13 The title of Holmes's Dr Johnson and Mr Savage was meant to recall Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyd (...)

21For both Stevenson and Holmes, in Keatsian fashion, the mountains of the Cévennes also served as sublime notebook. The mountains—"the finest of God’s texts"12—in turn become the subject of what Holmes calls the "complex geology" of life-writing, be it autobiographical or biographical (Holmes Dr Johnson, 4).13 Stevenson is teaching himself to see, to hear—Henry James would say of his next travel adventure, An Amateur Emigrant, that it was a heroic mixture of the things he saw, morally as well as imaginatively (Cited by Wilson 89)—and to record the sensory-cum-moral perceptions gleaned to the rhythms of the route. A single example must suffice. Stevenson is beginning his ascension of Le Goulet:

The narrow street of Lestampes stood full of sheep, from wall to wall—black sheep and white, bleating like the birds in spring, and each one accompanying himself upon the sheep-bell round his neck. It made a pathetic concert, all in treble. A little higher, and I passed a pair of men in a tree with pruning-hooks, and one of them was singing the music of a bourrée. Still further, and when I was already threading the birches, the crowing of cocks came cheerfully to my ears, and along with that the voice of a flute discoursing a deliberate and plaintive air from one of the upland villages. I pictured to myself some grizzled, apple-cheeked, country schoolmaster fluting in his bit of a garden in the clear autumn sunshine. All these beautiful and interesting sounds filled my heart with unwonted expectation, and it appeared to me that, once past this range which I was mounting, I should descend into the garden of the world. (RLS Travels, 54-55)

  • 14 The biographer Michael Holroyd, for example, using such spatial imagery, has written that "biograph (...)

22This verbal medley leads the reader upward through degrees of sounds, themselves evocative of and wedded to visual cues, that culminate in an emotion of high anticipation crowned by the openness of metaphor. It is as if the whole trip through the mountains were only the preliminary stage of a farther journey: into a future life? into the Eden of the eternal word? into death? Ihab Hassan has written of mortality as the invisible ground of autobiographical writing and of autobiography itself as the veritable quest rather than merely the record of a quest (Hassan 123). Holmes’ gloss on Stevenson’s journey makes something of a similar claim. Intertwining accounts of the two Cevenole treks, he develops, as his own trail crosses and re-crosses the ghostly trail of his predecessor, an understanding of what it is to track a subject, concluding that perhaps the most thrilling passage is the one from cognizance to expression. His reflection on the biographer’s art, one often approached through the language of space, adds a further dimension to these overlaid mountain excursions.14 Holmes’ walking tour led him from an image of himself as a budding poet to the illumination that in following in Stevenson’s real and writerly footsteps he had begun to define his own future as a biographical artist.

23The Cévennes journey was an ideal venue for such a discovery since the romance with which Stevenson imbued it was close in tone to what Holmes came to understand as the essentially Romantic form of biography. By this he meant that a central tenet of the form was empathy or, as Michael Holroyd suggests, the story of a relationship between a writer and his subject. Holroyd adds that biographers can also "hide themselves behind their subjects, inhabiting those invisible spaces between the lines of print" (Holroyd 85). Holmes discovers that the first step in the art of biography is the creation of an imaginary relationship between biographer and subject: "not merely a ‘point of view’ or an ‘interpretation’, but a continuous living dialogue between the two as they move over the same historical ground, the same trail of events. There is between them a ceaseless discussion, a reviewing and questioning of motives and actions and consequences, a steady if subliminal exchange of attitudes, judgments and conclusions" (Footsteps 66). Beginning with the hero-worship of the period before Langogne and moving towards the wisdom of separation. Holmes follows Stevenson’s path, mingling his biographic curiosity with autobiographical reflections, writing the biography of an autobiographical writer, seeking the frontier not only between self and subject but between the subject and the labyrinth of relationships that made up his life. Walking on the trail of Stevenson also teaches Holmes that you can never wholly fix a subject in a moment, that the subject is always moving out of the frame and into the future: "So without knowing it, my youthful journey through the Cévennes led me over the hills and far away into the undiscovered land of other men’s and women’s lives. It led me towards biography" (Footsteps 69).

24Stevenson writes of a magical moment on their last night together when he saw, as he and Modestine descended from the Mont de Mars towards St Germain de Calberte, their shadows in moonlight. Now, they lay before them outlined clearly on the road; then, as the road curved round a bend, the shadows sailed in ghostly fashion along the mountains like a cloud, changing form and direction with the meanderings of the way. These shadows, flying before and after, would be cast, although Stevenson could not know it, into time as well as into space. Holmes would perceive them and be fascinated by their variable nature. One dawn, on the ridge of Le Goulet where Stevenson had listened in enchantment to the sounds of the world. Holmes finds himself overwhelmed by homesickness. By way of consolation, he reads out loud "to the attentive clouds" a poem from Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It makes him weep, although he does not understand why. It is, as Holmes says, a thirty-year-old man’s version of a child’s dream of travel. But what he does not say—and we can hear—is that it is also a plea to those who come after us, to capture what we send out on the stream of life and take it home and make something of it:

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand,
It flows along forever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating—
When will all come home?

On goes the river,
Out past the mill,
Away down the valley,

Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore. (RLS
Verses 24-25)

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HASSAN, Ihab. "Quest: Forms of Adventure in Contemporary American Literature", Contemporary American Fiction. Malcom Bradbury and Sigmund Ro eds. London: Edward Arnold, 1986.122-137.

HOLMES, Richard. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. London: Penguin, 1986(1985).

HOLMES, Richard. Dr Johnson and Mr Savage. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.

HOLROYD, Michael. Mosaic. London: Abacus, 2005 (2004).

MACFARLANE, Robert. Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. London: Granta, 2004 (2003).

STEVENSON, Robert Louis. A Child’s Garden of Verses. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1990 (1885).

STEVENSON, Robert Louis. The Cevennes Journal: Notes on a Journey through the French Highlands. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1978.

STEVENSON, Robert Louis. Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. London: Penguin, 2004 (1879).

STEVENSON, Robert Louis. "Walking Tours", The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays. London: Chatto &Windus, 1988.

WALLACE, Anne D. Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993

WILSON, James. "Landscape with Figures", Robert Louis Stevenson. Andrew Noble ed. London and New Jersey: Vision and Barnes and Noble, 1983.

ZWEIG, Paul. The Adventurer: The Fate of Adventure in the Western World. New York: Akadine Press, 1999 (1974).

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1 Holmes's books include: Shelley: The Pursuit (1974); Coleridge (1982); Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (1993).

2 These phrases are from Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (London: Granta, 2004 [2003]) 49. Macfarlane writes: "Each stone had a story attached to it: a biography which stretched back in time for epoques" (50).

3 Robert Louis Stevenson, "A Mountain Town in France" in The Cevennes Journal: Notes on a Journey through the French Highlands (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1978) 16.
Stevenson’s original journal was published on the one hundredth anniversary of his walking tour in the Cévennes. It does not correspond to the published
Travels in every particular. "A Mountain Town in France" was published separately from Travels in The Studio (Winter 1896-1897).

4 As an adolescent, Stevenson had written a history of the Battle of Rullion Green (1666) in an essay entitled The Pentland Rising that pleased his father Thomas Stevenson so much that he had it privately printed.
Christopher Maclachlan, "Introduction" to
Travels, xxiv-xxv.

5 "It is a vivid picture, and standing on the same high, lost ridge, it was easy to imagine Stevenson’s gaze traversing the wild horizon, and conjuring up the shades of the lost Camisards...", Holmes, Footsteps, 49.

6 An Inland Voyage (1878), the account of a canoe trip on the canals of Belgium and France.

7 Holmes would re-use the image of the river separating past and present again years later when writing Dr Johnson and Mr Savage: here the biographer becomes a sort of "Charon, crossing back and forth between the Past and Present, over the dark river of Oblivion" (228).

8 Each monk has a chosen activity (bookbinding, road-building, bread-making) that he pursues. The day is divided regularly by bells into a variety of different occupations. Stevenson considers that this brings order and peace of mind: "We speak of hardship, but the true hardship is to be a dull fool, and permitted to mismanage life...." (Travels 45).

9 "The bed was made, the room was fit; By punctual eve the stars were lit:/ The air was sweet, the water ran;/ No need was there for maid or man,/ When we put up, my ass and I,/ At God’s green caravanserai" (Travels 53).

10 Stevenson undercuts the solemnity of his declaration by adding an aside to the reader: "I did not know I was so good a preacher".

11 "The evident design of Providence in placing difficulties before man is to sharpen his faculties for their mastery" (Cited by Macfarlane, 85).

12 Macfarlane discussing Sir Thomas Browne's natural theology, 208.

13 The title of Holmes's Dr Johnson and Mr Savage was meant to recall Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

14 The biographer Michael Holroyd, for example, using such spatial imagery, has written that "biographers walk a tightrope between passionate involvement that lures them into sentimentality, and historical detachment with its arid wastes of information. Those who write autobiographies walk the same line, though in an opposite direction, seeking not intimacy with another past, but some perspective on their own". In Mosaic (London: Abacus, 2005 [2004]) 9.

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Bibliographical reference

Ellen Levy, « In the Footsteps of Footsteps: Holmes and Stevenson in the Cévennes », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 119-128.

Electronic reference

Ellen Levy, « In the Footsteps of Footsteps: Holmes and Stevenson in the Cévennes », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 25 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Ellen Levy

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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