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3 - Les rencontres de l’humain et du non humain dans la littérature de voyage / Human and Nonhuman Encounters in the Fiction of Travel

Brutality and Sentimentality in the Cévennes: Doubleness in Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey

Lesley Lawton
p. 119-138


Deux des motivations qui poussèrent Robert Louis Stevenson à effectuer le périple dont il tira Voyages avec un âne dans les Cévennes furent la peine de cœur qu'il éprouva au départ de Fanny Osbourne vers les Etats-Unis et son mari ainsi que le besoin de gagner de l'argent. Le pari fut réussi car le livre fut bien reçu, et suscita des éloges sur le charme et l'esprit de l'écriture. En même temps certains critiques ont émis des réserves au sujet du traitement parfois brutal qu'a infligé Stevenson à son ânesse, Modestine. C'est l'attitude contradictoire envers la bête de somme, oscillant entre la cruauté et la sensibilité, mais constamment traité sur un mode comique qu'explore cet article. La réflexion porte à la fois sur l'esthétique comique du roman et sur l'ambiguïté de la représentation de la persona de l'auteur qui dépeint l'humain comme un être beaucoup plus prompt à la violence qu'il ne se l'imagine–—préfigurant ainsi la figure littéraire de Hyde. La relation de Stevenson avec Modestine est à la fois une transcription d'un voyage réellement entrepris, tout en contenant des clins d'œil à Sterne, Wordsworth et Byron, et un reflet du dilemme du narrateur face au féminin en général. Enfin la dimension politique des rapports de pouvoir entre homme et animal où le narrateur s'efforce de se positionner entre les traditions britanniques et celles, moins humaines, du Continent, montre bien les difficultés qu'éprouve Stevenson à fabriquer une persona suffisamment attirante pour charmer les lecteurs potentiels tout en montrant, consciemment ou non, les aspects d'un moi fragmentaire et divisé dont la propension à la cruauté est toujours présente.

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"[…] all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. 'I am watching you. Are you watching yourself in me?'"
Lawrence Durrell,
Spirit of Place (234).

All by the moonlight river-side
Groaned the poor Beast —alas! In vain;
The staff was raised to loftier height,
And the blows fell with heavier weight
As Peter struck—and struck again.
Peter Bell (ll. 191-195)

  • 1 That journal was published in 1978 as The Cevennes Journal: Notes on a Journey through the French H (...)

1On 22 September 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson set out on a twelve-day walking tour through the Cévennes, from Le Monastier to Saint-Jean-du-Gard. He was 28, barely earning anything from his writing and therefore financially dependent on his father, and the married American woman he had fallen in love with had returned to her husband. The excursion was a deliberate attempt to set up a situation he could write about, cashing in on the vogue for travel writing (Maixner 7) and thereby making some money. During the journey, Stevenson kept a diary to record a daily account of the material which he hoped would form the basis of a book.1 That material was published a year later as Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. The donkey of the title is Modestine, bought to carry Stevenson's baggage, including the bulky sleeping bag which he had designed specially for the trip instead of a tent. The contrived aspect of the book was picked up at the time by an anonymous reviewer in the Spectator who noted somewhat tartly that Stevenson's unique selling point, the fact that he was travelling with a donkey, confirmed the reviewer's general criticism that the whole point of this kind of travel writing was to put the writer in an artificially difficult situation:

Donkeys are such proverbially tiresome animals, that no one who was not in search of notoriety at any cost to himself would have thought of deliberately choosing one as his sole travelling companion. The early part of the book is taken up by the account of how this donkey was purchased, how it was overladen, and how much the writer had to beat it. […] No doubt, donkeys are exasperating animals, but Mr. Stevenson, though young, must have known before undertaking such an expedition some technical knowledge of driving a donkey would have been advisable. (Maixner 71-2)

2A less churlish reader might argue that the arc of unrealistic expectations, followed by disillusionment and dislike, and ending with an overly sentimental regret on parting from Modestine is an essential part of the book's comic structure. Many of Stevenson's mishaps are obviously described for amusing effect.

3Indeed, Travels with a Donkey has been appreciated for its wry humour and the manifest charm of its writing. And the role of Modestine as Stevenson's sidekick and source of ludicrous misadventure is not to be underestimated. Eager emulators of Stevenson can hike the GR 70, which is now denominated "le chemin de Stevenson," with or without donkey.2 However, some early reviewers, much as they praised the "light and graceful touch" and the "mastery of style" also expressed concern about the brutality of Stevenson's treatment of his beast of burden. For example, Grant Allen, writing in the Fortnightly Review in July 1879, commented:

  • 3 See also the Spectator reviewer's comment on the subject: "Mr. Stevenson in other works has shown s (...)

since one cannot wholly divorce oneself from the ethical feeling of one's age, I must confess that I should have liked Mr. Stevenson better if he had beaten his donkey less unmercifully, and, above all, if he had not used that wooden goad with its eighth of an inch of pin. (Maixner 66)3

4Though Travels is the record of a journey actually undertaken, I will argue that Stevenson deliberately interposes a carefully constructed persona between the reader and the autobiographical experience. As Christopher MacLachlan remarks in his introduction, "There is a great deal of role-playing in Stevenson's presentation of himself in the Travels" (xxi). Moreover, the narrating I is unstable, demonstrating what Zlosnik calls "a marginal and sometimes split subjectivity" (241), more a series of strategic performances than a coherent identity, and none more so than in his relationship with his donkey. Jenni Calder has suggested that though Stevenson often talked of "literature as entertainment, of the writer as a performer who was obliged to please his public," there lies beneath the surface "the need to come to terms with life in all its aspects from fun to tragedy" (87). In the case of Travels with a Donkey the pendulum swing is from "fun" to cruelty. It is my contention that in some of the inconsistencies of the persona the reader may detect an interest in the divided self that was to find fuller expression in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a book which suggests that civilization and barbarity are closely intertwined, and which is fascinated with acts of violence against innocents. It is therefore necessary to examine this persona and its comic construction, and to place the book in a series of contexts. I examine the role of other literary references in the structure and procedures of the narrative, showing that Travels is the record of reading as much as autobiographical experience. Through his use of The Pilgrim's Progress as an intertext, Stevenson suggests that there is an allegorical dimension to his writing, though the allegory is to be found in his relations with Modestine rather than in the journey itself. Finally, as Allen's comments about the "ethical feeling of one's age" indicate, the relationship between human and non-human animals was the source of lively concern during the post-Enlightenment period and thus a political dimension is present in Stevenson's treatment of Modestine. Stevenson also has some comments to make about national identity.

5The comic self-deprecation with which Stevenson depicts his initiation into the role of donkey driver does not conceal his propensity towards violence and is possibly not intended to.

The inconsistent self: the persona, the pack and the donkey

  • 4 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and The Amateur Emigrant, ed. Christopher MacLachlan, London: (...)

6Stevenson adopts a naïve and inexperienced persona in the early pages of Travels for comic effect. His role as hapless tyro who gets everything conceivable wrong is humorously recounted. Having decided that he needs a beast of burden for his luggage he reflects, "What I required was something cheap and small and hardy, and of a stolid and peaceful temper; and all these requisites pointed to a donkey."4 This idealized view of donkey behaviour is a way for Stevenson to ensure that a series of risible predicaments will ensue. Indeed, the theory of Modestine's "peaceful temper" is disproved straight away during the course of negotiations with Father Adam, her owner, when, as proof of her "good temper," a series of children are set upon her back to ride and go head over heels in the air. Everything else that can go wrong does so as well.

7Before describing his exit from Le Monastier Stevenson is careful to give the reader the benefit of his hindsight: "Before telling my own mishaps, let me, in two words, relate the lesson of my experience. If the pack is well strapped at the ends, and hung at full length—not doubled for your life—across the pack-saddle, the traveller is safe" (10). Thus, when he describes himself setting off with a doubled sack strapped across the pack saddle, the reader fears the worst and, indeed, a warning note is sounded to give the ensuing problems an air of comic inevitability: "even a very careless traveller should have seen disaster brewing." There is a certain self-mockery in the "fatuous content" with which he surveys his handiwork and the description of himself setting forth from the "stable-door as an ox goeth to the slaughter" (11) puts him in the role of innocent sacrificial victim. He thus sets up himself and Modestine for a pratfall, which duly occurs a few pages later. Just as he gets the hang of driving his donkey, the whole load "turned round and grovelled in the dust below the donkey's belly" (15). Therefore, he has to redistribute the weight between Modestine and himself, partly undermining the purpose for which he purchased her in the first place.

  • 5 In his notes to The Cévennes Journal, Gordon Golding remarks, "Normally hitched for pulling Father (...)

8However, the main problem encountered in the early stages of his journey is to make Modestine keep a reasonable pace.5 Here the comedy takes a darker tone and, indeed, Stevenson's overall purpose becomes more opaque. It is not clear how the reader is to react to the rapid transition from diffident novice to the callous capacity for brutality which is depicted in the early chapters. At the beginning, Stevenson tells us that he:

took in my right hand the unhallowed staff, and with a quaking spirit applied it to the donkey. Modestine brisked up her pace for perhaps three steps […]. I desisted and looked her all over from head to foot; the poor brute's knees were trembling and her breathing was distressed; it was plain she could go no faster on a hill. God forbid, thought I, that I should brutalise this innocent creature; let her go at her own pace, and let me patiently follow. (12, emphasis mine)

  • 6 See also his rueful depiction of the hilarity he elicits in the priest and his acolytes as he attem (...)

9This excess of sentimentality is soon brushed aside by the less indulgent French peasant who overtakes them and, learning that Modestine is neither very old nor very tired, laughs "long and heartily" (13). Stevenson thus again becomes a comic butt, cutting a ridiculous figure in front of his more experienced interlocutor who has no qualms at all about taking a switch from a thicket and belabouring Modestine about the rump. He instructs Stevenson not to have any "'pity on these animals.'" This advice initiates what Morgan Holmes calls the second stage of Stevenson's "escalating aggression" (112). The third stage is completed by the innkeeper at Bouchet St Nicholas who makes a goad for him, an implement which is more efficient than a switch in spurring Modestine into action. "Blessed be the man who invented goads" (21), exults Stevenson as he leaves the inn with a newly compliant animal. The goad as a "blessed" implement as opposed to the staff which was considered to be "unhallowed" is an index of Stevenson's progressive desensitization. As an outsider, he is constantly wrong-footed by local customs and humiliated by other people's reactions.6 Modestine is on one level a prop in this performance of a bumbling persona who becomes increasingly adept at violence.

  • 7 See also: "I must instantly maltreat this uncomplaining animal" (15); "I had now an arm free to thr (...)

10Though Stevenson represents himself as reacting to the advice and comments of other people, this exteriorization of blame is insufficient to absolve him from guilt at the gradual coarsening of his sensibility. Indeed, he unsparingly recounts moments of self-disgust and shame which jostle against the comic incompetence. Rather than mitigating the reader's negative reaction to his treatment of the donkey, this tends to underline it, revealing the brutality under the thin veneer of civilization. Frustrated after the disaster with the pack, he confesses to striking her twice across the face. It was, he admits, "pitiful to see her lift up her head with shut eyes, as if waiting for another blow. I came very near crying" (16).7 Sensibility and cruelty seem merely the reverse sides of the same coin; these feelings of emotional discomfort are swiftly transmuted into indifference and self-justification once he becomes armed with his goad:

And what although now and then a drop of blood appeared on Modestine's mouse-coloured rump? I should have preferred it otherwise, indeed; but yesterday's exploits had purged my heart of all humanity. The perverse little devil, since she would not be taken with kindness, must even go with pricking. (22)

11So unheeding does he become that it takes another innkeeper, this time a former muleteer, and thus an expert of a different stripe, to draw his attention to the poor distribution of weight on the pack saddle and its consequences for Modestine: "Alas, there were her two forelegs no better than raw beef on the inside" (35). By this time, the conventional ejaculation of pity carries no force; Stevenson is more disgruntled than dismayed: "What the devil was the good of a she-ass if she could not carry a sleeping-bag and a few necessaries?" (35).

12Modestine was bought as a working and not a companion animal. Indeed, in her role as beast of burden, she is viewed as an object: "she was only an appurtenance of my mattress, or self-acting bedstead on four castors" (9). The metaphor of donkey as an extension of the furniture is amusing but telling: the "bedstead" turns out to have a mind of her own. As part of the comic technique, Stevenson shows himself to be starting from false premises in expecting the donkey to be as lacking in sensitivity as a commodity, having no volition of her own and having no function other than the merely useful. Furthermore, he resists the narrative of progressive affection for his pack animal. Though she is described as being the size of a dog, she never achieves the status of family pet. Indeed, this is part of the complaint he has against her when her bleeding forelegs are drawn to his attention:

  • 8 The entry in CJ adds "I could have seen her led to the gelatin manufactory without a pang" (53), wh (...)

They told me when I started, and I was ready to believe it, that before a few days I should come to love Modestine like a dog. Three days had passed, we had shared some misadventures, and my heart was still as cold as a potato towards my beast of burden." (35)8

  • 9 "I was now eager to reach Alais for my letters." (94)

13However, the ending of the Travels performs a radical, and somewhat surprising, change of tone. The last half of the book is entitled "The Country of the Camisards" and as he passes through this region of the Cévennes, Stevenson draws attention to the bloody deeds associated with the topography. As the narrative reaches its conclusion, a new note is sounded as the story is told of the constancy and fidelity of André Castanet, a Camisard leader, and his lady. Immediately after this, writing that Modestine "had a sort of affection for me, which I was soon to betray"(94), Stevenson proleptically casts himself as a fickle lover in contrast to the devotion of the human pair. Having sold Modestine he weeps in the stage-coach on his way to Alais (and no doubt to letters from Fanny Osbourne),9 rhapsodizing over the donkey, as Buckton suggests, "as though the two were estranged lovers" (92). One of the qualities for which Stevenson suddenly professes a fondness is that "she loved to eat out of my hand" (96). This proclivity is only alluded to once in the concluding pages of the Travels where Modestine's innocent eating out of his hand is a prelude to the declaration of intention to abandon her. Modestine is here cast as the unsuspecting victim. In CJ eating out of his hand is mentioned as an indication of stubbornness rather than of endearing trust: it takes him longer than usual to strike camp "for the minx, smelling hurry, refused to eat except from my hand" (99). Thus, the concluding sequence of Travels changes the tone and is seemingly designed to offer a retrospective rewriting of his relationship with the donkey, different from that which had emerged during the description of the journey. Stevenson again adopts a double approach, both emphasising his perfidy and, as he gives way to tears, giving a sop to the sentimental reader by attempting to rehabilitate himself as a man of feeling.

14Some of the instability of the identity of the narrator is underscored by the use of literary references and templates. There is a tendency towards symbolization in the account of his journey, though it is not clear how conscious Stevenson was of the representational as well as physical weight he made Modestine bear.

Travellers with a donkey in the wilderness of this world

  • 10 Unsigned review "Late Books of Travel", Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 44 November 1879, 652 https://babel. (...)

15It may be that everything happened as described, though the reader may have reservations about the tears in the stage coach; but it is also worth noting that the initial description of the purchase of Modestine as well as the final chapter take their impact from intertextual references. Stevenson's reading seems to have had an effect on his narrative procedures. Indeed, the reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly was quick to spot the literary context: "It is curious to observe how important a part a donkey plays in the literature of the sentimentalist. Sterne made one and himself immortal by his agile pen: Coleridge hailed one brother and now Mr. Stevenson comes on with his portrait of affection."10 The reviewer is talking in general terms about the use of donkeys in recent literature; however, a closer examination of the transaction between himself and Father Adam reveals Stevenson is deliberately rewriting a famous scene in A Sentimental Journey in which bread becomes a symbol of tender feeling. In the chapter entitled "The Dead Ass" Sterne describes the owner's lament over his deceased animal: "And this, said he, putting the remains of a crust into his wallet, and this should have been thy portion, said he, hadst thou been alive to have shared it with me" (42). Sterne tries to comfort him by remarking he can at least console himself with the thought that he had been a "merciful master to him", but now the ass is dead, the mourner begins to have doubts. Stevenson and Father Adam have a similar conversation about bread: "He professed himself greatly touched by the separation, and declared that he had often bought white bread for the donkey when he had been content with black bread for himself" (9). This, Stevenson continues wryly, must have "been a flight of fancy" for Father Adam apparently had a reputation in the village for his brutal treatment of the creature. Stevenson himself is quite clear about the hierarchy of the relationship: Modestine is to stick to black bread while the white is reserved for himself. The affective distance defined by the motif of the bread is maintained throughout. Modestine is a constant source of dissatisfaction both as a means of transportation and as a companion. By alluding to A Sentimental Journey in this episode, Stevenson underlines how far from giving "a portrait of affection" he is and how distant Father Adam is from Sterne's regretful donkey owner.

16Yet, as we have seen, this emotional reserve is suddenly transformed into a pathetic scene in the concluding pages, which goes some way to justifying the Atlantic Monthly reviewer's description of Stevenson as a sentimentalist. Stevenson acknowledges a feeling of "bereavement" and recalls that when Father Adam parted from Modestine he wept; now Stevenson himself, in the final sentence, gives way to his emotion. Feeling bereft when parting from one's donkey thus seems part of the genre, however brutal one's treatment of the creature may have been previously. This shift from exasperation to idealization is achieved through intertextual reference which both strengthens the affective impact and underlines its artificiality. Stevenson expresses his sense of loss by quoting Wordsworth:

"Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone,
'And, Oh,
The difference to me!'" (95).

17The reference to one of the "Lucy" poems metamorphoses Modestine into a woman, which is part of the scenario of inconstant lover with which Stevenson is working here and which is confirmed by the phrase from Byron—"Farewell, and if for ever—" (96) with which the paragraph concludes. It is only in her absence and by figuring her in terms of a lost love, that Stevenson can express any affection for her. That he feels the need to conclude in this maudlin manner after the intransigent itemization of his cruelty is part of the doubleness which I have been analyzing.

  • 11 "Like Christian, it was from my pack I suffered by the way" (10).
  • 12 For Christiana and her companions, the whole point is not to be tempted to stop at the arbour which (...)
  • 13 The term is Stevenson's; the old man says that in the Cévennes his religious group is called "Morav (...)
  • 14 No doubt the inclusion of the reflection that "I know quite well that we are all embarked upon a tr (...)

18Right from the start, Stevenson deliberately provides the reader with a number of avenues of speculation. His assertion in the dedicatory letter to Sidney Colvin that "we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world – all, too, travellers with a donkey" (5), raises the tantalizing possibility of allegory and, as if to confirm this, The Pilgrim's Progress is an explicit intertext at various stages in the book. Paradoxically, however, Stevenson strips away all allegorical import from the allusions he makes – to the pack, to the journey and to conversation along the way. Christian's allegorical burden, that of the weight of sin that he is all too happy to lose when it falls from his shoulders at the foot of the cross, is emblematic (31) whereas it is Modestine who bears Stevenson's all-too material baggage. In contrast to Christian, the problem is one of actually keeping it on her back and it is used, as we have seen, as a physical prop in a humorous episode.11 The epigraph to the Upper Gévaudan section is a direct quotation from The Pilgrim's Progress—"The way also here was very wearisome through dirt and slabbiness; nor was there on all this ground so much as one inn or victualling house wherein to refresh the feebler sort" (25). Again, the journey is a literal and not a spiritual one.12 Lost on the road to Le Cheylard l'Evêque, Stevenson is forced to spend a night in the open after losing his way. Towards the end of the Travels, when he describes his discussion with the "Plymouth Brother"13 as "talking like Christian with Faithful" (76),14 Stevenson alludes to the ubiquitousness of doctrinal belief in the hypotext, thus underlining the extent to which his own concerns with religious doctrine are sporadic.

19Though Stevenson's Bunyan references lack allegorical resonance, the text, as the letter to Colvin indicates, does carry more than literal connotations. A number of critics have pointed out that the baggage he made Modestine carry with him was as much metaphorical as physical. It is evident that, as Holmes puts it, Modestine functions as "a mobile cipher" (111). If, as Durrell suggests, we read ourselves in the landscape, what aspects of himself did Stevenson see? From the beginning, the book is set under the sign of division and fragmentation. He points out that Le Monastier is notable for "unparalleled political dissension" (7) and it is the bloody history of the Camisards, whom Stevenson equates with the Scottish Covenanters, that holds his attention. The barbarity and atrocity born of religious intolerance is recounted with gusto. Zlosnik's suggestion that "a confrontation—or indeed, identification—with the violent, dark underside of the landscape is displaced onto the descriptions of Stevenson's relationship with the donkey" (247) seems apt in that both demonstrate the general human propensity towards violence and is one to which I shall return. However, Buckton's argument that Modestine has two "representational functions" is also pertinent. In his opinion, she firstly embodies the "burden of physical being" in general and Stevenson's own ailing body in particular; secondly, she incarnates the female body on which he takes out his own hostility towards the feminine (72, 76). He considers that Modestine is not necessarily a proxy for Fanny Osbourne on whom Stevenson can vent his frustration, but is more "a general incarnation of femininity by which Stevenson is deeply troubled" (77).

  • 15 In his note to Stevenson's description of Modestine with "blood flow[ing] freely from her poop," Go (...)

20It can certainly be argued that Stevenson was deeply troubled by the feminine in general and that Modestine's female sex was a burden to him.15 In fact, Fanny was very much on Stevenson's mind at this time. In a letter to his cousin and first biographer, Alan Balfour, in April 1879, Stevenson wrote of Travels with a Donkey, "lots of it is mere protestations to F, most of which I think you will understand. That is to me the main thread of the interest" (Maixner 62). Whether he meant "protestations" in the sense of romantic avowals or in the sense of a remonstrance is unclear. In the chapter entitled "A Night among the Pines," in the midst of a lyrical encomium to life in the open, Stevenson adds:

And yet even while I was exulting in my solitude I became aware of a strange lack. I wished a companion to be near me in the starlight, silent and not moving, but ever within touch. For there is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude and which, rightly understood is solitude made perfect. And to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free. (38)

21Towards the end of his journey, after remarking that he has never enjoyed a place more deeply than he has St Germain de Calberte he also attributes his lightness of mood to the fact that "perhaps someone was thinking of me in another country" (92). These affectionate musings are also accompanied elsewhere by indications of sexual frustration; Buckton quite rightly sees the "Night among the Pines" episode as evidence that Stevenson's pose as a solitary traveller is "under constant pressure from his need for sexual and emotional companionship" (74). It is observable that in the description of sharing a room with a young married couple in the inn at Bouchet St Nicholas he substitutes the more sexually connoted verb "mounting" in Travels for CJ's neutral "ensconcing" (38) as he watches them getting into bed.

  • 16 It is to be noted that one of the liberating features of being Mr Hyde for Dr Jekyll is the fact th (...)

22These feelings coexist with the female-directed hostility towards Modestine which has already been noted. The passages in which Stevenson details his abuse of the donkey while also emphasizing her femininity add misogyny to the cruelty with which he treats her. His initial reluctance to beat his donkey is coded in terms of gallantry and national identity: "I am worthy the name of an Englishman, and it goes against my conscience to lay my hand rudely on a female," he claims (12). Yet when, finally, he does pluck up courage to use brute force, he recognizes that an element which intensifies his distress at his actions is the fact that "she had a resemblance to a lady of my acquaintance who formerly loaded me with kindness; and this increased my horror of my cruelty" (15). Anthropomorphism here adds a tinge of perversity to the relationship between the human and non-human animal. A doubleness of impulse—the desire to be true to the best self, and the need to move forward in the journey against the beast's resistance—is thus foregrounded in this episode.16

  • 17 The beast was the subject of Le Pacte des Loups, a film by Christophe Gans (2001) and La Bête du Gé (...)

23There is another animal in Travels, which is not in CJ and is therefore not part of Stevenson's daily account of the journey: the Beast of Gevaudan, the wolf which terrorized the area between 1764 and 1767. The gloating relish with which Stevenson describes its exploits indicates the extent to which it stands as a proxy for his more antisocial tendencies. Indeed, though the historical beast attacked both men and women, Stevenson's description concentrates on its female victims: "For this was the land of the ever-memorable BEAST, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and 'shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty'" (23). Stevenson decides here to throw aside his pose of civility towards women—which, as we have seen with his regret at the beaten Modestine's resemblance to a "lady of [his] acquaintance"—he has already violated. What he seems to admire is the Beast's freedom to act out its hostility towards women and children, freely fulfilling its desires to ravage, maim and kill.17

24As the self-identification as an Englishman indicates, the series of contexts in which Stevenson's relationship with Modestine needs to be read are as much political as literary and sexual.

The politics of travelling with a donkey

25Interestingly, in his choice of epigraphs with which to preface Travels Stevenson evokes the notion of power over living creatures. The first, from Sophocles' Antigone, "Many are the mighty things, and naught is more mighty than man … He masters by his devices the tenant of the fields," (7) demonstrates Tim Ingold's contention that, under pastoralism, the human-animal relationship is "based on a principle of domination" (10). Indeed, the cane, the switch and the goad, are all "devices" by which Stevenson subordinates Modestine. The animal in this reading becomes merely an adjunct to the human will. The second epigraph, from Job, is a slightly more counterintuitive choice: "Who has loosed the bands of the wild ass?" Here it is God, who in answer to Job's complaints, sharply asserts his creative power and man's feebleness. The idea of "loosing the bands" speaks of a freedom that the tame ass does not possess. Indeed, there are two types of donkey in the Bible: the wild ass which roams in herds and the tame creature used as a beast of burden. There are therefore a number of alternative Biblical quotations which would have been available to Stevenson which speak of the animal's servitude and the means by which its submission may be assured: "Fodder, a wand, and burdens, are for the ass; and bread, correction, and work, for a servant" (Ecclesiasticus 33:24); "A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool's back" (Proverbs 26:3). Even in his choice of epitaph, Stevenson deploys a doubleness of focus, evoking the animal as one both subject to man's dominion and yet given its self-determination by God.

  • 18 Laurie Shannon in The Accommodated Animal traces the transformation from Renaissance writers concep (...)

26In the body of the text, however, Stevenson is quite clear about the allocation of identity and power. As Perkins remarks, in the discourse of the early nineteenth century "work animals—horses, asses, donkeys—were often described as 'slaves'" (936).18 In discussing his choice of a beast of burden, Stevenson weighs the relative merits of a horse and a donkey. He discards the horse on the grounds of the mutual servitude that owning a horse would entail: "he is too valuable and too restive to be left alone, so that you are chained to your brute as to a fellow galley-slave" (8). This imagery of slavery to describe the relationship between the human and non-human animal reaches its apogee in Stevenson's benediction of the "man who invented goads": "This plain wand with an eighth of an inch of pin, was indeed a sceptre when he put it in my hands. Thenceforward Modestine was my slave" (21). Here the association between species is configured overtly in political terms. In CJ Stevenson takes things further: after "Modestine was my slave," he continues, "my chattel, my most obedient, humble servant" (39). The use of "chattel" implies a form of control exercised over object-things, very much in line with his view of Modestine as a bedstead on castors. The slightly humorous reference to the respectful closing salutation to a formal letter does little to mitigate this presentation of Modestine as a slave, a tool and an instrument, not as a companion.

27But also current in the intellectual climate of Stevenson's day was a concern for the suffering of domesticated animals. The 1822 Martin's Act (after Richard Martin, MP for Galway who promoted the bill) made it an offence punishable by fines and imprisonment to wantonly and cruelly "beat abuse, or ill-treat any horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle" (Kean 34). Stevenson's mistreatment of Modestine is liberated by a trip to France.

  • 19 One might even link him with Descartes' disciple, Nicolas Malebranche, with his (in)famous statemen (...)

28Morgan Holmes claims that Stevenson "helps us see the roles that nationally-inflected custom and prejudice play in shaping humans' attitudes and relationships towards other animals over which they claim authority" (111). It is certainly striking that, at the beginning of the book, at least, Stevenson plays off stereotyped English and French attitudes towards donkeys against each other. When leaving Le Monastier and hesitating to use the stick on Modestine, Stevenson announces, as we have seen, "I am worthy the name of an Englishman, and it goes against my conscience to lay my hand rudely on a female" (12). Such chivalry is quickly dissipated by the canny French peasant who initiates him into brutality with his brisk dismissal of "pity" for "these animals," providing "excellent, if inhumane, advice." The discourse of the innkeeper at Bouchet St Nicholas is even more trenchant in this respect: "Such a beast as that feels nothing; it is in the proverb–—dur comme un âne; you might beat her insensible with a cudgel, and yet you would arrive nowhere" (20). The assertion that animals are insentient shows to what extent the notion of the Cartesian bête machine had, according to Stevenson's account, percolated into rural France.19 Stevenson proves all too apt a pupil; he is permitted to treat Modestine as a thing because her species lacks sensibility. The humaneness of the Englishman turns out to be a thin veneer.

29Holmes further argues that Stevenson is here deliberately adopting the role of the callous Continental European, which stands in opposition to the Victorians' conviction that kindness to animals was a particularly English and middle-class characteristic. Thus, Stevenson's all-too-ready shedding of "English" qualities is "presented as a matter of a stranger conforming to the customs of the foreign land through which he travelled" and demonstrates how bogus any culturally assumed English superiority is. Indeed, animal welfare advocates like Lewis Gompertz had already deplored a certain English complacency towards animal suffering (Holmes 116-117). Holmes notes further that Stevenson's "journey through the Cévennes also gave him concrete evidence of how the theory of humane English versus cruel Continental culture lacked any foundation" (119). Stevenson excises a passage from CJ in which French peasants express concern at his treatment of his donkey thus falsifying the stereotype of the heartless Frenchman:

As I passed through Costaros, an ugly village on the highroad, the people pretended to be hurt and shocked by my brutality. "Ah", they cried, "look how tired she is, the poor beast!" And one man [into] whose front apartment the little cross-grained, long-eared limmer made a bolt, had the indecency to tell me she was overladen. […] "Cependant," added another Costarosian, "elle est petite – il ne faut pas trop la presser." (34-5)

30Stevenson's disgruntled tone extends impartially from the description of the village to the suggestion that the onlookers' disgust was more to annoy him than an expression of genuine feeling. By removing this incident, Holmes suggests, Stevenson preserves the notion of French cultural cruelty and his own role as an outsider gradually becoming a cultural chameleon.

31Holmes' reading of the text seems right to me in many respects; nonetheless, he fails to comment on an equally important episode later in the book when Stevenson's being chided for his handling of Modestine is retained. Structurally, the innkeeper at Cheylard parallels and contrasts with his stony-hearted counterpart at Bouchet St Nicholas. This is the former muleteer who:

when I came to charge Modestine showed himself full of the prudence of his art. "You will have to change this package," said he; "it ought to be in two parts, and then you might have double the weight." I explained that […] for no donkey hitherto created would I cut my sleeping-bag in two.
"It fatigues her, however," said the innkeeper; "it fatigues her greatly in the march. Look."
Alas, there were her two forelegs no better than raw beef on the inside […]. (34-35)

32So used to considering Modestine as an object-thing has Stevenson become that his curmudgeonly reaction is to ask himself what is the use of a pack animal that cannot even carry its pack adequately. Holmes suggests that Stevenson's suppression of the earlier episode in which the French villagers show an interspecies sympathy contrary to the stereotypes with which he is working "reveals an author who was highly cautious—even mercurial—when it came to crafting a literary persona that would resonate positively with his readers" (119); however, this later episode demonstrates the ambiguities and paradoxes of his situation of which Stevenson is fully aware. By adapting so readily to the custom of the country, he has, in fact, stepped over cultural boundaries drawn both by the French and by the English. The trope of the ineffectual British traveller in contact with the hard-headed French peasant takes on an extra dimension here. Though both innkeepers are concerned with the best way to get the most of the donkey, one shares his expertise on the salutary effects of brutality, the other on the distribution of weight on the saddle. It is after his meeting with the ex-muleteer of Cheylard that Stevenson finally learns how to arrange his sleeping bag properly in the manner described on p. 10 as the "lesson of [his] experience": "The sack was no longer doubled, but hung at full length across the saddle […]. It was more picturesque, it spared the donkey, and, as I began to see, it would insure stability, blow high, blow low" (37). But competence does not ensure compassion and Stevenson's irritation with Modestine prevails.

  • 20 Strictly speaking, Stevenson is a Scot, but he self-defines as an Englishman on a number of occasio (...)

33Holmes' description of Stevenson's narrator as "mercurial" is the mot juste. However, his suggestion that Stevenson was trying to fabricate an attractive authorial persona to appeal to readers both in suppressing the incident with the concerned French villagers from CJ and in the "unabashed sentimentality" of the ending (120) runs into difficulty, as I have shown. Stevenson's inclusion of the muleteer's reproaches and his self-portrait as a man instrumentalizing his beast reveal the contradictory aspects of the persona, his vacillating between coarseness and compassion. It uncovers aspects of the fragmentary and divided self, with the tendency towards cruelty always present under the surface. Rather than curating his persona's image, Stevenson is highly explicit about the facility with which an inexperienced Englishman can be influenced by the people he comes across.20 Furthermore, as we have seen, reprehensible as Stevenson's treatment of Modestine was, the violence meted by the human on the non-human animal is only at one end of a continuum of violence present in the text; the violence of the Camisards and their brutal repression is at the other (Davies, 79). While there is nothing specifically allegorical about Stevenson's treatment of the donkey, it inscribes itself into a series of brutal contexts. As Davies reminds us, "A mere seven years before the journey, between twenty and thirty thousand men and women communards had been executed, shot in the parks, and streets, and cemeteries of Paris" (79).

34On one level, Stevenson wrote a wryly humorous account of travelling with a donkey in which his inept persona is a source of comedy. Nonetheless, his inexperience as a donkey driver combined with his unrealistic expectations of donkey behavior, though they can be seen as part of standard comic tropes, lead the reader in troubling directions. Critics who put Travels in its Gothic perspective are in the right of it. Stevenson's initiation into animal cruelty at the hands of his two French mentors, finds in him a willing accomplice. He both reveals and conceals this process, indicating that tendencies towards brutality are universal rather than racially specific. This is at the expense of alienating his readers, a risk that he seems willing to take, despite the fact that Travels was meant to be a money-making project. Indeed, Zlosnik's suggestion that Stevenson enjoyed representing himself as someone on the margins of social acceptability (247) seems pertinent here. He invokes the powers of cruelty more than the powers of compassion; it is not because he cries at the end that Stevenson's affective relationship with Modestine has significantly altered. It is a pose rather than a change that has been explored in the course of the book. In his inconsistent and self-justifying persona, Stevenson gives a foretaste of some of the psychological issues he was to explore more directly in some of his later work.

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BUCKTON, Oliver S., Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson: Travel, Narrative, and the Colonial Body, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2007.

BUNYAN, John, 1678, The Pilgrim's Progress, N.H. Keeble ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

CALDER, Jenni, RLS: A Life Study, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.

COLERIDGE, Samuel Taylor, "To a Young Ass", Poems, E. H. Coleridge ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912, 74–76.

DAVIES, Laurence, "The Time of his Time: Travels with a Donkey and An Inland Voyage", Richard Ambrosini and Richard Dury eds., European Stevenson, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, 73-89.

DURREL, Lawrence, Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, Alan G. Thomas ed., Mount Jackson VA: Axios Press, 1969.

FOSSO, Kurt, "Of Asses and Men: Animals in Wordsworth's Peter Bell", Ottum, Lisa and Seth T. Reno eds., Wordsworth and the Green Romantics: Affect and Ecology in the Nineteenth Century, Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2016, 78-107.

GOLDING, Gordon ed., The Cevennes Journal: Notes on a Journey through the French Highlands, Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1978.

HOLMES, Morgan, "Donkeys, Englishmen, and Other Animals: The Precarious Distinctions of Victorian Interspecies Morality", Richard Ambrosini and Richard Dury eds., European Stevenson, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, 109-124.

INGOLD, Tim, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

KEAN, Hilda, Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800, London: Reaktion Books, 1998.

MAIXNER, Paul ed., Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage, London, Boston and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

MALEBRANCHE, Nicholas, 1712, Recherche de la vérité, Œuvres complètes, Geneviève Rodis-Lewis, éd., vols 1-2. Paris; Vrin, 1962-63.

MENELY, Tobias, The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

PERKINS, David, "Compassion for Animals and Radical Politics: Coleridge's 'To a Young Ass'", ELH, 65, Number 4 (Winter 1998), 929-944.

STERNE, Laurence, 1768, A Sentimental Journey, Daniel George, ed., London: J.M. Dent, 1969.

STEVENSON, Robert Louis, 1879, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and The Amateur Emigrant, Christopher MacLachlan, ed., London: Penguin, 2004.

WORDSWORTH, William, "Peter Bell", Wordsworth: Poetical Works, Thomas Hutchinson ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969, 188-198.

ZLOSNIK, Sue, "'Home is the sailor, home from sea': Robert Louis Stevenson and the End of Wandering", The Yearbook of English Studies, 34 (2004) 240-252.

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1 That journal was published in 1978 as The Cevennes Journal: Notes on a Journey through the French Highlands. Hereafter CJ.

2 For information on offer to tourists and Stevenson fans see and (Accessed on 20 August 2017). The brochure in English which is downloadable from the chemin-stevenson website has this to say about donkeys: "If you are travelling with a donkey, your furry friend will 'try' you, even though it will be better trained than Modestine. A donkey can be obedient but is above all an intelligent creature who will adapt to whoever is leading it." Though this is designed as a warning about not letting children have free rein with the animal, the notion of adaptation to the person who is leading it is worth pausing over, given Stevenson's difficulties.

3 See also the Spectator reviewer's comment on the subject: "Mr. Stevenson in other works has shown so refined a taste, that it is strange how he can dwell on the sufferings that he owns to have inflicted on his companion. Raw legs and bleeding skin do not move him in the least" (Maixner 72). On the other hand, Christopher MacLachlan's 2004 introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Travels with a Donkey does not mention Stevenson's treatment of Modestine at all.

4 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and The Amateur Emigrant, ed. Christopher MacLachlan, London: Penguin, 2004 (9). All quotations are taken from this edition.

5 In his notes to The Cévennes Journal, Gordon Golding remarks, "Normally hitched for pulling Father Adam's cart, Modestine was hardly used to the burden of a loaded pack." (CJ, 138)

6 See also his rueful depiction of the hilarity he elicits in the priest and his acolytes as he attempts to steer a reluctant Modestine through Ussel after his disaster with the pack (16).

7 See also: "I must instantly maltreat this uncomplaining animal" (15); "I had now an arm free to thrash Modestine and cruelly I chastised her" (16); "I think every decent step that Modestine took must have cost me at least two emphatic blows. There was not another sound in the neighbourhood but that of my unwearying bastinado" (17).

8 The entry in CJ adds "I could have seen her led to the gelatin manufactory without a pang" (53), which underlines the extent of his indifference towards Modestine as a fellow-creature. Stevenson's decision to suppress this phrase in the published version perhaps indicates a desire to underplay the extent of his dislike.

9 "I was now eager to reach Alais for my letters." (94)

10 Unsigned review "Late Books of Travel", Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 44 November 1879, 652 (accessed on 21 September 2020) (accessed on 18 June 2017). Coleridge's poem "To A Young Ass" is an apostrophe to the animal whose mother was chained to a log and had eaten all the grass it could reach. Coleridge fears that the owner's unheeding treatment of the creature is a sign of his own poverty as he, too, lives "Half famish'd in a land of Luxury!" (l. 22). The reviewer does not mention Wordsworth's much-derided Peter Bell in which a donkey becomes an agent of redemption for the eponymous protagonist in what Fosso has described as "a Methodist conversion narrative" (80).

11 "Like Christian, it was from my pack I suffered by the way" (10).

12 For Christiana and her companions, the whole point is not to be tempted to stop at the arbour which they come across just after the passage Stevenson quotes. The arbour symbolises the spiritual sloth to which the faithful might be tempted when confronted with difficulty. (248-9)

13 The term is Stevenson's; the old man says that in the Cévennes his religious group is called "Moravians."

14 No doubt the inclusion of the reflection that "I know quite well that we are all embarked upon a troublesome world, the children of one Father, striving in many essential points to do and become the same" (76) reassured his father with whom he had argued over matters of religion.

15 In his note to Stevenson's description of Modestine with "blood flow[ing] freely from her poop," Gordon Golding writes, "from this description of Modestine, it appears certain that the donkey was in heat at the moment of Stevenson's voyage" (153). This hypothesis has been widely accepted by other critics. I myself am not sure that the blood from Modestine's nether regions is not due to Stevenson's ministrations rather than a marker of her sex, but it is true that the incident with a male donkey on the road from Gaudet whom Stevenson has to beat off, provoking the reflection "the incident saddened me, as did everything that spoke of my donkey's sex" (14), draws pointed attention to his difficulty with the fact that Modestine is female.

16 It is to be noted that one of the liberating features of being Mr Hyde for Dr Jekyll is the fact that he can give free rein to his brutal and homicidal tendencies.

17 The beast was the subject of Le Pacte des Loups, a film by Christophe Gans (2001) and La Bête du Gévaudan, a film for television broadcast for the first time in 2003.

18 Laurie Shannon in The Accommodated Animal traces the transformation from Renaissance writers conceptualizing political relationships in terms of "rule and tyranny, liberty and bondage, obedience and rebellion, contingency and negotiation, and transgression and entitlement" to the Enlightenment emphasis on political obligation in terms of contract law (quoted in Menely, 8-9). With more precise reference to domesticated animals, Tim Ingold considers that since mastery and control are implied in the process, it is similar to that entailed in slavery, and thus "this notion might indeed be applicable to describe the pastoralist's relation with the animals in his herd" (73). For a more modern situation, he refers to Marx's argument that relations of domination such as between master and slave are not applicable between humans and domestic animals, because the latter lack the power of intentional agency. "Domination and domestication are here distinguished on the grounds that one is a form of social control exercised by subject-persons, and the other a form of mechanical control exercised over object-things" (74). Considering Modestine as a bedstead lies well within this series of assumptions.

19 One might even link him with Descartes' disciple, Nicolas Malebranche, with his (in)famous statement about animal automatism: "Ils mangent sans plaisir, ils crient sans douleur, ils croissent sans le savoir, ils ne désirent rien, ils ne craignent rien, ils ne connaissent rien." (2: 394). I disagree with Holmes' remark that Stevenson's denomination of Modestine as a mattress is "clearly absurd" (110). Taking him at his word shows that from the outset Stevenson was disinclined to treat Modestine as a sentient being.

20 Strictly speaking, Stevenson is a Scot, but he self-defines as an Englishman on a number of occasions.

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Bibliographical reference

Lesley Lawton, Brutality and Sentimentality in the Cévennes: Doubleness in Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a DonkeyCaliban, 59 | 2018, 119-138.

Electronic reference

Lesley Lawton, Brutality and Sentimentality in the Cévennes: Doubleness in Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a DonkeyCaliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lesley Lawton

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès.
Lesley LAWTON is honorary maître de conférences at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès where she taught British literature and oral expression. A medievalist by training, she has published a number of articles on medieval authors and themes, and the representation of the Middle Ages in the modern period. Her research now focuses on the representation of the relationship between the human and nonhuman worlds.

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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