Robert Louis Stevenson was in his late twenties and not yet widely known as a writer. He had been staying in France and had fallen seriously in love with an American woman, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, who would later become his wife. She was ten years his senior and had two children from her first marriage, which had broken down. When she sailed for home to finalise her divorce, the future author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped was in need of an adventure to distract him.
A fair proportion of Stevenson’s short life could be classified as adventure – for example, he would make a nearly fatal journey across America to reach his beloved. He perhaps did not quite qualify as a romantic hero, being inclined to fall on his face and then make the most of the joke at his own expense. He had a pitifully weak chest and was as thin as a rake: he once described himself as ‘a mere complication of cough and bones’. But he seems to have had a valiant nature. Compelled to struggle almost constantly against ill health, he had enough fighting spirit left over to take on all comers with his pen. His cousin Thomas Balfour, who lived with the Stevensons for several years, wrote ‘ … he was brilliant, he was romantic, he was fiery, he was tender, he was brave …’ His stepson Lloyd Osbourne, to whom he used to read from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, thought of him as Great-heart.
Left waiting for news from Fanny, Stevenson’s idea of diversion was a 120-mile trek through one of the wildest regions of southern France, the Cévennes – more famous in the nineteenth century than it is today (for reasons that will emerge). He recorded his thoughts and experiences in the extended essay Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, a pioneering work of first-person travel writing – quirky, feisty and funny. It was a critical success and is still well loved. It delights particularly in the foibles of human beings, not least those of the author himself – his joys and frustrations, his embarrassing encounters, his ill use of the unfortunate donkey Modestine.
This journey, in the autumn of 1878, is now celebrated in a hikers’ trail which follows approximately in the author’s footsteps, taking a southward course from Le Puy en Velay in the Massif Central. The path is known as Le Chemin de Stevenson, or simplyLe Stevenson. In search of my own adventure I walked it in late April and early May – without a donkey.
Le Stevenson attracts a wide range of people, but most are French. My language skills were strained until I was rescued by a Belgian couple fluent in English and a Canadian. I met only one group of walkers from England – four middle-aged ‘lads’ who often walk and more often drink together. I fought shy of them at first, thinking them too English, too laddish and much too ready to down a bottle of wine under a pine tree at lunchtime with six or seven miles still to cover before nightfall.
The walking was surprisingly arduous, with a lot of steep climbs and descents. Most of us were in our fifties or sixties but we clocked up the best part of fifteen miles a day – just as Stevenson did. Leaving aside the likely state of his health, it should be understood that RLS never rode his donkey. Modestine was small, ‘not much bigger than a dog’; her job was to carry his voluminous kit and she did nothing to speed his progress. He slept more or less uncomfortably at small inns or under the stars. I stayed in marginally less discomfort in hostels.
It was an inspired scheme to market this footpath on Robert Louis Stevenson and his book. People seem to enjoy his wry observations. Battered copies of Travels with a Donkey in French are passed round and commented on. In a country mad on hiking, this trail is one of the most popular and has succeeded in giving a perceptible boost to the economy of a remote and neglected area. Places to stay are the main beneficiaries, but artists designing postcards and donkey-owners hiring out Modestine lookalikes do their best to cash in. At one tiny hamlet, a couple offer home-made vegan food of the highest possible quality to ungrateful hikers and take trouble to acquaint them with the mysteries of their ecological toilet. The four English lads stopped there, but only ordered a mid-morning beer.
In the winter, the husband of the vegan food couple takes people into the wild, mountainous country of the Gévaudan, to track wolves. Yes, wolves. This is where we get one up on Stevenson. There were no wolves when he was here – every known strategy including deforestation had been employed to eliminate them from an area which 100 years earlier was home to ‘The Beast of Gévaudan.’
Wolves, alas, like bandits, seem to flee the traveller’s advance; and you may trudge through all our comfortable Europe, and not meet with an adventure worth the name. But here, if anywhere, a man was on the frontiers of hope. For this was the land of the ever-memorable BEAST, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! … He ate women and children and ‘shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty’… He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs was offered for his head. And yet, when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold! a common wolf, and even small for that.
In the last few years some wolves have moved back into the Gévaudan. In other areas where numbers are higher and sheep kills more frequent, such as the Alps and the Pyrenees, this is a very hot issue. But here, for now, their footprints and their droppings are no more than a source of interest and a little income.
It was perhaps as well that there were no wolves in Stevenson’s time, as he got badly lost in the Gévaudan. Unable to persuade anyone to give him satisfactory directions, he stumbled in circles until well after dark. Fortunately he was equipped with an early prototype of the sleeping bag, made for him in Le Puy of ‘green waterproof cart-cloth without and blue sheep’s fur within’. It doubled as the container for his luggage, strapped precariously on to Modestine’s back. He called it his sleeping sack. Now he slept in it, under a tree, he knew not where, after a late supper of tinned sausage, chocolate and neat brandy. He revelled in this night as an ‘inland castaway’ – except when he woke himself up by kicking odd items in the bottom of his sleeping sack, such as his lantern or the second volume of Peyrat’s Pastors of the Desert.
A day or two later, in a prelude to the main business of this story, he stayed in the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows). As a Scottish Presbyterian by upbringing and an atheist by conviction, he approached this Catholic sanctuary with ‘unaffected terror’. At first he was impressed by the simplicity and openness of the few monks permitted to speak with him. Later a novice and a visiting priest made it their mission to convert him to Catholicism, and this became tiresome. You can still spend a night at this monastery – in your own room, which was a welcome change for me. You get a fairly basic evening meal and must clear the table and wash up afterwards. There is no charge, but you are invited to make a donation. The novice or lay brother who deals with visitors is young (thirty-five?) and seems to radiate hope for the future; the few remaining monks, however, are elderly.
Having passed through the fertile lands of the Velay and the rocky wilderness of the northern Gévaudan, the path now heads further south into the Cévennes proper, which begins at Mont Lozère, the highest point of the walk at 1699m (5,575ft). Here, after another night in his sleeping sack, à la belle étoile as the French say, Stevenson crossed the summit in a state of euphoria, quoting a line of Keats.
Although it had been long desired, it was quite unexpectedly at last that my eyes rose above the summit … and, ‘like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared on the Pacific’, I took possession, in my own name, of a new quarter of the world. For behold, instead of the gross turf rampart I had been mounting for so long, a view into the hazy air of heaven, and a land of intricate blue hills beneath my feet.
The cloud was down on the great ridge of Mont Lozère when I walked over it, so this view of the blue hills of heaven came later. It was an apt description, though. From the mountain top (with patches of snow still lying on May 3rd) the path descends rapidly into a different world – a warmer, more southern world, splashed with brilliant yellow broom and littered like Dartmoor with the granite boulders of which the farms and village houses are built, under roofs of round-edged schist tiles.
It is also the world of the Huguenots. At the bottom of this hill, on the River Tarn, is the village of Le Pont de Montvert, famous for a series of bloody events which sparked the ‘Camisard’ rebellion against the religious repression of Louis XIV. After several years of terrible violence and burning of property on both sides, the Protestants remained outlaws for another eight decades, forced to conduct their religious meetings in forests and on mountain tops, ‘the church in the desert’ as it was known. Most of their leaders had been killed during the rebellion, but scarcely a single mind or soul had been changed. Protestantism was still the dominant faith in the Cévennes when Stevenson was there, and it still is today.
The ban on Protestant worship became law in 1685 and at first the people of this rugged country had little choice but to endure it, being too poor to consider emigrating. As persecution by the king’s dragoons intensified, however, some did try to leave. They took the drove roads to the north-east – towards Geneva, birthplace of Calvinism, the doctrine to which they were committed for eternity.
As Stevenson tells it, a group of fugitives, many of them women dressed as men, set out on this trail but were arrested and brought to Le Pont de Montvert, to the house of the king’s Catholic enforcer, Abbé François Du Cheyla, and tortured. This was the final straw for the Protestant outlaws in the hills. Led by a charismatic figure known as ‘Spirit’ Séguier, they marched on Du Cheyla’s house on the night of July 24th 1702, singing psalm 68 as they went – ‘Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered …’ They broke into the ground floor and freed the prisoners, then set light to the building. Du Cheyla fell as he tried to escape from an upstairs window and was dragged into the street and stabbed by fifty-two men in succession in revenge for relatives killed, imprisoned or broken on the wheel.
A few days later, Pierre ‘Spirit’ Séguier was arrested. Asked why he was called Spirit, he said: ‘Because the Spirit of the Lord is with me.’ Asked if he felt remorse for his crimes, he said he had committed none: ‘My soul is like a garden, full of shade and of fountains.’ At Le Pont de Montvert, his right hand was cut off and he was burned alive.
The stage on which all this took place, close to the old bridge over the Tarn, is little changed, though Du Cheyla’s house has been rebuilt and now incorporates the village’s modest clock tower.
There was strong support in England for the Camisards, due to feelings of Protestant solidarity and hostility to Louis XIV. Even 175 years later, when Stevenson travelled with his donkey, this episode of history was still talked and written about in Britain. By then the focus was often on the early Cévennes Protestants as a phenomenon, on the nature of their inspiration and their state of mind. Nominally Calvinists, they had a propensity for speaking prophecy, for trembling, paroxysms and sobbing. The priest and scholar Sabine Baring-Gould (author of the hymns Onward Christian Soldiersand Now the Day is Over) wrote of them: ‘The prophetic inspiration was really nothing more than an epidemic malady such as is found among the North American Indians … and such as broke out among the early Quakers and Wesleyans. It is a nervous disorder, as natural as chicken-pox …’
Stevenson was less controversial and merely said the outlawed Protestants were ‘one and all beside their right minds with zeal and sorrow.’
The story of the Camisards carried familiar echoes for a Scot brought up on tales of the Covenanters’ uprising, and particularly for a young man raised as a Calvinist. Both Stevenson’s parents were Calvinists, not outwardly rigid but absolute in conviction; his mother was a daughter of the manse. It was an almost unbearable blow to them when, as a young adult, he admitted he was an atheist. He does not air his own views here: he seems quite open-minded. He is surprised to find himself pleased when people he meets turn out to be Protestants and acknowledges a warmth and fellow feeling towards them. He is more trusting in their company than he was with the Catholic monks of Our Lady of the Snows.
When I walked into Le Pont de Montvert, burnished by the breeze and brilliant sunshine, I was greeted by a man of about seventy. He spoke with the flat Provençal accent where ‘r’s are pronounced in the Scottish manner and final ‘n’s have a twang, and he kept defeating me with the word vang. At the fourth or fifth time of asking I realised it was vent, wind. It was windy. He walked with me a short way, gave me some directions and left me with the words Le Seigneur vous garde, Monsieur (The Lord protect you, Monsieur).
I thanked him.
In truth I was thrilled. I had come to this place of history and found immediately that Protestantism still flourished. There could be no doubt that this was a Protestant salutation. Not from Spirit Séguier but from a courteous man who spoke about the weather. The following day I visited the Protestant Temple. It is austere and massive – a plain granite-built space, a church for strong men, for miners or foundry workers, or for men descended from the Camisards. A place of certainty. It is not now used as often as it was.
Le Pont de Montvert was for me the highlight of Le Stevenson, and not just because of its back-story. It is a beautiful place in a glorious setting. If you don’t mind quite a high degree of eccentricity, you can stay at the Auberge des Cévennes. It was here that Stevenson ate his midday meal and sat writing up his journal, in the same small dining room as is used today. He was, he tells us, rather taken with a waitress called Clarisse.
Before I left I assured Clarisse of my hearty admiration. She took it like milk, without embarrassment or wonder, merely looking at me steadily with her great eyes; and I own the result upon myself was some confusion.
Amazingly, Clarisse can be seen there now, in middle age, in a yellowing photograph hanging in a corner of the room – still a striking woman and just as Stevenson described her. I should acknowledge that the four English lads discovered her. They sat at table late into the night to discuss another bottle or two while reading aloud from Travels with a Donkey, as was apparently their habit, and the landlord brought the photograph to show them. One of them told me about it at breakfast the next morning. I was impressed.
After Le Pont de Montvert the path ranges over the wild hills where outlawed Protestants used to meet for worship, crossing Mont Bougès where Séguier urged his friends to take up arms and passing Le Plan de Fontmort where he was finally captured. It visits Florac, an attractive place but alarmingly contemporary to a walker with the dust of the Gévaudan on his boots and Spirit Séguier in his heart; Cassagnas, a remote Protestant stronghold; St Germain de Calberte, a village deep in chestnut groves, much admired by Stevenson; and St Jean du Gard, where his adventure ended and Modestine was sold for less than half what he had paid for her.
Not so much has changed in these villages and this wild countryside since he was here. It was easy enough to conjure a picture along the way of a very slight man brandishing a switch to encourage his recalcitrant donkey. He made a fine companion.
From St Jean, Stevenson took the coach to the large town of Alès, to pick up his mail and get news from America. It would be eighteen months, including that grim journey across America, before he and Fanny were married. During their fourteen years together, his health broke down often. They moved many times in search of a kinder climate before settling at Vailima in the Samoan islands. After four happy years there, he died from a stroke, at the age of forty-four, and was buried at the top of a nearby hill. His grave is marked with the words of his Requiem, with their faint but unmistakable echo of nights in France in his sleeping sack:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
‘Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’