Treasure for the Taking — Robert Louis Stevenson's Inland Voyage
By Farwell Forrest
February 12, 2013
If you hear the name Robert Louis Stevenson mentioned, it's a pretty safe bet that canoeing isn't the first thing that springs to mind. Depending on your age and inclination, you may think of buried treasure and peg‑leg sea‑cooks, of doctors who experiment on themselves and suffer unfortunate side‑effects, or even (if you've a liking for well‑crafted essays) of a particularly acute portrait of Samuel Pepys, the man behind the famous, and famously candid, Diary. But I'm not going to write anything more about sea‑cooks, errant physicians, or Pepys — though I suppose you could say that treasure is my subject. Not buried treasure, however. This treasure is hiding in plain sight. And it can be found in a little book titled An Inland Voyage. Here is its story.
Some years before Treasure Island made Stevenson a household name (he'll be "RLS" from time to time in what follows), when he was a bachelor living a straitened, if tolerably comfortable, bohemian existence and dividing his time agreeably between London, Edinburgh, Grez, and Paris, he and a friend decided to go canoeing. It wasn't a particularly daring thing for them to do. RLS and his friend were young, and thanks largely to the indefatigable efforts of John "Rob Roy" MacGregor, whose accounts of pioneering exploits in Europe and elsewhere were invariably best‑sellers, canoeing had become a fashionable way for young gentlemen with time on their hands (and a modest paternal allowance) to entertain themselves. But RLS had something more in view than mere entertainment. He was dead set on being a writer, and he'd noticed that even though nearly a decade had passed since the publication of MacGregor's last "Rob Roy" adventure, canoeing narratives were still selling well. He therefore concluded that a paddling holiday would be a very good way to combine business with pleasure.
Or so it seemed when he and his friend were seated in the summer sun, at a table outside a Paris café, wine glasses in hand. Unfortunately, their river tour began in September, not August. It rained almost constantly during the trip's early days, and it rained hard. So unremitting was the deluge that the two canoeists came close to abandoning their journey in mid‑stream, so to speak. But they gritted their teeth and kept paddling, not least because Stevenson wanted to gather material for a book. (In a letter to a friend, he wrote: "I do not know that I would have stuck to it as I have done, if it had not been for professional purposes….") His fortitude was rewarded. If the incessant rain had dampened Stevenson's animal spirits while he was on the water, his outlook grew much sunnier once he'd sent off his manuscript. His luck changed, too. He soon found a publisher for his tale, and in due course An Inland Voyage appeared in the windows of London shops. It was Stevenson's first book. The year was 1878.
Perhaps you think that no book as ancient as this could possibly interest any canoeist today. But you'd be wrong. Treasure Island — a magazine serial, it appeared in book form in 1883 — is still being read with pleasure by boys of all ages. And the same narrative genius that makes the story of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins so compelling also enlivens the tale of two rain‑soaked young men on the canals and rivers of Belgium and France. That said, and despite the frequent downpours, the Inland Voyage wasn't exactly a hardship tour. The two gentlemen voyagers slept in inns, and if their beds were sometimes hard and their meals occasionally not up to the standards of the better London hotels, they still enjoyed comforts unknown to their less fortunate contemporaries, some of whom were even then moving the Hudson's Bay Company's freight along the great waterways of Canada, sweating at the oars of York boats and hefting North Canoes over eight‑mile portages, racing against the onset of the northern winter.
What, then, does An Inland Voyage offer modern readers, if it contains no tales of real adversity or epic accomplishment? Well, to begin with, there are Stevenson's sharp eye and keen wit, even if that wit was often as pointed and unsparing as an unguarded foil. Take this brief passage from the chapter headed "At Maubeuge":
One person in Maubeuge … showed me something more than his outside. That was the driver of the hotel omnibus…. He had heard of our little journey, and came to me at once in envious sympathy. How he longed to travel! he told me. How he longed to be somewhere else, and see the round world before he went into the grave! "Here I am," said he. "I drive to the station. Well. And then I drive back again to the hotel. And so on every day and all the week round. My God, is that life?" I could not say that I thought it was — for him.
There's not much empathy on display here, but there's no denying the insight. Nor the honesty. And to his credit, RLS could be equally unsparing when it was his turn to be fortune's plaything. After he came within a whisker of drowning, having misjudged his passage under a sweeper, he was moved to exclaim:
I seemed, by the weight, to have all the water of the Oise in my trouser pockets. You can never know, till you try it, what a dead pull a river makes upon a man. … [In the event,] I had heard some of the hollow notes of Pan's music. Would the wicked river drag me down by the heels, indeed? and look so beautiful all the time? Nature's good humour was only skin‑deep after all.
Nor, as the reader learns later, was RLS quite so unfeeling as the story of the omnibus driver suggests. This was his reaction when he and his friend, in the guise of "a pair of damp rag‑and‑bone men, each with a limp india‑rubber bag upon his arm," were turned out into the ever‑present rain, after being surveyed "coldly from head to foot" by the landlady of an inn:
It is all very fine to talk about tramps and morality. Six hours of police surveillance (such as I have had), or one brutal rejection from an
inn door, change your views upon the subject like a course of lectures. As long as you keep in the upper regions, with all the world bowing to you as you go, social arrangements have a very handsome air; but once get under the wheels and you wish society were at the devil. I will give most respectable men a fortnight of such a life, and then I will offer them twopence for what remains of their morality.
Ironically, his fellow "rag‑and‑bone" man (and companion on the river) was none other than Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson, son of the Scottish physician who discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform. Yet Simpson is never mentioned by name in the first edition of An Inland Voyage. Whenever RLS wishes to refer to him, he is identified only by the name of his boat, Cigarette. This, too, is a somewhat painful irony, since RLS was to die of a stroke at the age of 44, succumbing to the allied assaults of tobacco and, it is commonly believed, tuberculosis. While the latter diagnosis is now questioned by some medical historians, there can be no doubt about Stevenson's early death, nor about the role that his heroic smoking played in hastening his untimely end.
But he was still a vigorous young man when he wrote An Inland Voyage, and it is very much a young man's book: full of joy in life and boundless enthusiasm. RLS had an eye for the beauty of the natural world, too, and a nicely calibrated understanding of man's — and men's — place in it. Here, for example, is his description of the Forest of Mormal:
What is a forest but a city of nature's own, full of hardy and innocuous living things, where there is nothing dead and nothing made with the hands, but the citizens themselves are the houses and public monuments? There is nothing so much alive and yet so quiet as a woodland; and a pair of people, swinging past in canoes, feel very small and bustling by comparison.
I could go on in this vein, picking and choosing my favorite paragraphs from Stevenson's book and trying to put them into some sort of context, but why should you drink the dregs from someone else's glass when you can pour right from the bottle? And it's certainly no hardship to crack the seal. An Inland Voyage is short, and it reads quickly, though unless your education was better than mine, you'll probably need to ferret out the meaning of a few topical and literary references. Then again, you can simply do what I did when I first picked up this small volume: read it through in one sitting, just for the story of the trip and the happy turns of phrase that embellish almost every page.
Nonetheless, I can't resist setting a final sample before you to stand as envoi to this column:
[S]o long as a thing is an exhibition, and you pay to see it, it is nearly certain to amuse. If we were charged so much a head for sunsets, or if God sent round a drum before the hawthorns came in flower, what a work should we not make about their beauty! But these things, like good companions, stupid people early cease to observe: and the Abstract Bagman tittups past in his spring gig*, and is positively not aware of the flowers along the lane, or the scenery of the weather overhead.
* In this context, "abstract" means "distracted," though "oblivious" might come closer to the mark. And a bagman is a 19th‑century sales rep. Also, a gig is a two‑wheeled carriage, and to "tittup" is to drive a horse at a canter. Think of the Bagman's tittuping as the rough equivalent of your morning commute, minus the speed traps and the smog.
There's a little bit of the Abstract Bagman in every one of us, of course. Which means, I suppose, that we are all "stupid people," at least now and then. It takes a writer like RLS — and a craft as agile and inquisitive as a canoe — to reawaken our senses to the "flowers along the lane" and the "scenery of the weather," and to recall us to our right mind once again.