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Jun 22, 2021

A “Brave Reading” of One’s Faith

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Sarah Barnette

Sarah Barnette is a scholar of English literature with an interest in Victorian literary ethics.

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A “Brave Reading” of One’s Faith

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Spiritual Travels

Vincent Van Gogh, The Church at Auvers, 1890 | © Public domain / WikiCommons

The Church at Auvers, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890 | © Public domain / WikiCommons

January 31, 1873, ended in calamity for Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894). It was the day his parents, members of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, discovered his disbelief in Christianity. On February 2, he confided in his close friend Charles Baxter in desperation, and his letter, worth quoting at length, paints vivid and strained outward and inward scenes:

My dear Baxter, The thunderbolt has fallen with a vengeance now. You know the aspect of a house in which somebody is still waiting burial—the quiet step—the hushed voices and rare conversation—the religious literature that holds a temporary monopoly—the grim, wretched faces; all is here reproduced in this family circle in honour of my (what is it?) atheism or blasphemy. On Friday night after leaving you, in the course of conversation, my father put me one or two questions as to beliefs, which I candidly answered. I really hate all lying so much now—a new-found honesty that has somehow come out of my late illness—that I could not so much as hesitate at the time; but if I had foreseen the real Hell of everything since, I think I should have lied as I have done so often before.... Of course, it is rougher than Hell upon my father; but can I help it? They don’t see either that my game is not the light-hearted scoffer; that I am not (as they call me) a careless infidel: I believe as much as they do, only generally in the inverse ratio; I am, I think, as honest as they can be in what I hold. I have not come hastily to my views. I reserve (as I told them) many points until I acquire fuller information. I do not think I am thus justly to be called a ‘horrible atheist’.... What is my life to be, at this rate? What, you rascal? Answer—I have a pistol at your throat. If all that I hold true and most desire to spread, is to be such death and worse than death, in the eyes of my father and mother, what the devil am I to do? Here is a good heavy cross with a vengeance, and all rough with rusty nails that tear your fingers: only it is not I that have to carry it alone: I hold the light end, but the heavy burthen falls on these two.

Defeated, Stevenson signs the letter with a somewhat punitive and self-deprecatory quip: “Ever your affectionate and horrible Atheist, R. L. Stevenson, C. I. [Careless Infidel], H. A. [Horrible Atheist], S. B. [Son of Belial], etc.” This wry turn on a serious subject is very like Stevenson, who impressed others throughout his life with his ambiguity—fluidity and flux, coupled with a sense of stability and continuity, in both his person and writing. Even here at the age of twenty-two, Stevenson rejects the names his father applies to him, only to adopt (and embellish) them in the next moment, his identity rippling or flickering as it were in the absence of more accurate labels he could honestly espouse.1

This textual snapshot also speaks to Stevenson’s frequent role-playing, to his semi-assumption of identities put upon him by others. As a writer, this habit suited Stevenson. When he was young, he intentionally mimicked a variety of genres and voices as he sought to establish his own style. Famously, Stevenson always kept with him a book to read and a notebook to write in, seeing his role as a man of letters as dual, comprising the (immersed) consumer and the (imitative) producer.2 One might say his chameleonlike nature is what enabled him to compose such romping adventure stories and splendid pieces of historical fiction as Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), and David Balfour (1893); such poignant poems about childhood and childlike thinking, as seen in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885); and such dark morality tales of duality and possession, epitomized in “Thrawn Janet” (1881) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). But it also served him well as a method of self-experimentation, or identity questing, and of reflection on the moral function of literature.

This role-playing comes to the fore in his travel writing, particularly Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). Intimately tied to Stevenson’s spiritual quandary and problematic relationship with his parents, this text offers readers a valuable glimpse into an all-too-common dilemma: What to make of ourselves, of our identities, when we reject or revise or challenge the faith (or as sometimes happens, the no-faith) of our upbringing? How does one resolve the ensuing tensions, inward and outward? Remake relationships with the past? Engender self- and other-understanding?

These questions were further compounded by recent events in Stevenson’s personal life. The writing of Travels came at an especially difficult period of loss and self-doubt. In 1878, Stevenson lacked certainty about his professional prospects; his relationship with his parents was strained by money matters; he continued to struggle with the chronic health problems he had experienced since he was a child; and he was lately in love with an American woman, Fanny Osbourne, who had just left Europe and returned to her home in California. Stevenson knew he would need more income if he wanted to see her again or to propose marriage. He planned his journey in the Cévennes partly as a financial venture, with the aim of rapidly publishing a book based on his journal.3 Readers will find as they roam the Cévennes with Stevenson that he cuts an unorthodox and unstable religious figure in the pages of Travels, a mock pilgrim who slips in and out of a range of identities. Stevenson is the peddler, the stranger, the historian, the Englishman, the Scotsman, the author, the heretic, the preacher, the Protestant—all depending upon his companions and onlookers. But, like a genuine pilgrim, he is also a seeker, keeping eyes on his heart as well as the road.


In autumn 1878, Stevenson embarked on a twelve-day trek through the Cévennes, a mountainous region in south-central France, from Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille to Saint-Jean-du-Gard—a distance of two hundred kilometers. The journey begins with Stevenson’s purchase of a she donkey, whom he “baptise[s]” Modestine, perhaps to satirically invoke the virtue of modesty in a genre that, at the time of Stevenson’s composition, was fast becoming more about the traveler than the lands traveled.4 Modestine’s name and Stevenson’s choice to “baptise” her are also consciously religious, inflecting the work at its outset with a religiosity that it never completely owns. In fact, Stevenson alternately shrugs off and accepts religious identities throughout this text—just as he rejected the labels “horrible atheist” and “careless infidel” from his father only to assume them again, trying them on.

He tries on an iconic Protestant guise in the book’s opening pages. While authors since John Bunyan (e.g., Charlotte Brontë) have typically used Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) to emphasize the hereafter, Stevenson alludes to this fictional puritan biography throughout Travels to emphasize the here and now. After christening Modestine, he drolly adopts the image of Bunyan’s Christian with his burden, his allegorical sins (supposedly) in view: “Like Christian, it was from my pack that I suffered by the way.”5 This religious textual reference seems to identify Stevenson as a serious spiritual pilgrim, but he takes the sincerity of the association away in the next instant, sweeping the rug out from under us: “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.... There are stones on every roadside, and a man soon learns the art of correcting any tendency to overbalance with a well-adjusted stone.”6 Ever the adroit narrator, Stevenson reduces the pack in question to a problem of balance and gravity, deftly sidestepping its religious implications. This signals a complex doubleness of self. It is humorous in tone, yes, but it also glances off the serious heart of this work, speaking as it does to Stevenson’s impossible position: his discomfort with a break from his denominational past and unwillingness to leave it (and his parents) completely behind, and yet also his inability to accept the Christianity he inherited.7

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1893

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1893

And Stevenson must have, indeed, seen his position as one he could not sustain. At the age of twenty-seven, his choice to travel in the Cévennes and nowhere else was very intentional. The region attracted him because of its religious history, specifically the Camisard revolt of 1702–1705. The Camisards were Protestant guerilla fighters of the Cévennes, descended from the Huguenots, or French Protestants, of the Reformation. They fought for their religious freedom during the reign of Louis XIV, following his Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598, protected the Protestant religion in France, and its cancellation meant oppression and forced conversions to Roman Catholicism. Armed resistance broke out in 1702 and officially lasted until 1705, although violence flared for another decade between Catholics and Protestants in the Cévennes.8 For Stevenson, the Camisards paralleled the Covenanters of Scotland, who following the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, resisted the new king as head of the Church. Like the Camisards in France, the Covenanters in Scotland symbolized staunch allegiance to religious principles, spiritual heroism, brazen zeal, and martyrdom.

As a child, Stevenson was raised by a God-fearing nanny, Alison Cunningham, who told him stories of the Covenanters. These stories framed a significant part of Scotch and Presbyterian identity for young Stevenson.9 As an adult researching the history of the Camisards, Stevenson wedded the two sites of brutal religious and political strife, seeing in the Cévennes history and landscape an opportunity for self-reflection away from home. In Travels, he frequently blurs the Camisard-Covenanter divide, sometimes playfully transposing historically specific words—such as when he applies the term conventicles (used for the Covenanters’ practice of holding private illegal meetings) to the Camisards.10As narrator, Stevenson periodically takes on the identity of a Camisard, hiding in the landscape to sleep outdoors undisturbed by passersby: “I concealed myself, for all the world like a hunted Camisard.” But he also renounces the association as if to hint that he is not worthy of it, admitting he was more afraid of “visit[s] of jocular persons in the night” than a Camisard would have been of being discovered and killed by Catholics, “for the Camisards had a remarkable confidence in God.”11

The artful implication in this instance is that Stevenson’s confidence in God is lacking. The whole of Travels makes much of Stevenson’s fears, embarrassments, annoyances, and shame. Stevenson’s friend and fellow Scot Andrew Lang (1844–1912) called Stevenson “always a boy... immortally young,” and it is true that as a writer he does what children do best: play.12 He plays with identity, with genre, with ideas of knowingness, with history, and with the reader, always to see what he can make of them. In Travels, he adds to this his play with his uncomfortable emotions—subtle experimentations that sound his heart. He is often embarrassed in the eyes of locals, who laugh at his inability to handle Modestine, or else he is afraid of dogs and unwanted visitors during nights spent outdoors. His inability to be perfectly just makes him uneasy; he feels much more at home among the Protestants of the Cévennes than among Catholics and questions his innate partisanship. He longs, too, for Fanny and their bond of familiarity. The text never mentions her explicitly, but several narratorial comments about pairs, love, and women hint at their trial of separation.13 At times, Stevenson loses his temper. More than one passerby on the road mistakes him for a peddler, to his growing aggravation. He is “annoyed beyond endurance” when a Catholic priest asks him “many questions as to the contemptible faith of [his] fathers” and then “receive[s] [Stevenson’s] replies with a kind of ecclesiastical titter.”14

This exchange occurs at the Trappist monastery Our Lady of the Snows, a place that serves as a catalyst for many of Stevenson’s disagreeable emotions. He approaches it with an irrational dread, “creaking in [his] secular boots and gaiters.” Having been raised as a Protestant, he admits to his anti-Catholic prejudices and grumbles at the “slavish, superstitious fear” built up within him: “I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have had a Protestant education.”15 The monastery is also the site of Stevenson’s resistance to conversion to Catholicism. He withstands two French boarders, “bitter and upright and narrow, like the worst of Scotsmen,” when they try to convert him to Catholicism over morning coffee.16 This episode forms one link in Stevenson’s chain of reproving references to missions and religious persecution throughout Travels. His tone may be droll and sardonic by turns, but at bottom, Travels is a heartfelt work characterized predominantly by the seeker’s prerogative: the free admittance of not knowing.

In this, Travels accomplishes something crucial when it comes to its religious subject matter. It invites contemplation of the similarities and differences between denominations and the world’s religions. Stevenson raises a quality of question that applies more to relationships between diverse religious perspectives than to any one religion in particular. (Stevenson’s odd reference to Buddhism, which may take some readers by surprise, makes sense in this regard.) And as with all else, the aspect of play persists. Stevenson brings the difficulties of weighty subjects—his shortcomings, his religious bias, and the disturbing histories of religious persecution that erupt when religious bias is unchecked—into his playfulness as a writer. We learn from Stevenson that no subject is too serious for play. “Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life.”17 The genuine nature of Stevenson’s Cévennes journey—a deeply felt project of personal experimentation with his past and beliefs—may be frequently evaded in Travels, but the book demonstrates an important principle at the heart of Stevenson’s view of literature: that we learn how to adopt right attitude and right action (and perhaps also right belief) through play.18 Play involves embracing the unexpected and uncertain, a difficult skill to master. For Stevenson, it offers a valuable form of self-instruction, a method for handling a difficult period in life as he navigates his relationship with his parents, his need for their financial support, and his love of Fanny. In many ways, Stevenson’s playfulness resonates with his role as seeker more than his role as skeptic. Children play in order to learn and improve. It is both practical and ethical, involving consistent effort and a spirited attitude.

Thinking about play as an ethical element of Stevenson’s writing and an extension of his identity as seeker could help answer an obvious question: Why did Stevenson stay at a monastery if close proximity to Catholic devotion nettled him so? The visit was not an accident. Stevenson took a deliberate detour to Our Lady of the Snows, making it a self-conscious addition to his mock pilgrimage.19 Stevenson may position himself as a secular voyeur at the monastery—that heretic “creaking in [his] secular boots”—but there is more to it than that. It seems that Stevenson wanted to be unsettled, to stir his own discomfort, and to raise questions within himself related to his Protestant upbringing and beliefs. The epigraph to the chapter “Our Lady of the Snows” offers us some clarity on this point: “I behold / The House, the Brotherhood austere— / And what am I, that I am here?” The lines come from the poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold’s (1822–1888) iconic poem of religious doubt, “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1855).20 This same poem has given us the famous lines “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born,” which refer to the attempts of Arnold’s narrator to evolve a new self even as he is caught between (old) religion and (new) scientific rationalism, something Stevenson could easily relate to.21

The narrator of Arnold’s poem is also in France, approaching the Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, and the question “What am I, that I am here?” flares as he uneasily watches the monks going about their ritual prayers and tasks. That narrator seems to ask himself, “Why have I, a person without faith, traveled to see a monastery that in my eyes offers only outdated, outworn answers?” Arnold’s narrator looks on the faith of the monastery the same way a traveler, standing before pagan Scandinavian ruins, would think about the ancient, dead creeds of a past civilization. The lines are a fitting enough epigraph for Stevenson’s chapter, perhaps chosen by him to further elide any definiteness about his own beliefs. Yet Stevenson, I think, poses Arnold’s question quite differently—not in a spirit of mournfulness or pity, but in one of buoyant expectation. Arnold’s narrator is “forlorn” and despairing, whereas there lingers about Stevenson’s journey an atmosphere of lightheartedness and hope. The feeling that a reader of Travels carries forward from its pages chimes more with a sense of faithfulness than faithlessness.

This feeling comes partly from Stevenson’s receptivity to nature in the Cévennes. We are treated to more than one of Stevenson’s sparkling, pensive reflections while sleeping outdoors. Indeed, in one passage, Stevenson’s reverie of that mysterious wakeful hour before dawn, at around 2:00 a.m., when animals and humans naturally stir, may be the most evocative description of the hour of Qiyam-ul-layl, or the Night Vigil, that I have found in a Western text.22

All night long he [who sleeps afield] can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely;[...] 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 the 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 the fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night. At what inaudible summons, at what gentle touch of Nature, are all these sleepers thus recalled in the same hour to life?

But the feeling of buoyant expectation also comes from certain passages and remarks that seem to have surprised even Stevenson. The first occurs at the monastery, and it was personal enough that Stevenson kept it out of the published Travels.23 He attends the monks’ last service of the day, and the music and simple chapel scene impress him as something beyond words. This leads him into thoughts about prayer, which seem to counterbalance his earlier uneasiness around the monks:

The thought of this perpetual succession of prayers made the time seem pleasant to me in the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. I have, like other people, my own thoughts about prayer; I find some prayers among the noblest reading in the world. Often when I am alone, I find a pleasure in making them for myself, as one would make a sonnet. I share, but cannot approve, the superstition that a man may change, by his supplications, the course of the seasons or the linked events of life. I have prayed in my day, like others, for wicked, foolish, or senseless alterations in the scheme of things. But these gasping complaints are not prayer; it is in prayer that a man resumes his attitude towards God and the world; the thought of his heart comes out of him clean and simple; he takes, in Shakespeare’s language, a new acquaintance of himself, and makes of that a new point of departure in belief and conduct.... As I walked beside my donkey on this voyage, I made a prayer to myself, which I here offer to the reader.24

Three brief prayers follow, each with a title: “A Prayer,” “A Prayer for Mind and Body,” and “A Prayer for Friends.” This excerpt, when read in its original place, gives us Stevenson less as a secular voyeur or critic of religion than as a seeker who tries to get at the heart of things: What is the point of prayer? What is its essence? Indeed, he claims he understands the monks’ scene of worship, identifying himself as one “who is faithful all the world over and finds no form of worship silly or distasteful.”25

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Walter Crane, 1907

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Walter Crane, 1907 / © Public domain / WikiCommons

Elsewhere, Stevenson inadvertently plays the part of preacher. Walking alongside an elderly Moravian man he meets on the road in the Protestant region of the Cévennes, Stevenson accidentally slips into the role of fellow believer in the eyes of his companion and decides to follow through, acting the part of spiritual mentor: “‘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.’ I did not know I was so good a preacher.”26 The exchange is humorous but also revealing, touching as it does on the all-important, thematic subject of right conduct between practitioners of different religions or spiritual viewpoints, a topic close to Stevenson for the sake of himself and his parents.

Throughout his journey, Stevenson discovers that Protestants and Catholics in the region now tolerate and respect one another, though they cannot approve of a Catholic turning Protestant or vice versa. “It’s a bad idea for a man to change” is the opinion repeated in his ear by more than one villager, whether Protestant or Catholic. He quips, “It may have been accidental, but you see how this phrase pursued me.” Stevenson tries on the motto, and his explanation to the reader comes across as a subtle defense of his reserved position in relation to the Presbyterianism of his birth:

I have some difficulty in imagining a better [philosophy]. It’s not only a great flight of confidence for a man to change his creed and go out of his family for heaven’s sake; but the odds are—nay, and the hope is—that, with all this great transition in the eyes of man, he has not changed himself a hair-breadth to the eyes of God.... And I think I should not leave my old creed for another, changing only words for other words; but by some brave reading, embrace it in spirit and truth.27

Whatever “brave reading” Stevenson had in mind for himself, his mock pilgrimage may have turned into a veritable one, revealing (as it seems to have done) new insights into Stevenson’s views of himself, his beliefs, and his relationship to his past. 


In Travels, Stevenson finely balances the grim perspectives of violent religious histories with admiration for the faithful, whether it be his respect for the Camisards’ zeal and trust in God in the eighteenth century, his regard for the prayerful monks of Our Lady of the Snows, or his receptivity to the proud declaration of the Protestants and Catholics he meets in the Cévennes that it is best to adhere to the church of one’s birth. Throughout, Stevenson has a way of handling religion lightly as a subject, and at times humorously, without being overly judgmental. (As we have seen, his humor is usually self-directed.) His attitude toward religion is engaged without being interfering or undercutting, and it poses valuable questions for the believing—or disbelievingreader. What does it mean to doubt? Are doubting and seeking two sides of the same coin? How should we use the religious labels we apply to ourselves and others? Can mankind effect conversions? Can we find God in nature? How important is the infusion of play, or experimentation, into the serious aspects of our lives?

For me, it’s hard not to love Stevenson, even at a distance of 130 years. He writes to you, it seems, affably and casually as to a friend, but also as if he has discovered something important and wishes to pass it on. Stevenson seems a romantic figure, especially as he passed away quite young, and his books carry the spirit of nineteenth-century European romanticism. But he was also a serious moralist, concerned with the ethics of writing and of being an author, and so he raises a series of questions for readers: What is the moral function of literature? Why does one read or write? Are these activities worth the time we put into them?28 Stevenson used all of his writing to play with genre and identity, voice and style, form and narration. Travels, as a work that touches on Stevenson’s more intimate problems—with his parents, cultural background, beliefs, emotions, and heartache—shows us that playfulness with even the most serious of topics is no bad thing.

In its playful ambiguity, Travels also leaves readers with a sense of the marriage between conscious choice and happenstance, raising questions about the extent of our authority in this world and our ability to access—fully—the answers we seek. One night, Stevenson sleeps beneath a chestnut tree, where someone had been harvesting its leaves during the day. In the morning, the man who had been working there returns, and Stevenson is embarrassed to have trespassed on someone’s site of industry. He has a “case of conscience” after he leaves, asking himself if he should have paid for his night’s lodgings. He decides he will only pay if he meets a beggar on the road. He continues along, cheerfully enough, when “suddenly up came an old woman, who point-blank demanded alms.” Stevenson gladly pays her on the spot and comments to the reader, “Take it how you please, but this was the first and the last beggar that I met with during all my tour.” He seems to ask the reader to consider his own moments of serendipity and coincidence: Who do you think is in control of our lives in this world? In Travels, Stevenson may be a mock pilgrim, but as narrator he gives us a model agnostic, conveying that there is much to learn from the curious and earnest individual willing to think seriously (or write playfully) about religion, self, and identity. 


A few months before his trip to the Cévennes, Stevenson wrote to his father in an attempt to bridge their differences. The letter contains a set of interpretive reflections on Christianity—a “brave reading,” one could say, that Stevenson “embraced” in “spirit and truth”—and also gestures in admission to what we cannot know:

My dear Father,… I feel every day as if religion had a greater interest for me; but that interest is still centred on the little-rough-and-tumble world in which our fortunes are cast for the moment. I cannot transfer my interests, not even my religious interests, to any different sphere. If I am to be a fellow worker with God, I still feel as if it must be here. How, with all the disabilities he has charged me with, I do not see; nor do I require to see it after all. From time to time, he gives me a broad hint, and I recognise a duty. That must suffice, and between whiles, we must go on as best we can.... There is a fine text in the Bible, I don’t know where, to the effect that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord. Indeed, if this be a test, I must count myself one of those.… Ever your affectionate son,
 Robert Louis Stevenson.29