An Inland Voyage - Robert Louis Stevenson

I was browsing the web a few of weeks ago and came across “The Canal Boatmen 1760-1914 by Harry Hanson”; it turned out to be a good buy and one of my most fascinating recent reads, but that is another story. On the title page of Hanson’s erudite book, it was based on an MA thesis, was a quote which immediately caught my eye:

There should be many contented spirits on board, for such a life is both to travel and stay at home …. and for the bargee, in his floating home, travelling abed, it is merely as if he were listening to another man’s story or turning the leaves of a picture book in which he has no concern

Great quote – but by whom – Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage, 1878

Robert Louis Stevenson

At that point I was hooked – I just had to know more of An Inland Voyage. I quickly found that it was Stevenson’s very first book and well before Treasure Island. It chronicled a canoe voyage with a companion down the rivers and canals of Belgium and Northern France. RLS and his friend Sir Walter Grindley Simpson took a 200 mile journey in 1876 in two canoes named Arethusa (RLS) and Cigarette (WGS). 
Sir Walter Grindley Simpson

The canoes were wooden and it appears they were capable of being moved by sail as well as paddle. Although their trip was in the summer, their journey was plagued by bad weather. In common with much similar Victorian literature, RLS does not use given names in the book and refers to himself and Simpson by the names of their canoes.

I obtained my 1896 eighth edition in good condition from a well-known second-hand book web site and paid less than £10. I read it quite quickly, enjoying the narrative but I found, like some other modern commentators, that it is quite impenetrable in places. At one point I read over two pages before I realised I hadn’t a clue what was happening!

So is this book is a travelogue? – well no; it's more an evocation of boating as a way of getting away from everyday life. It’s full of philosophy, charm, wit and the occasional flight of fancy. Meeting local people is a continuing feature of many chapters. It is definitely short on detail and therefore not very helpful for others following the same route.

One or two sections really impressed me and made me feel that I was alongside the canoeists (in the rain). In particular I enjoyed the wonderful chapter describing the pair meeting a group of enthusiastic oarsmen from the Royal Sport Nautique club in Brussels. The travellers were so grateful for their help on a wet night but they found their hosts enthusiasm for rowing, and sport in general, so overbearing that it caused them to leave early next morning to avoid disgracing themselves at a promised rowing event. The RSN 1895 club is still operating today and appears to be continuing the traditions of friendship and enthusiasm discovered by Stevenson and Simpson.

Apart from the philosophical aspects, which could be termed Zen and the Art of Canoeing (borrowing from the title of the 1970s cult novel), only a few passages will stand out for the boating enthusiast. One passage early in the book particularly caught my eye. It was when Stevenson describes passing a train of boats pulled by a chain-driven steamer on the Willebroek Canal which runs from Antwerp to Brussels. He describes with wonderment how the steamer and its train moved “along the water with nothing to mark its advance but and eddy alongside dying away into the wake”. He must have been familiar with the turbulence created by paddle-steamers. This is a fascinating insight into the importance of the wide open waterways on Northern Europe and how technology was beginning to make its impact in the 1870s.

Warfare is another recurring theme in many passages in the book as the Franco-Prussian war had recently finished with government of France falling. Stevenson reports on several French communities where there was a significant military presence. Reading some sections, I also couldn’t help thinking about the horrors of the forthcoming World War that was to hit this part of Europe a few decades later; a lot of the towns mentioned in the book are unfortunately familiar as WW1 battlefields.

I will finish this post with a quote from preface to the first edition. The young writer Stevenson states:

It occurred to me that I might not only be the first to read these pages, but the last as well; that I might have pioneered this very smiling tract of country all in vain, and find not a soul to follow my steps

I understand that the book was not an immediate success, although he was paid £20 by the publisher, but it was the begining of a stellar writing career. There are many following his footsteps today as I will relate in another post.