Robert Louis Stevenson and forest scents

Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for his novels, but he was also a poet, playwright, and travel writer.

RLS-1879Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Master of Ballantrae – are old favourites of English readers and have been translated into many other languages. Over time Stevenson’s literary reputation has suffered the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but recently it has been rehabilitated especially in regard to his influence on Joseph Conrad and Henry James, no less.

An Inland Voyage (1878) is a travelogue about a canoeing trip through France and Belgium undertaken in 1876. It is Stevenson’s earliest book and a pioneer in outdoor literature. Aged 26 years and accompanied by his Scottish friend, Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson, Stevenson set off along the River Oise from Belgium through France. The first part of the journey, passing through heavily industrial areas and many canal locks, proved to be not much of a holiday. The pair then went by rail to France, heading downriver at Maubeuge and ending at Pontoise, close to the Seine.

Sambre-canal-LandreciesThe book is factual, insofar as it describes the journey itself, and whimsical, insofar as it offers philosophical reflections on life. Stevenson’s observations on the people he encounters are alternately sympathetic and acerbic, reminiscent of the almost contemporaneous travel writings of Mark Twain, but his descriptions of landscape and mood are a foretaste of his later skills as a poet and novelist. Here is just one passage describing the forest alongside the Sambre Canal:

“What is a forest but a city of nature’s own, full of hardy 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 by in canoes, feel very small and bustling by comparison.

And surely of all smells in the world, the smell of many trees is the sweetest and most fortifying. The sea has a rude, pistolling sort of odour that takes you in the nostrils like snuff and carries with it a fine sentiment of open water and tall ships; but the smell of a forest, which comes nearest to this in tonic quality, surpasses it by many degrees in the quality of softness. Again, the smell of the sea has little variety, but the smell of a forest is infinitely changeful; it varies with the hour of the day not in strength merely, but in character; and the different sort of trees, as you go from one zone of the wood to another, seem to live among different kinds of atmosphere. Usually the resin of the fir predominates. But some woods are more coquettish in their habits; and the breath of the forest of Mormal, as it came aboard upon us that showery afternoon, was perfumed with nothing less delicate than sweet-briar.”

Forty-two years after this idyllic scene, on 4 November 1918, the English poet Wilfred Owen was killed crossing the Sambre Canal at the head of a raiding party. One week later the Armistice with Germany was signed in the same forest described by Stevenson, who died in 1894 and could not have imagined that the region in which he spent two carefree weeks, whose forest trees were for him “the most civil society”, would eventually be immersed in the blood and carnage of the First World War.


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