‘An Inland Voyage’

“The story of the rediscovery of the village of Grez-sur-Loing by Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Enfield, Walter Simpson, Will H. Low and Frank O’Meara in August 1875 is well-rehearsed. The rain poured down; it was, according to Robert Louis Stevenson ‘a very melancholy place … pretty and very melancholy.’ Undaunted by the unpromising start, the group soon returned to Grez, and its enervated inhabitants were awakened by the unruly behavior of the young ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Anglais’ art students. Thereafter the fame of the village grew to the point where its ancient bridge, its church, its ruined castle and its mill became familiar to exhibition visitors. With this, a transformation occurred …”

“The Painters in Grez-sur-Loing” Prof. K. McConkey, University of Northumbria, contributing writer for the Japan Association of Art Museums.

The professor’s remark that the two Stevensons and friends ‘rediscovered’ Grez is to say that they had discovered themselves something that was already there, an established art colony. Art history gets mixed up in many things and it seems that the decision by the government of Napoleon III to transfer control of their salon, traditionally the domain of the Academy des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France, to government control, had a liberating effect on the significant population of Bohemian artists in Paris. Until then, landscape painting was of little or no account to the academics running the Salon who encouraged religion, history, and mythology for subject matter, however stale it had all become. To that, the painters could finally turn their backs and leave the city to experiment with open air landscape painting in a place that seemed divinely designed for just such a purpose–the former Royal Forest of Fontainebleau and the plain and villages around it. The artists of the so-called School of 1830 were the first of their kind to descend on this region roughly forty miles southeast of Paris.

The talent of painters like Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau and Jean-Francois Millet made them leading exponents of this movement which the likes of Bob Stevenson, Will Low and Frank O’Meara would inherit a generation later. Another magnet for artistic types to the area was the presence there of Henri Murger, who settled in Marlotte, a village close to Grez, in 1856. Murger it was who wrote the novel “Scenes de la Boheme,” thereby providing us with the enduring image of young, impoverished, wandering artists called bohemians. It was a reflection of his own youth, not entirely made up, and inspired the famous Pucini opera, La Bohme. So successful was Murger’s book that it gave him cult figure status and his followers went where he went while some historians suggest that Murger alone was responsible for the progressive art movement infecting the area in and around the magical and historical forest of Fontainebleau in the mid-19th century. Musicians and literary people like Balzac and George Sand went there too — even Robert Louis Stevenson.

But in Grez-sur-Loing in the summer of 1876, R.L. Stevenson was not to be found. He was still up north in Scotland with “Bart” Simpson. But Will Low was there, 47 years before he became president of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake. In his book, “A Chronicle of Friendships,” he recalls his first summer at Grez. 1876 was the year that English-speaking artists came to the area in larger numbers than ever before, and according to Low, “the Anglo-Saxon was in full possession of Chevillon’s inn, to a much greater degree than Barbizon ever knew. Not only the men who first ‘discovered’ Grez, but others brought to the quiet inn the clamour of our English tongue.” The Anglais had also brought their thirst for aquatic sports:

“If this predilection for water, the foreign tongue in which they conversed, and other outlandish habits bred a belief that the inn and the village had been invaded by savages, the hostess of the inn, good Madame Chevillon, very shortly learned that their good nature and high spirits were infectious and their habits of bathing harmless, except possibly to themselves, so her strange guests soon won her favor, and in due time though the village politely refused to express open approval, their presence was more than tolerated.

“So strong indeed was the influence of our language, heard on every side, that the children of the village caught up the refrain of one of the songs the strangers sang, and it was a not uncommon occurrence to hear them along the village street singing: ‘John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the ground, As we go marching along,’ the air correctly given, the words meaningless, of course, to them. The youngest of the strangers, Lloyd Osbourne, then a boy of eight, was the playmate of these children …”

Upon hearing Lloyd talk English to his French playmates, Low might have said to himself ‘What’s this kid doing here?’ He would find out soon enough when he describes in his book how “One evening at Grez, when the company was already seated (in the long garden between Chevillon’s inn and the river), we took our places near Bob, quite at the end of the table. Looking toward the opposite end, I was surprised to see two new faces–the faces of women … Bob informed me that they were my compatriots, Californian art students…they were mother and daughter, I was told, though in appearance more like sisters.” One of them was a sister to Lloyd Osbourne, the other his mother.

“It seems curious to me today to think how little during the remainder of the summer was my acquaintance with these ladies, for, as wife and stepdaughter, they were to become so closely identified with the life of Robert Louis Stevenson … As I have said, Louis was not at Grez for some time after the advent of the woman for whom he was to dare so much…none of us present at the table that night could know what the future held in store.”

In the meantime, back in Edinburgh, “my cage,” according to the son of Thomas and Margaret Stevenson, Louis was occupied with planning out his chosen career–to write. To write about anything and everything all the time seems to have been his strategy, judging from essay titles like “The Philosophy of Umbrellas” or “In Defense of Gas Lamps” or “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places,” to give an idea. At age 25, in 1876, Andrew Baker’s future tenant decided to incorporate travel into his expanding body of literature. Bart and Louis would take the pursuit of aquatic sports that they shared with their peers at Grez to a new level, a true adventure–two men and their canoes against the elements, exploring the rivers and canals of northern France but starting out in Antwerp, Belgium. They would get to see the region the way it was before the makeover it got after two world wars. Stevenson was confident that he would find material along the way to arrange all the words he would need to put forth his first book and call it “An Inland Voyage.” Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, had an early pirated American edition of this which has been enjoying shelter at Baker’s in Saranac Lake for a century.

Stevenson could be called the father of the modern self-conscious travel book, voyage as autobiography. He even described the process in a letter from Compiegne on the river Oise to his mother on Sept. 9:

“We have had deplorable weather quite steady ever since the start; not one day without heavy showers; and generally much wind, and cold wind … I must say it has sometimes required a stout heart. … Indeed, I do not know that I would have stuck to it as I have done, if it had not been for professional purposes; for an easy book may be written and sold, with mighty little brains about it, where the journey is of a certain seriousness and can be named. I mean a book about a journey from New York to London must be clever; a book about the Caucasus may be what you will. Now, I mean to make this journey at least a curious one.”

He got that right. Louis and Bart and their wooden canoes named Arethusa and Cigarette were an odd sight to behold for the riverside dwellers way up the Oise in deep farm country. Children were awed by their equipment and costume. “They could not make enough of my red sash,” said RLS. It’s possible that red sash is the same one to be seen behind glass at Baker’s to this day. The grown-ups along the way were consistent in their guesswork regarding the purpose of the two water-borne strangers. “These gentlemen are peddlers?–les messieurs sont des marchands?” they would ask. “I never knew a population with so narrow a range of conjecture … They could see no difference between us and the average peddler.”

But being taken for a peddler is probably better than being taken for a spy. Such was the appearance of RLS in his 20s, a strangely dressed stick man with long hair and Indian smoking cap, that when crossing frontiers in Europe he was “rarely taken for anything better than a spy … It is a great thing, believe me,” he said, “to present a good normal type of the nation you belong to…Nobody else was asked for his papers on the way to Maubeuge; but I was.”

“An Inland Voyage is still in print and easy to find for anyone interested in following the story downstream to Pontoise and the river Seine, and then onto Grez-sur-Loing where the voyagers rejoined their friends. For people with money and time you can even buy copies with modern maps and itineraries with illustrations to retrace the route of Louis and Bart from Antwerp, Belgium, to the place of the next milestone event in the fascinating but short life of Robert Louis Stevenson.

“You may paddle all day long; but it is when you come back at nightfall, and look in at the familiar room, that you find Love or Death awaiting you beside the stove; and the most beautiful adventures are not those we go to seek. – End of “An Inland Voyage.”