This biographical novel retells the historical love story between Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson (called Louis throughout the novel). In 1875 Fanny leaves her philandering husband in San Francisco and sets off for Europe with her three children, Belle, Sammy, and Harvey, to study art. A terrible tragedy occurs compelling Fanny and her children to go to an artist’s colony in Grez, France to recuperate. While there, Fanny meets Louis. In spite of being ten years her junior, he is immediately smitten with Fanny, although she does not return his affections. Stevenson is persistent and becomes Fanny’s lover when she moves back to Paris. When Fanny returns to San Francisco to give her marriage a second chance, Louis follows her there, against the advice of family and friends, the journey nearly killing him. Once there, Fanny gets a divorce and nurses Louis back to health. In 1880 they are finally married.
What follows is a tale of Fanny and Louis’s married life together, with all of the tumultuousness that married life can bring. They spend much of their lives travelling the globe for Louis’s health, trying to find a place where he will recover from tuberculosis, eventually settling down on the Pacific island of Samoa. But Louis’s health is not the only challenge that the couple faces. While Louis eventually becomes famous for his writing and is able to support his family, there are many years where the couple lives near poverty, counting on the kindness of family and friends to sustain them. Fanny’s desire to be recognized for her own writing, to be seen as an individual with individual worth, while living in the shadow of Stevenson’s brilliance, is often a point of contention. Fanny eventually ends up with a strained relationship with most of Louis’s friends, save their close friend Henry James who seems to remain dedicated to Fanny throughout. Louis’s artistic temperament coupled with Fanny’s own mental health struggles adds even another layer of complexity. But somehow, they keep coming together, keep supporting and forgiving one another, and remain together throughout Louis’s lifetime.
I enjoyed this biographical novel on several levels, as a historical novel capturing the essence of the time, as literary history, and as a love story between two very lively and difficult personalities. With my recent reviews of The Adventures of Henry Thoreau and The Remedy, the fact that tuberculosis was in itself a major part of this novel only increased my interest. It seems impossible to read about anyone from that time in history that was not affected by this horrendous disease. Robert Louis Stevenson spent much of his life trying to run away from it, only to die from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44 and be buried in the very place where he had finally felt well.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
–“Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson
Title: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Author: Nancy Horan
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Publication: Ballantine Books, January 2014