Thursday, January 22, 2015

448 (2015 #5). Under the Wide and Starry Sky

by Nancy Horan

After returning from our cruise, I was sick most of the following week, so I had an opportunity to read this book, on the list for my book club this year.

Since Nancy Horan tackled Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Mamah Cheney in her Loving Frank in 2007, there have been a number of other books about the women behind famous men - The Paris Wife (Hemingway), The Aviator's Wife (Lindbergh), and Mrs. Poe are ones I've read.  Now Horan has come out with another.  This one is about Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne.

The reader meets Fanny first, in 1875 in Europe.  She's 35 and has gone there with her three children to escape her philandering husband. An acceptable way to do so in that era was to go abroad to study art (according to page 25, she's at the same school as Louisa May Alcott's younger sister May, the inspiration for Amy in Little Women). She meets Stevenson, ten years her junior, in France in September 1876, where Fanny has gone after her youngest son dies of tuberculosis.  He's smitten with her, but she is originally more interested in his older cousin.  Stevenson, despite a childhood and youth of illness, has been on various walking tours that provide inspiration for his writing.  Eventually the two fall in love and have a clandestine affair.

The title of the book is the first line from Stevenson's poem Requiem, which became the epitaph on his gravestone in Samoa.  He wrote it while feeling ill and near death on a train across America in August 1879, on his way to San Francisco to find Fanny (page 159), who had gone home a year earlier for one last attempt to reconcile with her husband.  She finally divorces him at the end of that year, and Stevenson and Osbourne marry in May 1880.

Their life after that is one of frequent travel in an attempt to find a climate favorable to Stevenson's health, with Fanny nursing him and inspiring his writing. Despite his poor health, he writes A Child's Garden of Verses, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ultimately they discover sea air is best, and despite Fanny's seasickness, they spend months cruising, and finally move to Samoa, leading a somewhat eccentric life (for that era) there.  Stevenson died there from a cerebral hemorrhage in December 1894, at the age of only 44.

I didn't know much about Stevenson before reading this book, and nothing about Fanny.  Horan was inspired to write about them after visiting the Monterey Bay area in California and learning Stevenson had lived there in 1879, pursuing an American woman.  Intrigued, she found plenty of primary source material - letters, journals, diaries - with which to work.

Finally, while the cover for the paperback and e-book (pictured above) is pretty, I like the art on the hardbound copy better:

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I borrowed and returned this e-book from a public library.]

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