Recommended to me by a dear friend with great taste in books (and everything else for that matter!), I was delighted when I began reading Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan to discover it was a fictional account of the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his older and beloved wife, Fanny ven de Grift Osbourne.
I didn’t know anything about Fanny so discovering more about this magnificent woman, her life, strength, creativity, loyalty and endurance, was wonderful. We first meet Fanny when, with three young children, she sets off from San Francisco to study art in Belgium only to find the school she intended to enroll in doesn’t accept women. Taking this in her stride, Fanny sets off to Paris, determined to pursue her dream and escape the trap her life with her unfaithful husband, Sam, has become. Once there, her life changes in ways she could never have foreseen, but it’s indicative of the era (and the mindset of various folk) that women – and especially ones like Fanny who are smart and independent – often exchange one form of imprisonment for another.
Horan does a wonderful job of presenting the reader with a fully rounded character whom you champion as much for her flaws as her warmth and formidable directness. A woman ahead of the times in many ways, Fanny does not suffer fools, especially after her early life is mostly defined by one. Experiencing great tragedy and loss, Fanny tries not to let these circumstances define her or the lives of her children, though these are a constant sad presence which mark her indelibly and make her artistic soul ache. A fish out of water as an American in France, England, Scotland and later the South Pacific, Fanny is both a survivor and someone who seeks to improve her situation in whatever way she can. Unable to tolerate injustice, this is one characteristic she shares with her husband, Robert Louis Stevenson.
RLS was also a revelation. Horan draws this ebullient, sick, witty, intelligent and oft-times difficult man with sensitivity and realism. As a child, I was introduced to the work of RLS with the beautiful Child’s Garden of Verses, which I in turn read to my own kids. I adored this book and it provided succor and delight through some dark times as did, when I was a little older, Kidnapped! and Treasure Island (Long John Silver both terrified and exhilarated me!). As a mature age Uni student, I came to appreciate Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde so, in a sense, Stevenson’s works have been literary paving stones upon which I stepped at different parts of my life. Discovering, even in fiction, the man behind the words was lovely. Popular, generous, offended by and active against injustice, he used his gift with words to entertain, thrill and inform. Surrounded by good friends, including members of the literary elite such as Henry James, it wasn’t until RLS’s fame grew that he also encountered syncophants and the pressure that can come with professional expectations.
Dogged by illness his entire life, he and Fanny (who was as much a nurse as critic and wife) would move locations to manage his sickness. This took them to fascinating places and had them enjoying (or not) amazing encounters: from the Swiss Alps to the South Seas all of which are covered in this lovely book.
I had no idea RLS was so peripatetic and this was particularly fascinating.
You don’t have to be a fan of RLS or his work to adore this book. It is a great story, a love story that deserves to stand with better known and heralded ones, as well as a fabulous recounting of a life well-lived and well-loved. Terrific.