Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Nancy Horan's second novel – recently chosen for the “Today” show book club – examines the marriage of “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, American Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan, Random House, 496 pp.

Nancy Horan’s first novel, “Loving Frank,” delved into the tumultuous relationship between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, his lover and muse. It also is credited with kick-starting a subgenre of historical novels focusing on the almost-famous spouses of famous men.

In the six years since, we’ve had stories about Hemingway’s wife, Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Charles Lindbergh’s wife (who, it must be said, was an author in her own right), and Everest mountaineer George Mallory’s wife.

Now Horan's follow-up novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, which was recently chosen for the “Today” show book club, examines the marriage of “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, American Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. The couple cover more miles than a pirate ship under full sail as they search for a climate where Stevenson, who was an invalid most of his 44 years, could breathe.

The two meet in France in 1876. She is 35, unhappily married, and a mother of three. He is a decade younger and in ill health. For him, it is love at first sight. She, on the other hand, prefers his tall and handsome cousin (also called Robert Stevenson, just to keep things confusing).

Fanny, who grew up a tomboy in Indiana, wanted to become a great writer or artist. Instead she married young to a Civil War veteran who took her dowry and went West seeking gold. Fanny followed him, but after years of affairs, managed to put 5,500 miles between herself and her cheating husband. Ostensibly, she and her three children left California for Europe to study art. As a friend tells her, “It’s one of the few respectable ways a woman can leave a rotten husband.”

In Paris, Fanny and her oldest child, Belle, study drawing alongside Louisa May Alcott’s sister. But her husband has given them little money and poverty is still poverty, even if you pronounce it with a French accent. After her youngest child dies of consumption, a grieving Fanny and her two remaining children meet the Stevenson cousins at an artist’s retreat near the seaside.

Louis, as he was known, is instantly smitten by the curvy American, who smokes openly and laughs about her time living in a mining camp in Nevada. The early years of their courtship are tempestuous, complicated by her louse of a husband, Louis's frequent bouts of ill health, and a lack of money all round.

For the sake of Louis’s health, Fanny makes their home in everything from an abandoned mining shack in California, where Louis starts spinning her son Sam a pirate story, to Switzerland, France, and England. Eventually, Fanny leaves her beloved English cottage, where the likes of Henry James would come and visit, for the South Seas, even though she got terribly seasick. Through all Louis’s long illnesses and “Lazarus impersonations,” Fanny nursed him tirelessly, putting aside her own art.

Fanny also served as Louis’s “critic on the hearth.” For example, with “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” she urged him to make Dr. Jekyll both good and evil, rather than just a two-dimensional villain. In retaliation, he burns the manuscript – and then rewrites it, creating what is regarded as his masterpiece.

For her devotion, Fanny received the scorn of his literary friends (with the exception of fellow American Henry James). From Louis, she received the equivalent of a pat on the head and the sentiment that there’s only room for one genius in a family.

Louis, who when in good health was the life of the party among his circle of friends, also comes in for a healthy dose of professional jealousy, disguised as “concern” that he was frittering his talent away on children’s stories.

“When I suffer in mind; stories are my refuge,” Louis shoots back. “Anyone who entertains me with a great story is a doctor of the spirit. Frankly, it isn’t Shakespeare we take to when we are in a hot corner, is it? It’s Dumas or the best of Walter Scott. Don’t children, especially children, deserve that kind of refuge?”

Horan has done a prodigious amount of research and Fanny, who ended up as a homemaker and helpmate instead of a creative genius, deserves her chance in the limelight. Horan’s assessment of the meager opportunities afforded 19th-century women feels imprisoningly accurate. (Fanny’s belief, however, that she’s psychic comes and goes erratically, in ways that don’t add to the plot.)

The Stevensons ultimately end up in Samoa, on the kind of island Louis used to write adventure stories about. But for Fanny, life in paradise is no vacation.

“Under the Wide and Starry Sky” is a well-done portrait of the complicated marriage of two artistic, ambitious temperaments.

But personally, I’ve had enough of the “behind every great man is a great woman” subgenre. There were times when I was ready for Fanny to give Louis a swift kick in his condescending backside and pick up her own pen.

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