Pick of the Week: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
I grew up reading and loving poems by Robert Louis Stevenson and knew he'd written the books Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but I knew nothing about the man himself or the source of his wild adventure stories.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (author of Loving Frank) is about the incredible relationship between R.L. Stevenson and his wife, Fanny de Grift Osbourne, an American divorcee who he met in France in 1875. He was in France to escape his Scottish family's pressures to become a lawyer and to drink with his young artist friends. She was in France, ostensibly to study art, but really to escape her philandering husband. Such travel was an acceptable form of marital separation in her San Francisco social class.
Despite their almost ten-year age difference and her marital status, they were drawn to each other and ultimately overcame the many obstacles which kept them apart and were married.
Since childhood, Stevenson had suffered from weak lungs and keeping him healthy became Fanny's mission in life. Even though his friends thought she was overly protective, Fanny ignored them and took Stevenson wherever his doctors said he needed to go to keep his lungs from hemorrhaging so he could write. They lived in a santitorium in Davos, Switzerland, a coastal village in southern England and in France, but his health continued to worsen.
Then they discovered that Stevenson's lungs thrived when he was on board a ship sailing in the ocean. On a ship or on a tropical island, Stevenson regained his vitality and once again, was able to write. He took his ideas from his Pacific island travels and his vivid dreams and imagination. Fanny gave up everything, including her own art and mental health, to promote Stevenson's career.
This is an unconventional love story between two fiery geniuses --- Stevenson's genius was in his writing and Fanny's was expressed in her willingness to sacrifice herself for her husband. I know this isn't politically correct today; however, in the context of that time period, Fanny became the real hero in this book for this reader.