Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Only Woman Worth Dying For - Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson - Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Frances (Fanny) Matilda Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson (10 March 1840 —18 February 1914) was the great love of famous Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. But who was she and how did she manage to capture his heart, especially since she was much older and a married woman? 

She was born in Indianapolis in 1840 to a middle class family. Her father was a builder, so they lived a comfortable life. Even at an early age, she was spirited and was considered a tomboy. When she met the handsome Lieutenant Samuel Osbourne, she fell in love and married him. She was only seventeen at the time. The happy couple soon celebrated the birth of a daughter they named Isobel whom they lovingly dubbed "Belle". 

Samuel was rarely at home. First, he left to fight in the American Civil War. Then, he accompanied his sick friend to California. From there, he ended up in Nevada's silver mines. That's when he summoned Fanny. With 5 year old Isobel, Fanny traveled by wagon train and stagecoach to join her husband in the silver mining camps. Nothing could have prepared Fanny for the rough life of a mining town. Ever adaptable, Fanny learned to shoot and smoke as good as any man, rolling her own cigarettes, a most unfeminine art. 

When Samuel grew tired of the mining camps, he moved his family to Virginia City in Nevada. That's when he started cavorting with saloon girls and prostitutes. Rumors of gold soon lured him to the mountains of Coeur d'Alene while Fanny packed up her daughter and went to San Francisco.

Alone once more, Fanny tried to earn a meager living. A rumour began circulating that her husband had been mauled and killed by a grizzly bear, so she took up the garb of a widow. But that proved to be only a rumour, for he showed up one day on her door step very much alive.

Fanny accepted him back into her life and she bore him a second child; a son they named Samuel after his father. For a while, they were happy, but then Sam senior began his womanizing again. Fanny left him made the trek across the country to return to Indianapolis.

Incredibly, he followed her there several years later and they reconciled. They moved to Oakland and Fanny bore him a second son they named Hervey. Fanny settled into family life and began painting. She developed a fondness for gardening too. Despite the appearance of a cozy family life, Samuel went back to his old philandering ways. Frustrated, she left him and took her children to Europe with the excuse of exposing Isobel and herself to the study of art. From Antwerp they moved to Paris. It was then that tragedy struck. Poor little Hervey became sick with tuburculosis and died. Engulfed in her grief, it was then she met a struggling author by the name of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Although Robert came from a wealthy family, his family disapproved of his choice to become a writer, and gave him little money, barely enough to live off. 

Right from the start, Fanny encouraged him in his writing, inspiring him, They fell in love with each other, but when Fanny's estranged husband began making legal troubles for her, Fanny had to return to America. Robert wanted to follow her there, but his father refused to send him the funds. So Robert was forced to try to come up with the money himself. It took him three years to scrape up the funds. 

Ignoring the protests of family and friends who disapproved of his relationship with a married woman, Robert departed for America, to California where a very heartbroken Fanny was recovering from depression over her marital problems. While Fanny struggled with the decision on whether to proceed with a divorce that would not go in her favour, Robert kept busy writing.

Finally, Fanny could no longer stand her miserable marriage. Her love for Robert was too strong. So she allowed divorce proceedings. She married Robert in May 1880, and they soon moved to the Napa Valley where the ever sickly Robert wrote about his difficult journey to America and other stories. Robert's decline in social standing resulted in further angering his father who blocked his published works. 

In August 1880, Fanny insisted they move back to England, where she brought about a reconciliation between father and son. But with Robert's unhealthy lungs always in peril, they returned to the U.S. and later Samoa. It was there that Robert died just before Christmas in 1894. Always adventurous, Fanny returned to the U.S.

After a few years, she met another man. At least twenty years her junior, Fanny took up residence with Ned Field, a newsman. Saddened by her death, it was Ned who said, "she was the only woman worth dying for. After her death, her daughter Belle took her ashes to Samoa and buried them next to her beloved Robert. 

The life of Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson comes to life in the brilliant novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan.

Back Cover Blurb

From Nancy Horan, New York Times bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes her much-anticipated second novel, which tells the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny. 

At the age of thirty-five, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires.  Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.”

Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair—marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness—that spans the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales.

Book Review

Author Nancy Horan has penned a beautiful love story about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne Stevenson. It is a story about a strong woman who was not afraid to pursue life despite enduring a humiliating marriage with a philandering husband. The author does a wonderful job of bringing to life the late 1800's with excellent descriptions and details of day to day life. Like most biographical novels, there are times when one's life is not full of excitement or problems. And this is the case with Fanny and Robert's life.  The author manages this very well, and although the story is very slow at times, the result is a full and thorough accounting of their lives together. I especially enjoyed learning more about Robert Louis Stevenson, his failing health, and his determination to write works of the highest quality. 

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