‘Under the Wide and Starry Sky’: R.L. Stevenson’s muse
Whidbey Island author Nancy Horan’s new novel, “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” is based on the real-life relationship between writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his compassionate and competitive wife, Fanny. Horan will appear Feb. 6 at the Queen Anne Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” will appear at 7 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Queen Anne Book Co., 1811 Queen Anne Ave N., Seattle (206-284-2427 or queenannebookcompany.indiebound.com/ ).
‘Under the Wide and Starry Sky’
by Nancy Horan
Ballantine, 474 pp., $26
Nancy Horan picked a winning formula with her first novel, “Loving Frank.” As readers of the best-seller will remember, the book offered a riveting fictional version of the life of the egocentric architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the woman who sacrificed everything to be with him.
In “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” Horan, a Whidbey Island novelist takes a run at the love life of another famous man. This time, however, the emotional tables are flipped: The writer Robert Louis Stevenson — or Louis, as he was known to family and friends — is presented as a sickly man-child whose older wife ran his life like a stern nanny.
In Horan’s telling, Stevenson comes off as a relatively uncomplicated man intent on finding the voice that eventually created such children’s classics as “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island.” His wife, the former Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, is the more fascinating study: Compassionate, competitive and contentious in turns, she yells at his friends and unabashedly sticks her fingers in his writing, particularly his breakthrough work, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
It is she who plots their constant moves — to France, Switzerland and, finally, the South Seas — in search of a climate that will heal her husband’s bad lungs.
Stevenson, born in 1850 to a wealthy Scottish couple, was an only child who may have used his poor health to slip the traces of the family’s lighthouse business. Hanging around Paris in his mid-20s, he met his bride-to-be, a spunky American 11 years his senior. She’d fled to Europe with her children to escape a philandering husband. Stevenson, an aspiring and penniless writer, was gravely ill when he finally won her heart.
But the hand that rocked the sick bed was not happy.
“No one would admit it, but Fanny was outside the circle. What was she to them? A nurse. A housewife,” she fumes to herself as Stevenson’s family and friends flock through their lives, and her own literary aspirations are ignored. “I am a cipher under a shadow.”
“Under the Wide and Starry Sky” takes its title from Stevenson’s poetry, and it’s clear Horan has drawn heavily on his writing and the couple’s voluminous letters to compose this story of love and frustration.
Sometimes the dialogue feels stilted and its real tension — the couple’s complicated dynamics — gets lost. But the story glitters with the Stevensons’ illustrious friends and acquaintances (Henry James and Henry Adams, to name two) and their glamorous locales (the sanitarium in Davos, Stevenson’s last home in Samoa).
Horan also offers a parenthetical explanation for why Stevenson’s popularity would not last when he remarks to James: “I have rather recently escaped the clutches of Calvinism,” he observes. “I have no interest in joining the new religion of Pessimism.” His childlike spirit did not fit with the dark visions that dominated 20th-century literature.
Stevenson died at the age of 44, and Fanny spent the rest of her life trying to keep his reputation alive. It’s unlikely Horan’s book will change things much. His swashbuckling adventure stories and that emblem of divided personality, “Jekyll and Hyde,” are not her focus.
Like “Loving Frank,” “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” is about the relationship. Once again, a conflicted woman stands behind a famous and creative man. This time, however, the towering ego and genius that propelled the earlier book is missing — and is missed. Robert is too tame, and Fanny just a wannabe.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book reviewer.