“Under The Wide and Starry Sky” by Nancy Horan is an historical novel about American-born Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the wife of Scottish writer,
poet and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson.
This story is a reimagining of their real-life courtship and adventures. In this novel the author writes, “Did all women married to well-known men struggle for recognition?”
Certainly Fanny did.
She had been married before to Sam Osbourne, a womanizer. Fanny was a strong willed, independent woman, and in those days she could not divorce without bringing shame upon her family. This was the 19th century, and there were limited opportunities in the pre-feminism era for women.
In 1875, Fanny travels with her three children – 16 year-old Belle, 7-year-old Sammy and 3-year-old Hervey – from California to Europe to study art and hopefully distance herself from her unfaithful husband. Her excuse was enrolling her young daughter into an art school.
While in Paris, her youngest son dies of tuberculosis. In an effort to rebuild their spirits, she travels to Grez-sur-Loing, a bohemian artists’ colony in the French countryside, with her two remaining children.
While there she meets Robert Louis Stevenson. He had completed law school, but much to his father’s disappointment, he was intent on being a writer instead. Although at 25 he was 10 years her junior, R.L. fell instantly in love with Fanny.
They had a brief romantic involvement, but Fanny felt she had to return to California and her husband. She left for the United States, and shortly thereafter Stevenson followed, eventually persuading her he needed her as a helpmate if he was ever to succeed at writing.
Fanny divorced, and she and Louis married in 1880. Together they traveled the world in search of a healthy climate for what historians thought was either tuberculosis, chronic pneumonia or bronchitis, finally settling in Samoa.
This was the 1870s and 1880s, when Victorian England was first starting to feel the romance of poetry and tales of adventure.
Stevenson wrote “Treasure island” in 1883. It was his first real literary success, and the world fell in love with him. “Kidnapped” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” followed. Fanny appears to have been crucial to his artistic growth, guiding his writing choices yet feeling underappreciated and unrecognized for her own talents. Her own writing talent became submerged in the shadow of his growing fame.
Though often ill and frequently bed-ridden, Stevenson always remained a cheerful optimist and was always writing. He died at age 44. This novel spans decades and the globe and the shared life of two fascinating individuals.