Marriage is a mystery, even to those who are in one. Magic when it’s great, a nightmare when it’s not, it rarely yields to analysis. And if it’s difficult to decode from the inside, it’s even harder from the outside when the little intimacies, slights, grievances and delights can only be guessed at by prurient observers.
Which makes the subject matter of Nancy Horan’s books all the more interesting and bold. In Loving Frank, her first novel in 2007, she dove into the complex personal life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Now, in her second novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, she explores the marriage between Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish writer, and his American-born wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a divorcee 11 years his senior.
An inventive novelist would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more dramatic tale. Truth, in this case, is as adventurous as fiction, and just as unpredictable. We meet Fanny Osbourne first as she travels with her three children from California to Europe to study art and put some distance between herself and her reprobate husband, Sam. Born in Indianapolis, she had married him at 17, but after fighting in “Lincoln’s war” in 1861, he was a changed man, hard-drinking, moody and bent on get-rich-quick schemes. Soon, she found herself trundled off to the Nevada silver mines in a stagecoach, where they lived in a miner’s shack and sunk their savings in barren shafts. The only great discoveries were the love notes she found stuffed in her husband’s pockets from local prostitutes.
After 18 years of marriage, she had had enough. Plucky and curvy – and at 32, graced with a “smooth honey-coloured face” and dark eyes that spoke of sex – she never lacked admirers. In Grez-sur-Loing, an artists’ colony in the French countryside, where she retreated after the tragic death of one of her sons, she met Stevenson, trained as a lawyer and bristling against his father’s disapproval of his literary ambitions. The skinny Scotsman, whose weak lungs would plague him all his life, had travelled in a canoe from Antwerp to Paris to gather material for his first book, An Inland Voyage, a pioneering work of outdoor adventure travel.
Horan does a remarkable job of bringing the two outsized characters to life with sparkling dialogue that reveals their personalities and deft use of telling detail – Osbourne’s tiny blue kidskin slippers that peeked from beneath a black skirt, for example, and the way she rolled cigarettes evenly with both thumbs in her small boyish fingers adorned with lively gold rings. You can feel the author having fun with her rich material, confidently drawing from extensive research, photographs, letters, journals and biographies. Osbourne’s first love was writing, and of course, Stevenson documented everything as well and wrote several poems to his great love. “…On the stream/ Deep, swift and clear, the lilies floated; fish/ Through the shadows ran. There, thou and I/ Read Kindness in our eyes and closed the match,” he wrote in a farewell verse to her after he had to return to Scotland shortly after their encounter. The guy was smitten.
The pleasure for the reader comes in being a voyeur in the personal life of someone famous, allowed into their bohemian social circle of artistic friends and acquaintances (author Henry James; painter John Singer Sargent) and also into their bedroom, where Stevenson dispatches with Osbourne’s corset when they become lovers a year after they first meet. “Bless my eyes,” Horan has Stevenson murmur when he gawks at his lover’s voluptuous breasts.
Their love affair takes them all over the world, a 19th-century version of a jet-setting couple with a fearless taste for adventure. Struggling with ill health thought at the time to be tuberculosis or chronic pneumonia, Stevenson was intense and romantic, a flaneur in the wild, declaring that “when death comes, I want to be wearing my boots.”
She nursed him back to health, and after finally getting her divorce, married him – a risk, when you consider he was still trying to make a living as a writer and was, by his own admission, a “mere complication of cough and bones.” It is at this point in the story that the great supportive power and artistic judgment of Osbourne begins to be felt in Horan’s narrative, developing into one of the novel’s themes, echoing that of Loving Frank.
Horan is interested in the women behind the creative thrones of great artistic men. Osbourne is selfless and determined, never hesitating to move their family to places that might improve her new husband’s health: a summer in an abandoned mining camp near Mount Saint Helena in California; wintertime in Davos, Switzerland; a home in Westbourne, Dorset; a “cure cottage” in the Adirondacks; several years wandering the South Pacific in a ship; and in the end, living on an island in Samoa.
Intuitive about human nature, she was instrumental in persuading him to make The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into an allegory about how goodness and evil reside in all of us rather than a mere horror story, which is how he had originally written it.
The trickier part comes when Horan explores the tensions in their marriage. Perhaps inevitably, Osbourne’s artistic frustration increases in direct proportion to her husband’s success. “A family could tolerate only one,” Stevenson once said about a marriage of writers. Her literary career never blossomed. In a moment of frustration, having taken on 300 acres of land in Samoa, which they had to clear and try to farm, he told her, “You have the soul of a peasant, my dear. Accept it.”
Clearly, Horan’s sympathies lie with Osbourne. In one scene, she has her bending over her husband’s desk, positioning a quivering finger inches from his nose and declaring, “I wonder what would become of you, Louis Stevenson, if you had to get by as a woman must.”
But was that the only cause of their marital rift? Living in the South Seas, where nakedness and a more liberal sexuality would have shocked and titillated their Victorian sensibility, it is unclear if either was unfaithful – although that possibility is hinted at. Horan, however, pivots their unhappiness on the “peasant” remark, which Osbourne could never forget and which Stevenson later wrote that he regretted.
In the final years of their marriage, Osbourne descended into spells of madness. Horan endows Stevenson with humility and kindness, trying to nurse his wife back to sanity as she had helped him overcome his poor health. Indeed, he pinned poems to her bed curtain during that period, crediting her for her literary help: “Take thou the writing. Thine it is. For who/ Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,/ Held still the target higher, chary of praise/ And prodigal of counsel – who but thou?”
Horan imagines Stevenson thinking that “he meant to explain to her something he’d come to understand. She really was an artist, but her art was not something that would be viewed in a museum or contained between the covers of a book. Fanny’s art was in how she had lived her own extraordinary life. She was her best creation.” Gee, that’s sweet, I found myself thinking when I read that part. It makes for a tidy marriage reconciliation, and one hopes it is true to how he felt. We know that Stevenson was a thoughtful, compassionate man. But if there’s any weakness in this delightful novel, it is in moments like this, when Horan reaches for psychological resolution, which can feel drawn from the pages of a self-help book about how to appreciate your mate, practice acts of kindness and express gratitude for what the other does, no matter how small.
It is a small quibble, though, because Horan has masterfully put two extraordinary people on the page and allowed us temporary passage on the voyage of their marvellously adventurous life.
Sarah Hampson is a feature writer and columnist with The Globe and Mail.
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