By Joe Tash
Some 120 years after his death, people around the world are familiar with the works of Scottish-born author Robert Louis Stevenson, who penned the classic novels “Treasure Island,” “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “Kidnapped.”
Stevenson’s characters, such as Billy Bones, Long John Silver and the evil Edward Hyde, have woven their way into the vernacular.
“He’s a part of our culture,” novelist Nancy Horan told a group of high school students during an appearance at the Grand Del Mar Resort at the April 22 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society.
While today’s readers may know of Stevenson’s work, his life story has received less attention — how he met and fell in love with an American woman 10 years his senior, traveled at great risk to his health to California to rekindle their romance, and eventually died from a cerebral hemorrhage in his 40s at a plantation the couple built in Samoa.
That story is told in vivid, imaginative detail in “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” Horan’s second novel, which was published in 2013 by Ballantine Books.
“I feel as if I know you,” Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne told Stevenson early in the book, when she met the aspiring writer for the first time at an inn at Grez-sur-Loing, 70 kilometers south of Paris.
The book moves back and forth between the viewpoints of Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne as Horan lays out the tale of their lives together.
“Everything about her was exotic, from her lively gold-ringed fingers to her tiny blue kidskin slippers peeking out from beneath a black skirt. She might have been a Sephardic shepherdess, to judge from her features, but the voice was different. American, to be sure. It had a touch of grassy prairie in it, riverboats, he didn’t know what all. Tennessee walking horses,” Horan wrote of Stevenson’s initial impression of the love of his life.
The novel opens as Fanny embarks on a sea voyage to Europe, an escape which has two purposes: to get away from her husband’s multiple infidelities, and immerse her three children in art and culture.
The basic factual outline of the story is true, said Horan, and she used her novelist’s license to fill in the details, from dialogue to the characters’ motivations. Where possible, she relied on sources such as letters, diaries and biographies to help her piece the story together. What was not made up, she said, was Fanny Osbourne’s fiercely independent streak, unusually developed for a woman in the late 1800s.
“Fanny was game, and she had grit. She was brave and she was adventurous,” said Horan.
She also knew suffering, caused by a variety of things, from her husband’s philandering, to her youngest son’s death from tuberculosis, to the health problems endured both by herself and, later, Stevenson.
As she wrote, Horan said, she made every effort to stick to the basic facts of her main characters’ lives.
“I feel really responsible to stay close to the true history, as close as I can,” she said. “I want to get it right.”
That said, she took artistic license when necessary to bring the story alive on the page.
“You invent it, you make your best guess, that’s fiction,” she said.
Fanny Osbourne had her own artistic ambitions, both as a writer and painter, and she also gave her husband valuable criticism on his drafts, which he read aloud to her. In the family lore, she is credited with crucial suggestions on the early versions of “Jekyll and Hyde,” which originally came to Stevenson in a dream.
But her dogged and indefatigable care of her husband during his many illnesses —particularly near-fatal bouts of hemorrhaging in his lungs — may have been her greatest contribution to his literary achievements, Horan said.
She also followed her husband around the world as he sought climates favorable to his health, from the mountains of Switzerland, to long sea journeys, to South Pacific islands. Even though, as Horan pointed out in the book, Fanny Osbourne was prone to sea-sickness.
“Fanny kept him alive. Time and again she saved his life,” Horan said.
“Under the Wide and Starry Sky” is Horan’s second novel, and her first, “Loving Frank,” was also about a woman who had a major impact on the life of a famous man. In that case, Horan wrote of a love affair between famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
Horan, who lives on an island in Puget Sound, Wash., with her husband, and was formerly a teacher and freelance writer, said her next book will be a departure for her, but will still include elements of history, one of her passions.
“I think I’m going to go in a whole new direction,” she said.
For more information on Horan, visit www.nancyhoran.com.