‘Under The Wide And Starry Sky’ by Nancy Horan

★★★★

A nuanced and engaging portrait of the marriage between Robert Louis Stevenson and his older wife Fanny Van Der Grift. That Stevenson was such a brilliant author is mostly a side note in this book. Sure, we follow how he came up with his ideas (Treasure Island came about from playing with his stepson apparently), but the focus of this book is on a marriage and a family that somehow survived the strains of poverty, physical and mental illnesses, and developing resentments. It is a realistic and thought-full tale that I absolutely loved reading.

From the very fist pages we understand that Fanny has pluck and courage in buckets! In her mid-thirties, Fanny decides to separate from her faithless husband and take her three children to Europe to study art. She has no friends on this new continent , has never travelled outside the US before and does not know exactly how she will support her family. But off she goes to Belgium and then Paris. In the beginning all seems to be going well. Fanny finds tutors, schools for her children, befriends a set bohemian women and has a brief fling with a surgeon. But then her youngest boy gets ill and dies. Fanny struggles with grief and guilt (would her boy have died if she had not uprooted him from San Fransisco?) and suddenly returning to the US seems not too bad an idea. But then, in walks a long Scotsman called Robert Louis Stevenson.

Louis, as he is called by his friends, is an energetic, funny and kind man who has a wonderful empathy for everyone he meets. Wether that be sailors, artists or Polynesian fishermen. He spent most of his childhood sick in bed and his health is still so poor no one expect that he will live to be even middle-aged. As a consequence, Louis has decided to fill his life with laughter, play, love and literature. His energy and life-affirming attitude has a magnetic pull on people; they love him easily even many wonder if he is not slightly mad. The mature, strong and independent Fanny intoxicates Louis and he falls in love with her at first sight. Louis is unafraid of taking not he responsibilities of a wife and step-children although he is just setting out on his writing career and can barely provide for himself.

Fanny is not immediately sold on the idea of her and Louis as a couple to start with. He is a decade younger than her and Fanny states quiet clearly that she does not need another child to take care of. But Louis is persistent and in the end she falls in love too. The idyll does not last long however; for the sake of her two remaining children Fanny decides to give her marriage to one last try. That project goes down-hill very, very fast and Fanny finally gets a divorce and marries the, by now, terribly ill Louis. Fanny’s family does not like it, Louis family is skeptical, Louis’ friends do not like Fanny and Fanny’s children do not know what to think. Still the two are determined to give their relationship a try.

It is extremely refreshing to read find (age difference). Fanny is no seductive older woman, she is not a woman that needs to be saved. She is proactive, physically strong. In her first marriage she left her middle-class parents to live in a tent in the Nevada mountains with gold prospectors and prostitutes- that is the sort of woman she is. Fanny is a bohemian but in no way an anachronistic 21th century feminist. As she says herself: ‘I’m not very political. I can’t bear the type of woman who makes a profession of going around and giving speeches’.

The book is extremely well-researched and Horan has consulted biographies as well as letters and diearies written by the characters in the book. She captures the 19th century British literary scene brilliantly and manages to cram in some historical characters without it feeling particularly forced or the characters one-dimensional (amongst these are the King of Hawaii and Henry James). Today Stevenson’s books are considered literary classics, but it seems the man himself was not always interested in writing high-brow literature. On the contrary, he often just wanted to write a fine tale that can help readers escape problems in their own lives.

‘When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge! […] Anyone who entertains me with a great story is a doctor of the spirit. Frankly it isn’t Shakespaear we take to when in a hot corner, is it? It’s Dumas or the best of Walter Scott.’

Louis must have had an incredible mental strength. Although he suffers from tubercolsis for years, he refuses to give up his writing and he refuses to become depressed. But he is also vain and at times rather spoiled. Louis is used to having a nurturing mother and devoted nannies nursing him, and he takes Fanny’s intense efforts to care for him for granted. Perhaps as a result of his life-long invalidism, he is terrible proud of his one great achievement: his profession as a writer. When Fanny attempts writing, it threatens is self-image as THE creative person in the family and does little to encourage her efforts.

Of course, Fanny gets frustrated in the marriage! Several times doctors tell Fanny that Louis is at death’s door, but again and again she manages to nurse him back to health. Again and again, she uproots her son so to find the ideal climate for Louis health. Again and again she tolerates Louis’ snobbish friends who dislike her intensely. Again and again she supports her husband in his writing efforts and he barely acknowledges her own wish to create, to be imaginative. During one fight she exclaims: ‘Have I no voice?’ I get why should would start to wonder.

Her life with Stevenson brought many challenges, but with him she also got to travel the world, the enter prestigious literary circles and despite everything they seemed to have genuinely loved each other. Horan does not present Fanny and Louis marriage as perfect or their love as extraordinary – they were a normal couple went through some incredible things and that makes for a good story.

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