11 August 2014

Under a Wide and Starry Sky

Under the Wide and Starry SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fanny Osborne and her three children have left husband and father in America, leaving him to his infidelities and infelicitous business adventures so that Fanny and daughter Bella can study art in Europe. Driven to France after sexist rejection and personal tragedy in Antwerp, Fanny finds rest and community at an artist's colony in France. There she meets the well-travelled, brilliant Robert Louis Stevenson and his long-time friends.

Stevenson is smitten. Fanny needs convincing. He has many stories to tell - the battles he staged with toy soldiers on his childhood counterpane during long bouts of illness, the exploits of his lighthouse-building family, his friendships with literary luminaries including Leslie Stephen and Henry James, and his habit of listening to people who speak with elegant diction despite deplorable teeth. He was been published, and hopes for a wider audience for his travel writing and fiction.

Fanny, by now a writer herself, is torn between loyalty to her marriage and deep devotion to the enchanting, yet fragile writer; ultimately she marries him, and is present for the creation of his masterpieces, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island.

This is a not an easy marriage. He is forced to spend long periods in rest homes for his diseased lungs. She convinced that her own literary aspirations have been sabotaged by his fame. When it becomes apparent that he only is truly well while at sea, where she is chronically seasick, she accompanies him to the South Pacific. There they create a paradisaical yet practical home, with vegetable gardens (supplemented by seeds from Gertrude Jekyll) and beautiful flowers.

I was struck by the breadth of friendships that RLS enjoyed: Henry Adams, John Singer Sargent, Fanny Sitwell, poet William Ernest Henley (author of "Invictus"). The world of creative and intellectual people seemed small despite the distances, and yet, unreliably slow mail delivery made it impossible for the Stevensons to respond quickly when friends betrayed them. Praise and loyalty from stalwart friends and supporters, Henry James foremost among them, was always sweet.

Robert's physical breakdowns and Fanny's mental breakdowns are set against the splendor of the tropics and the clear beauty of the California coast. Horan's writing is clean and precise, letting the subjects shine.

Highly recommended.

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