Staff Picks: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

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Under the wide and starry skyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky: a novel by Nancy Horan

Would the world know Robert Louis Stevenson as the writer he became if there was no Fanny Van der Grift Osbourne in his life?

This is a question to ponder while reading the biographical novel by Nancy Horan.  First known for her fictional version of  another infamous marriage in the bestseller, “Loving Frank,” about architect Frank Lloyd Wright,  the author explores the creative partnership between a writer and wife in this book.  Both Fanny and  Robert Louis Stevenson are rebelling against their “assigned roles” in life- she as a wife and mother, he as the respectable lawyer his Presbyterian father wants him to be. At the beginning of the novel, which is as much an adventure tale as any story by Stevenson, Fanny Osbourne is  essentially running away from her philandering husband Sam by taking her three children to Europe to “study art.” When Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS)  comes to meet his cousin and fellow writers  in the art colony at Grez, France, he is instantly smitten by Fanny’s exoticism even though she is a good 10 years older than he.

Like a midsummer comedy, Fanny seems more interested in his cousin, Bob. Eventually,  Bob convinces Fanny to give RLS  a chance. After becoming lovers, and living in poverty in Paris, self-doubt, grief and guilt over the death of her youngest child  causes Fanny to return to her husband in California. RLS pursues her to California.  With no money, they spend a spell in an abandoned silver mining town, Silverado, basically  camping out. Fanny proves she is able to adjust to and thrive in  just about any environment and circumstance. Through her knowledge of traditional and nontraditional medicine, she  tends to RLS’ continuing illnesses, saving his life several times.

However, RLS  is reluctant to give up his bachelor lifestyle and jealous rivalries between his friends and wife makes their social  life difficult.  A strong presence, Fanny is derided as an interloper to their male camaraderie, and never fully accepted in their Scottish and London circles. With RLS  in continual ill-health,  they explore various climates: freezing cold Swiss mountains, balmy  (but too humid) air in the south of France, a seacoast town in Great Britain, and eventually the South Sea Islands.  Along the way, intense,  frenzied spells of writing overcome RLS; he believes he is pixilated by the Brownies through dreams to tell his tales.  Inevitably, tension develops between husband and wife; he seeks  her critiques of his writing, yet resents her comments; she unsuccessfully attempts to become a published author.

Finally settling down in an island of Samoa, they build a home and establish themselves in island life. RLS, a warm, witty and fun-loving character despite his ill-health  was beloved by many throughout his travels, and especially among the Samoans, who named him  Tulsitala, “Teller of Tales.” There is where he is buried. Fanny outlived him by 20 years, moving back to San Francisco and living with a much younger companion, Ned Field.

The poem “Requiem”  by RLS supplies the title of the book; the poem is inscribed on his tombstone in Samoa:

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

Because there are so many extant letters, diaries and accounts of travels by both Fanny, RLS and others who knew them, Nancy Horan had a rich treasure-trove of material to draw upon to write this book so although a novel, it is grounded in substantial resources.  It is also available from the Fauquier County Public Library book on CD.

Recommended reads: The writings of  RLS and similar novels such as “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain about Hemingway and his wife, Hadley.

∼ Fran, Manager, Collection Services, Warrenton Branch Library

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