I received a review copy of this book from TLC Book Tours. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Random House in 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
Source: TLC Book Tours
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan is the story of Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, an adventurous woman who left her cheating husband to go study art in Europe. While recovering from a family tragedy, Fanny met Robert Louis Stevenson, and the two began a lifelong relationship. Fanny had a lot of nerve and acted in ways that one wouldn’t expect from women of her era. Robert Louis Stevenson’s health was always fragile, and building a life with him meant traveling the globe in search of climates that would be more conducive to his health.
When Fanny traveled to Europe, she also brought her three young children. Her first husband was bad news, and if divorce wasn’t so stigmatized in the late 1800s, she would probably have left him sooner. He spent his time and money on whores and left Fanny to fend for herself, even though she was willing to follow him across the country when he sought his fortune mining silver.
Stevenson, by contrast, was vivacious and caring. His writing was everything to him. Stevenson lived a Bohemian lifestyle and constantly fought with his father, who wished he would get into the family lighthouse business or practice law rather than pursue what he thought of as a frivolous hobby. When Fanny returned to America to try to work things out with her husband, Stevenson followed her, even though the voyage nearly killed him.
One of the risks that authors run when writing stories about the wife or lover of somebody famous is that sometimes that character’s story is overtaken by the story of her husband. I didn’t get that feeling with Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Fanny was a character, and I adored how different she was from societal expectations. She shot a pistol, built furniture out of logs, and rolled her own cigarettes. She had a mind of her own and wasn’t afraid to do what she felt was right. Here’s an excerpt from the story that occurs shortly after she met Stevenson:
“Do all the girls in Indianapolis carry guns?”
“Just the ones who like to shoot things.” She put the revolver back into her sack. “I like to shoot things”
“Was that some sort of warning?”
“Take it as you wish,” she said in an impervious way, but she couldn’t sustain the pose. She put her head back and laughed. “I was trying to impress you.”
At the same time, Fanny has her own struggles and weaknesses. It isn’t easy being married to a famous invalid, and at times Fanny’s drive to do everything drove her into depression. She felt like her own creative talents weren’t always appreciated, and she made a lot of sacrifices to be with the man that she loved.
I had the pleasure of attending an author event and book signing at the Politics & Prose bookstore in DC last week. Nancy Horan talked about some of her motivations behind the story, as well as shedding a deeper light on Robert and Fanny’s relationship. She mentioned that many of the biographies portray Fanny in a negative light, but that it’s largely because Fanny’s influence on Stevenson resembled Yoko Ono’s influence on John Lennon. Fanny was outspoken and placed great value on Stevenson’s health, so when his friends kept him out drinking into the wee hours of the morning, she became rather perturbed and would throw a fit. It makes sense that her actions would make his friends resent her, and at the same time, it makes complete sense. Horan’s portrayal of Fanny shows her as a multifaceted character with both strengths and weaknesses rather than demonizing her or making her seem crazy.
Overall, I would highly recommend reading this one. Many thanks to the folks at TLC Book Tours for introducing me to it!