Nancy Horan, who wrote "Loving Frank", the New York Times bestselling novel that explored the relationship of Frank Lloyd Wright and his lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, now takes us into the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a woman ten years his senior who left her philandering husband in order to pursue an artist’s life in France in "Under The Wide and Starry Sky" (Ballantine Books 2014; $26).
“I stumbled upon Robert Louis Stevenson while visiting the Monterey area, where he lived in 1879,” says Horan. “Curiosity spurred me on. Why was he there? The more I learned, the more I saw how rich a character he was, how timely his life might be for contemporary readers. But equally engaging was Osbourne, the California woman he fell in love with and pursued.”
Stevenson first saw Osbourne through the window of a French inn where she was dining with some of his artist friends who had arrived before he did.
“He was smitten by her earthy good looks, her olive skin, her lack of stiffness,” says Horan. “She was entirely unlike the young women his parents had in mind for him, and that was part of her attraction. She rolled her own cigarettes and carried a pistol. Since he was a boy, Louis had fantasized about a life of travel. As he grew to know Fanny, he discovered a fellow free spirit who’d had her own high adventures already. She had lived in Nevada mining camps, and in other ways exhibited the grit associated with pioneer women. Yet she was a lover of books and art who had artistic ambitions of her own.”
As for Osbourne, she wasn’t so sure.
“She thought he was charming and entertaining, but immature, eccentric, and a bit melodramatic,” notes Horan. “As she came to know him, though, she discovered his great talent as a writer, as well as his genuine decency.”
When they met, Stevenson, who would later write the popular best sellers, "Treasure Island" and "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", still beloved more than a century later, was an unknown travel writer and essayist unable to support himself with his writing.
“He began writing novels after he was married to her. He trusted her critical opinions of his work, calling her his ‘critic on the hearth,’ says Horan who having decided that Stevenson and Osbourne were good company knew she wanted to spend the next four or five years telling their story.