Monday, February 17, 2014

Wordcraft -- Adventure of a lifetime, lives of adventure

Just when it seemed there was nothing new in historical fiction, Nancy Horan invented a new subgenre--the remarkable woman behind the famous man, Dallas Morning News reviewer Joy Tipping has said. Horan began the invention with her first novel, Loving Frank, a fictionalized version of the early twentieth century love affair between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright, both married--to other people.

Horan extracts gold from the form again with her second novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about the unlikely love affair and marriage between Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Vandergrift Osbourne, American, nearly eleven years his senior and married to another at the beginning of their love affair.

Horan’s book, Tipping said, introducing her at last Tuesday’s Authors LIVE! Program, contains all her favorite requirements for a satisfying novel. “Feisty heroine, check. Adventure, check. Pirates (pause) Long John Silver, check.”

Stevenson was in his mid-twenties, yet to make a name for himself in literature, when he met Fanny. She had fled to Europe to study art, one of the few respectable ways, a friend assured her, to escape her chronically unfaithful husband, Samuel Osbourne. Fanny and Stevenson (known as Louis to family and friends) met at a boarding house in the French countryside frequented by writers and painters. Fanny was there seeking a rest cure after the death in Paris of her youngest child. Stevenson was there trying to avoid using the law degree he had recently received--at the elder Stevenson’s expense. Falling in love was the last thing either of them had in mind.

Fanny was pretty and petite, with curly dark hair and a face so youthful she was often mistaken for the sister of her daughter Belle (Isobel). Stevenson, as Horan told her audience, would declare that he first began to fall in love when he glimpsed her through a window of the boarding house, smoking a cigarette and chatting with his older cousin, another Robert Stevenson, known in the family as Bob. 
Fanny was initially less smitten by Stevenson, later described by her daughter as “nice-looking for an ugly man.” It’s a phrase so apt I suspect it came from one of Fanny’s letters. Although Horan disclaimed any intention of writing a biography, she read extensively from the letters and journals of Fanny and Stevenson, using many of their own words for the dialogue of Under the Wide and Starry Sky.

At last, although finding herself drawn more and more to Stevenson, Fanny made a final attempt at reconciliation with her husband in California, leaving Stevenson in agony over their relationship.

“Fanny had gone back and gotten lost in her old life, Horan writes, delineating Stevenson’s dilemma. “She had made a bad choice in Sam Osbourne. Might she make a mistake again. . . Then a telegram came from California. Louis. I’m lost and sick. Need you.

Stevenson set off by ship and train halfway around the world to find her. The journey so damaged his already fragile health that, fearing he might die on the trip, he wrote the poem that would be used as his epitaph when he was laid to rest at last on a hilltop in Samoa: “Under the wide and starry sky.” It was the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime.

Some of Stevenson’s friends would see Fanny’s concern for his health as an attempt to estrange them from the increasingly famous writer of Treasure Island (written for Fanny’s son Samuel Lloyd Osbourne, and featuring inimitable villain Long John Silver), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, and others. But Stevenson never wavered in his respect for Fanny, terming her his “critic on the hearth” who brought out the best from his writing.

Read more about Nancy Horan, her books and events, at

For more about Stevenson’s life and writing at this site, see “A flight through the heather,” September 23, 2011, and “A book made from a map,” August 29, 2012. And stay tuned for a discussion of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” October 15, 2014.


The DFW Writers Conference has extended its Celebrating the Classics: query contest until February 28. If you’re still unsure about which classic to choose, try one of Stevenson’s. For details and prizes, see “Celebrating the Classics” Query Contest--Held Over, at

No comments:

Post a Comment