circa 1880: Scottish novelist, poet and traveller Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). He was born in Edinburgh, and after considering professions in law and engineering, he pursued his interest in writing. A prolific literary career ensued, which flourished until his death in Samoa in 1894. Among his most famous works are ‘Kidnapped’, ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
I am, right now, reading through what I have written for a second Robert Louis Stevenson-based book–a sort of sequel to the one (The Beast of Gevaudan) I’ll have out here pretty soon. I’m about 40k words into it. Both books, at their core, are driven by Stevenson’s love for his eventual-wife, Fanny Osbourne. An American, she was eleven years his senior and married, with one adult daughter, a teenaged son, and when they met, she was grieving the death of her youngest son, still a toddler. You would have thought that these two people couldn’t possibly have anything in common, Stevenson, a Scotsman in his twenties, never married, no children, etc. But what they went through fairly early in their relationship, I think, spoke of something pretty amazing that none of us will ever really know anything about.
Biographers of Stevenson can’t seem to decide exactly how they feel about Fanny, which is understandable, as she was somewhat elusive emotionally and, at many points, erratic. They met in France, and from then on they’d spent about two years together, and by “together,” I mean that, too, was erratic. Then, a final summer during which they lived together–and she picked up rather abruptly and returned to the States, to her husband (who kept his own mistress). We can suppose she had her reasons, and they range from the impropriety of divorce in the mid-to-late 1800s to her own emotional instability. It was likely both, but it all must have been largely informed by who she was at her core, and the life that brought her to that sense of self, unstable though it may have been. Mostly, history doesn’t shed much of a kind light on her, Stevenson being so outgoing and his literary output so engaging and so well-loved. I, myself, have a hard time thinking of her as detached from what must have been going on inside, which few know much about. She kept quiet about a lot of that.
My assumption–and I think it’s a safe assumption, based on how people work–is that she was less restrained about how she truly felt about things with Stevenson. And whoever she was in those moments must have been rather amazing. I don’t know if anyone can paint a perfectly accurate picture of what their conversations and intimacy must have been like during those first two years, particularly during that final summer in France, when she nursed him as he lay dangerously ill. But what Stevenson had clearly come away with was a deep and indefatigable love. Fanny’s leaving nearly flattened him, though he kept moving, kept writing, kept falling into bouts of illness and eventually coming out. What’s clear, though, is that his dedication to her–regardless of the pain he was experiencing–didn’t waver for at least a year. During that year, he made his journey through the French highlands (the setting and backbone of The Beast of Gevaudan). In his Travels with a Donkey, on which my book is based, he included this passage:
He was undoutbedly thinking of Fanny, who must have consumed most of his waking thoughts. This was a few months after she’d left. Yes, still pretty fresh at the time, and so understandable. But it was a year to the month she left that he’d received a letter from her, the contents of which no one knows for sure, that drove him into what was, at the time, a rather rash and unthinkable action, particularly in the eyes of his family and friends: He set off to America, and not just America, to California. It took him a month of hard ship and rail travel to reach her, and when he arrived, she received him coldly. He’d spent the entire journey terribly ill and near starving (as anxiety and his impoverished conditioned left him frequently unable to eat), and yet he took a horse and, in despair, disappeared into the desert (had he not been found and nursed back to health by a couple of ranchers, he likely would have died much earlier than the equally-tragic age of 44).
What on earth is wrong with this woman? Well, probably a lot of things. Her adult life on the frontier with a philandering husband who disappeared for lengthy periods was rather traumatic (at one point, he’d left his family to selfishly go prospecting, was rumored “killed by indians,” but returned no worse for the wear almost two years later–and she took him back, for the umpteenth time). Overall, she thought very little of herself and was fairly mistreated. She was prone to fits of “madness,” not in her right mind–which could have been emotional dysregulation brought on by so much unresolved trauma and disappointment. If she was difficult to deal with from another’s point of view, her garbage sense of self likely made it much more difficult to deal with herself.
This, I think, is the key to their relationship and obvious dedication to one another.
Hold tight. These words make my heart ache.
Whatever her issues were–whatever made her do the things she did, however irrational and potentially hurtful–Stevenson knew better, because he knew her better than anyone. For me, that is the only truly rational explanation for their relationship, which sustained itself through years of turmoil and thousands of miles. The time they’d spent together in the beginning must have been absolutely bonding. There must have been something bigger and deeper than merely having things in common, or relating somehow, through all the various human experiences, or things comparable. It must have been, despite their differences in how they functioned in life, some indelible identifying as two individuals–it had to have been something that transcended the average give and take between two people. There had to have been such a monumentally deep level of understanding that forgiveness and affection came as naturally as a heartbeat. And this sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I would hazard to guess, though, that it’s not as common as we’d like to think.
Too many people throw away good people because of hurt or angry feelings, and many of us have been on the receiving end of that. Not every relationship could, or should, work out, but when you can see someone’s worth through their hurtful behavior–because perhaps that behavior stems from something beyond their control–and you refuse to let go because you know they are, in reality, much better than that, that’s probably something worth holding onto or holding out for. Stevenson held out and held on. He told Fanny, in what was very likely one of her “fits of madness” to hold tight. He’d be there. In the end, I think, whatever Fanny’s misgivings might have been about hitching herself to Stevenson in the long run (and she did have them), it surely was this that swayed her to his favor. That, for once, all she’d have to do is hold tight, and he’d be there.
Fanny and Stevenson, with Fanny’s son, Lloyd (floor), King Kalakaua of Hawaii, and Stevenson’s mother.
My books are somewhat lighthearted, and involve the supernatural, which is always fun to write. But, the driving force, really, is the bond between these two people who, regardless of how things looked to others (and often even to themselves), refused to give up on one another. Stevenson experts will say this is too romantic a take, but I disagree. I think it’s a human way to think about all that missing information–those gaps of correspondence. He might have written to friends to say he was truly low, but considering he was half-starving, near-deathly ill and on a crowded, stinking train en route to a woman he didn’t even know would take him, “truly low” is a bit of an understatement. And Fanny didn’t talk. Rather than fill in those gaps with the views of his friends and family, gleaned from copious letters between themselves, which absolutely eviscerated this woman they barely knew, I’d rather fill them with an idea of true love, true caring, true understanding that can withstand the worst of what life hits you with, even when it comes from each other. This is the only way I can understand what Stevenson put himself through to be with “the woman a man loves.”