First the woman behind Frank Lloyd Wright and now Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife—author Nancy Horan has carved a niche for herself as a novelist who gives voice to strong, influential yet largely forgotten women.
“Women have been underrepresented in the history books,” Horan says by phone from her home on an island near Seattle. “I’ve chosen to write about two women who were very strong in their own right.”
Horan’s 2007 debut novel, Loving Frank, focused on the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright’s partner in a scandalous affair. The book struck a chord with readers and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
Fanny was fiercely protective of her often-ill husband, Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson.
Her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, is a dazzling love story that unspools across years and continents. Horan deftly brings to life a woman shamefully overlooked by history, and celebrates her contributions to the man whom history remembered.
Fanny van de Grift Osbourne was a smart, pretty, strong-willed American artist who took her three children from San Francisco to Europe to get away from her unfaithful husband. She met and fell in love with Stevenson, a sickly aspiring writer 10 years her junior, at a French inn. But the death of one of her children ultimately led her to return to America and an attempted reconciliation with her husband.
Stevenson followed, sailing across the Atlantic and then taking a train to California to find her, a trip that nearly killed him. Horan heard about this dramatic expedition when she visited Monterey, California, where he lived for some time.
“I learned that Stevenson had taken this incredible journey across the ocean and across America seeking this woman he had met: an American woman nearly 10 years his senior,” she says. Horan was further intrigued when she read Stevenson’s memoirs of the trip, including The Amateur Emigrant and Across the Plains. Sure, he was the world-famous author, but it was Fanny who grabbed Horan’s attention.
“He struck me as really interesting, but when I read about Fanny, I thought, whoa,” Horan recalls. “Stevenson took on a strong character. There was a disparity in age. There was a disparity in class. There was a disparity in education. I just knew they were going to be good company for the ride, and it was a five-year ride. They had to be worthy of the companionship.”
After reuniting in California, and marrying in 1880, the pair lived in different places with Fanny’s young son. They both devoted themselves to writing, with Fanny often nursing Stevenson (whom she called Louis) through tuberculosis-like illnesses. After Fanny’s daughter moved to Honolulu, the pair set sail for the South Pacific. Fanny was seasick from the moment they set foot on a ship. But the sea air was almost magical for Stevenson, who felt in the best health of his life as they island-hopped in the tropics, finally settling in Samoa.
“Fanny understood that when he was at sea, he was well,” Horan says. “And she was seasick every single day. There’s someone who was tough. She had rats run on her face on one of the ships!”
Fanny and Louis settled in, building a luxurious home among the natives. Over time, Fanny’s children and Louis’ mother joined them.
The couple was adventurous, to be sure, but it still proved difficult to write about Stevenson.
“The challenge was he was a sickly man and he was bed-bound,” Horan says. “How do you write about a writer who was moving a pen across paper and was stuck in bed? Luckily, he left rich documents of his feelings in his letters.”
Fanny, it turned out, was a much more complicated—and therefore easier—subject. Fiercely protective of her often-ill husband, she watched as his literary star rose while she was labeled difficult and mercurial. She continued writing, but didn’t achieve the success of her husband, who became a worldwide celebrity. His closest friends from Scotland viewed her with suspicion and in some cases contempt, calling her an American from “the land of bilge and spew.”
“Fanny was not as introspective as Stevenson. She was active,” Horan says. “Here’s a woman who saved his life repeatedly. She was a woman who had aspirations before she ever met him. She put aside her own aspirations. She earned a bad reputation because she kept his friends away because they weren’t healthy. She probably was overprotective.”
An English major, Horan had read the Stevenson works listed on most syllabi—Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—but hadn’t delved deeper until she began her research.
“I hadn’t gone further than that,” she says. “I didn’t think much about him at all. What I learned is he was a literary athlete. He wrote Jekyll and Hyde in three days. He was extraordinary. So I tried to read everything I could. I found some things were more accessible than others.”
Horan was especially drawn to his short stories, and the novel Kidnapped and its sequel, David Balfour.
“His essays are fabulous,” she says. “I don’t think people think of him as an essayist, and we don’t realize that he’s quoted a lot. I think about Mandela, who was imprisoned and had a lot of time to think, and Stevenson had some of the same situation. Even as a child, he was not a normal kid. He couldn’t go out and play. He was pale and long and stringy and wore his hair long to keep drafts off his neck.”
Bringing these long-gone people to life meant piles of research. But rather than being daunted, Horan embraced sifting through information.
“I deal with a whole scaffolding of facts,” she says. “I feel, in a way, liberated by them. If I find them interesting, someone else will, too. Truths and themes just bubble up in the space between the facts.”
A central theme in Horan’s novel is identity and how it impacts choices. Stevenson identified strongly as a Scotsman and a writer, and his life was shaped by his recurring illness. Fanny, who was in many ways a woman light-years ahead of her time, was more multi-faceted.
“I loved exploring Fanny’s strong identity as a woman, a mother, an artist, a single mother and an American,” Horan says. “That’s the big payoff when you’re writing fiction: those themes that emerge.”
Not to say that every day as a writer is golden for Horan.
“There are times when it’s very frustrating,” she admits. “You have days when you toss what you write, and it’s no good, and you’re going down the wrong alley.”
But she’s not in total solitude while spending years shaping a book.
“I have a very funny husband who takes the journey with me,” Horan says. “It’s a conversation. And I think I need a sounding board while I’m working my way through.”
Her husband, a photojournalist and “outdoors fanatic,” convinced her to move to the Pacific Northwest after 24 years in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.
“When the kids went off to college, we decided to come out here,” she says. “He’s a mountain climber; he likes to go ice camping. I don’t, but I can appreciate the beauty.”
Appropriately enough, Horan took her book’s title, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, from the opening line of one of Stevenson’s best-known poems, “Requiem.” The poem, which was later engraved on Stevenson’s gravestone, concludes: Here he lies where he longed to be, / Home is the sailor, home from the sea / And the hunter home from the hill.