July 2014: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Life seemed nothing short of an adventure for Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his spirited American wife, Fanny. Would you expect anything less from the author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? But perhaps the greatest journey the inveterate globe-trotters—who lived everywhere from California to England to Switzerland to Samoa over the course of their 20 years together—took was marriage. Their union was by turns loving and frustrating, tender and bitter, marked by equal measures of joy and sadness. Yet they were never less than fascinating. Real Simple Beauty Director Didi Gluck moderated the No-Obligation Book Club’s July 2104 discussion of Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky:Chapter 1 Through Chapter 22
Even though I knew Hervey was going to die, I almost couldn’t keep reading after he did. Opening on the death of a child is a sure way to either draw readers completely in or out (my son is Hervey’s age, of course). But thankfully, the rest of the characters in the book are so endearing—not to mention interesting—that I forged on.
As with The Paris Wife (which we read together in August 2011), I love reading the (albeit slightly fictionalized) accounts of the women who supported Great Men, especially because in their day little attention was given to them.
Fanny seems an incredibly courageous and brave (especially for her time) woman. I can’t imagine no-good Sam won’t rear his ugly head in her new life. The other things that keep popping up in my mind are whether Belle and Bob will become an item and how on earth Fanny will continue to make ends meet in Paris. I’m also eager to see where the ideas that eventually become Treasure Island come from.
Is everyone loving this book as much as I am? Un-put-downable.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky:Chapter 23 Through Chapter 41
From Paris to Napa to Scotland, England, Davos, and Hyères, Fanny, Louis, and (until he was sent to boarding school) Sammy have traveled more than I thought was possible for a family of little means in the late 1800s. The other big surprise to me has been that someone could cheat death so many times! But the Stevensons seem to have quite a bit of luck on their side. But also an unstructured, bohemian life that gets them into trouble financially.
Treasure Island and A Child’s Garden of Verses seem to have been influenced by the fact that Louis was, himself, a child at heart. I think his weak physical state gave him not only a lot of time to live in his head and develop his imagination but also cause to be babied by all those around him.
I still find this story to be utterly compelling, but the main characters have not won my heart. I am hoping that in the third quarter, Belle will come back into Louis and Fanny’s life—and that perhaps a grandchild will soften them.
So what do you think?
See our discussion of Chapters 1 through 22.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky:Chapter 42 Through Chapter 64
From England to upstate New York to the South Pacific, the Stevensons have weathered many storms, literally and figuratively. The worst of them: the rift between Henley/Katherine/Bob and Louis/Fanny, based on the accusation of plagiarism. I believe—or hope, anyway—that the issue will be resolved in the last quarter of the book. It seemed like a simple case of jealousy between friends to me. But what do you believe really happened?
Also dark: the death of Louis’s father. Though isn’t it interesting that Maggie, Louis’s mother, seems to have come into her own without her husband?
On the bright side, Fanny and Belle have reunited. (I do wonder if Sam, Belle’s father, will surface again, or has he gone missing for good?) And Fanny and Louis seem to have recovered from the plagiarism scandal.
I can’t wait to see how the Stevensons’ travels in the South Pacific manifest in Louis’s writing. Still really enjoying this book, guys! How about you?
See our discussions of Chapters 1 through 22 and Chapters 23 through 41.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky:Chapter 65 Through the End
The last part of Under the Wide and Starry Sky spans the life of Louis, Lloyd, Fanny, and Belle in the South Seas—setting up a home, Vailima in Samoa, and growing close to one another and to the land. As much good as Samoa did for Louis’s physical health, it seemed to destroy Fanny’s mental health. Although Jekyll and Hyde had already been written, it seemed to foreshadow Fanny’s mental breakdown on the island, which turned her from loving and selfless to angry and paranoid.
I liked very much that several story lines remained unresolved (what really did happen to Sam Osbourne? did Henley ever apologize to Fanny for his vicious accusations of plagiarism?). After all, that’s life. But I found that Fanny’s mental illness came out of the clear blue sky. While Horan does a great job at establishing how much Fanny had been marginalized as an American abroad and as the wife of a great artist, I wonder what ultimately caused her to snap? And then to snap back.
I found the epilogue fascinating. It seems Fanny developed a “close” relationship with a man 40 years her junior after Louis died. And after Fanny died, Belle married him. I hope to ask Nancy Horan what she knows about this part of the Stevenson family-history lore—so it’s a good thing that she will be taking questions from our No-Obligation Book Club! Feel free to pose your own questions to her in the comments section.
Happy continued reading!
A Q&A With Under the Wide and Starry Sky’s Nancy Horan
Here’s a treat for you: Nancy Horan’s answers to your questions about Under the Wide and Starry Sky (out in paperback on September 23). See what she says about the Stevensons—starting with the amazement she shares with us at just how peripatetic the two were for their time.
From reader aStarc: There have been a few books written about Louis Stevenson. What made you want to tackle it again? Also, what was the hardest information to gather? Anything you had no choice but to fictionalize?
There are many biographies written about Robert Louis Stevenson and a handful about Fanny, but I felt there was room for a novel about the marriage and adventures of these two very different people. Fiction can bring characters and stories to life in a way that nonfiction narrative cannot. These are areas that lent themselves especially well to fictionalization. While RLS was a prolific letter writer and Fanny a diary keeper, certain traumas in the family (Fanny’s mental breakdown, Belle’s divorce) were not well documented, for example. Keep in mind, though, that every exchange of dialogue is fiction, and every paragraph that explores the inner thoughts of a character is fiction. While it is informed by research, the shape and expression of this book is fully grounded in the techniques of fiction. The Latin root of the word fiction is fingere, which means “to make or form.” This book is a literary invention that shapes historical story matter into novel form.
From reader dconnolly: What was the most fascinating part of your research?
Considering the difficulties of travel in the nineteenth century, I was amazed by the vast terrain these two adventurous people managed to cover. Both Fanny and Louis were fearless when it came to exploring the world. When I learned about Fanny’s trip from Indianapolis via the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco, I wondered if I could have made such a daunting journey myself. And I loved RLS’s two books, The Amateur Emigrant and Across the Plains, about his long journey to reach Fanny in Monterey, California.
From reader CatKib: How do you produce or create a novel? What do you love to write about? When did you first develop a love for writing? When did you say, “I want to be an author?”
Each of my novels began as a fascination with a particular historical individual. As I did research on Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Louis Stevenson respectively, I found their characters and the events and people in their lives big, dramatic, and definitely worthy of shaping into novel form. In both cases, I could envision a narrative structure with a dramatic arc based upon real events they experienced. I do love writing about real people in history. There is a foreign-ness about the past that engages me. I came to my interest in writing after I had worked as a teacher and journalist. My process involves making a very detailed outline of what the story is, then moving through the journey (because it’s always a journey) with the characters. I am sticking with a skeletal structure using real historical facts, while trying to understand the “why” of each character’s choices throughout. So much of the process involves problem-solving and informed guessing to get at motivations and the inner landscapes of these people. I began writing at the age of 40, and while I enjoyed writing nonfiction from the very beginning, I felt I had really found my calling about a year into the first novel.
From reader BringSunshine: Was there any story line or subplot from Louis and Fanny’s lives that was fascinating but you chose to leave out?
Stevenson was engaged in some political intrigue in Samoa that would have taken too long to explain so that information could not be included, but it interested me. He also visited the leper colony in Molokai and became engaged in a controversial public discussion of the morality of its founder, Father Damian. This, too, could not be included, though it revealed a hotheaded side of RLS, and a very politically active mind. Fanny’s later life, after her husband’s death, was quite interesting, but I chose to end the story before Fanny returned to San Francisco as a widow. Belle had two children rather than one. She lost a young child she had named Hervey, just as her mother lost a boy named Hervey. This was another haunting connection between mother and daughter that made their relationship so complex, but ultimately did not make it into the book.
From reader karingam: How long did it take you to write the book; what were the most impacting pieces of his life and personality for you; and which parts were the hardest to write about?
It took five years to research and write the book, and by the way, the research always continues throughout the process of writing, as each new chapter presents questions. A very hard piece of the book to write about was Louis’s death. I wrote that scene, which occurs at the end of the book, well before I had worked my way to that point in the story. I needed to get it done, to get it off my chest. His most impactful moments? I think his great depression in Bournemouth as he struggled to recover from his illness revealed his extraordinary courage and character. His many acts of kindness and loyalty to his friends and family moved me. His extraordinary work ethic and literary output awed me.
From discussion leader Didi Gluck, Real Simple beauty director: What more do you know about this part of the Stevenson family-history lore: Fanny developing a “close” relationship with a man 40 years her junior after Louis died, and then Belle marrying him after Fanny died.
After Louis’s death, Fanny and Belle tried to keep Vailima going, but after several years realized they could not, so Fanny sold the home (at a loss) and moved to San Francisco, where she had a fine home built at Hyde and Lombard Streets. (Later she owned homes in Gilroy, California, and Santa Barbara, as well as a cottage in Mexico.) In time, she met a young man 38 years her junior, Ned Field, who was the son of an Indiana friend, and took him on as her companion and protégé. Many people have speculated that he was her lover. I am guessing there was a great affinity, but not an affair. They traveled together, and inhabited Fanny’s three homes until she passed away in 1914. After her death, Ned Field wrote of her: “She was the only woman worth dying for.” Six months later, he married her daughter, Belle. She was 56; he was 36. They had a happy life together. He wrote Broadway plays and film scripts as Hollywood grew. He was also a real-estate investor and at one point struck oil on a property he owned. Consequently, he and Belle became quite wealthy. Ned Field died in 1936; Belle lived until the age of 95.
From Maura Fritz, RS.com deputy editor: Where do you stand on the Fanny plagiarism accusations? And do you think the actions of the "strong-willed" Fanny (e.g., getting her family on the boat to Europe despite the obstacles that stood in their way) were a sign of her erratic behavior to come?
I found it difficult to assess Fanny’s culpability in the plagiarism episode because I don’t believe a copy of the original story by Katherine de Mattos exists anymore, so I couldn’t compare it to Fanny’s version. I enjoy writing about characters who are complex and flawed, as most humans are. I also like to explore ambiguity in situations as well. It’s possible she plagiarized; it’s also possible she didn’t. I didn’t feel I needed to make a judgment call on it. It was enough that the situation revealed great divisions between Louis’s longtime associates and Fanny. Louis had to decide where his loyalties lay. Ultimately the tiff led to the end of his friendship with W. E. Henley. Hopefully it also introduces in the mind of the reader the question of whether Fanny is capable of plagiarism.
Fanny’s decision to take her children to Europe certainly seemed impulsive to me, though I suspect she had long thought about ways to exit her unhappy domestic situation. I did not find her journey to Europe a sign of an unstable mind.
Thanks for the chat. Best wishes to all members of the book club!