REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
Reviewer’s Note: “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” is now in paperback, available Sept. 23, 2014 (Ballantine Books Trade Paperback, 496 pages, $16.00). The text below is of my January 20, 2014 review of the Ballantine Books hardback edition.
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Stevenson had always wanted his ‘Requiem’ inscribed on his tomb:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill. –“Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson
First off, I have to ask the question: Can you accept the premise of a novelized biography, a literary genre popularized by Irving Stone (1903-1989) with his novel/biographies of Vincent van Gogh — “Lust for Life” — and Michelangelo –“The Agony and the Ecstasy” — among others?
If you accept this premise, Nancy Horan’s “Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel” (Ballantine Books, 496 pages, $26.00) is a magnificent tour de force, following the literary path carved out in her 2007 bestselling novel “Loving Frank”, the story of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his illicit affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of his client Edward Cheney.
“Under the Wide and Starry Sky” deals with many of the same issues as the previous novel, including the role of women in the arts and the role of a wife as an influence on her husband, as Horan tells the story of the unlikely affair and later marriage of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Horan’s novel may or may not change our view of the author of such classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To a large extent it depends on many things. I think from the evidence that Horan presents that Fanny’s mood swings contributed to his creation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in what I believe is his masterpiece.
An aside from an English major — the reviewer — who attended college in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Stevenson was pretty much off our radar. I don’t recall any mention of him in our classes. He was considered a popular writer — but so was Dickens — unworthy of study because of his subject matter. He was considered a horror writer and a children’s writer, too.
Stevenson was born in 1850, the son of a wealthy builder of lighthouses. He was sickly from an early age, with lung problems that led him to seek treatment in many places, including Davos, Switzerland, today more famous as the site of economic summits.
Stevenson meets and falls in love with Fanny when she’s in Paris studying art. She has left her unfaithful husband Sam Osbourne in San Francisco and has traveled with her three young children to study art. She’s still married to Sam at the time of their meeting. She was considered an exotic woman, with a dark complexion that contributed to her aura. She was born in 1840 in Indianapolis and lived until 1914, two decades after Stevenson’s death on Samoa in 1894. After Stevenson’s death and burial on a Samoan mountaintop, Fanny was the keeper of the author’s flame.
“Under the Wide and Starry Sky” addresses:
> Why this unlikely pair were drawn to each other
> How Louis and Fanny shaped each others’ artistic lives and accomplishments
> The Stevensons’ literary and artistic circle, which included such luminaries as John Singer Sargent and Henry James
> The obstacles Fanny and Louis faced, and how they helped each other navigate them
> Their adventures as world travelers
> Gender expectations, and their impact on both Fanny and Louis’s lives and work
> Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary legacy and how it has changed over time
Horan is an outstanding writer and I didn’t find the book to have any boring sections. It’s worth reading, along with biographies of Stevenson that Horan recommends at the end of the book.
Nancy Horan is best known for her 2007 novel Loving Frank, which chronicles a little-known chapter in the life of legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and his client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Loving Frank remained on the New York Times Bestseller list for over a year. It has been translated into sixteen languages, and won the 2009 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction, awarded by the Society of American Historians.
About the author
A native Midwesterner, Nancy Horan was a teacher and journalist before turning to fiction writing. She lived for 25 years in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where she raised her two sons. Oak Park is famous as the site of Wright’s studio and many of his most famous houses and other buildings. She now lives with her husband on an island in Washington state’s Puget Sound. Her website: http://www.nancyhoran.com