Fanny Van de Grift was married to Sam Osbourne. She married young, at age 17, and bore him three children: Belle, Sammy (Lloyd), and Hervey, who died at an early age. Her husband, Sam, was a philanderer. He did not respect his marriage vows and Fanny was unfulfilled and dissatisfied with her life. She was a high-strung woman, outspoken, decisive, strong and fearless, in most circumstances. There were few things she could not do if she put her mind to it.
When in her thirties, not much older than her own daughter Belle, 16 at the time, she convinced her husband to allow her to go to Belgium to study art. She often behaved irresponsibly with her new found freedom. She neglected to find out in advance that women were not allowed to study in the art school she planned to attend. She was uncertain about her finances since her husband’s support was often unreliable. She took somewhat thoughtless chances and made compulsive decisions when she encountered obstacles, but she overcame most. Unable to remain in Belgium to study art with Belle, in a proper school, she hastily moved to Paris, with the three children in tow.
She met many interesting people along the way, one of whom was (Bobby) Robert Stevenson, cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson, who calls himself Louis. She and Bobby became great friends and through him she met Louis. At first their relationship was rocky. He was more than a decade younger than she, but he was smitten with her, and soon, she was in love with him. She was a woman in a man’s world and she was often fighting for her place in it. Recklessly, she and Louis began an affair.
From the beginning, Fanny was welcomed into his family, although she was darker skinned than their Scotsman’s heritage and more than a decade older than Louis. Margaret, his mother, was older than Fanny by just about the same number of years that Fanny was older than Louis. Margaret didn’t mind at all. She was overjoyed that there was someone to help care for her son who had often been confined to his bed with a variety of illnesses.
The imagined love story between Louis and Fanny soared. Their relationship was defined by loyalty and devotion, as well as turmoil. After her divorce from Sam and a suitable amount of time had passed, they married. Louis was often seriously ill, even near death. The responsibility of returning him to health fell upon Fanny’s shoulders and she rose to the occasion each time, for the entire time they shared their lives. She was often called upon to move about the world, from location to location and climate to climate, for his well-being.
When the sea air was discovered to be a balm for his diseased lungs and a cure for his hemorrhaging, Fannie took to the seas with him, for months at a time, even though she did not tolerate sea voyages well. When he responded to the Samoan climate, she moved there with him, and when forced to spend months in a sanitarium, for patients with tuberculosis, she also accompanied him there, staying with him and eventually sending her son Sammy to a private boarding school to remove him from that environment to a more suitable one for a young boy. She was like a chameleon, taking charge and easily adjusting to the constantly changing lifestyle. However, deep within her mind and body, the stress was registering in its own way, only to surface later as emotional breakdowns.
As time passed, Fanny, usually stalwart, suffered from mood swings and feelings of dejection. Living in Louis’ shadow was difficult for her. She, too, wanted to be a writer. As he gained success, she wanted it too. Fanny catered to Louis, acting as his nurse, his confidant, his critic, but soon she began to feel shut out, a bit neglected and unappreciated by him and his friends. She wanted to develop her own talent, but because she had to help Louis develop his, there was little time for herself, and she received little encouragement. Louis often resented her control over his life and his writing, but she did this to keep him alive, and deep down, he appreciated it, even as she grew wearier and he grew weaker. She rode out each storm with him and witnessed his eventual success and bursts of good health.
Louis and Fanny were drifting apart and after a time, life simply overwhelmed Fanny. The demons she had kept at bay were reborn. She saw things and heard things that were not there. She behaved like a madwoman, breaking things and racing off without regard for safety, often causing injury to herself. Her son Lloyd, who was originally called Sammy, (he changed his name when his father died), and her daughter Belle (with 7-year-old grandson Austin), were living with her on the island, and between them and Louis, they attempted to care for her when she had these delusions, delusions which were so violent, it was sometimes necessary to tie her down to restrain her and prevent further injury to herself.
Louis became depressed. He couldn’t work. Overwhelmed, he thought of running away, leaving the island to find the inspiration to write again. Fanny, his muse, was no longer able to inspire him. His creative ideas used to simply come upon him, but they had stopped coming; his imagination was no longer fertile. Finally, though, Fanny improved, they reconciled and they grew closer again.
The author managed to weave many famous quotes from Stevenson’s works, into her narrative. Although the story was hard to get into, in the end, I was profoundly moved by the care and genuine affection the couple had for each other, throughout their turbulent life together. Although the prose sometimes felt clipped and staccato-like in nature, perhaps the author did this deliberately to show the erratic nature of their lives and their chaotic relationship, with both of them often being uprooted at a moment’s notice for one reason or another.
The short chapters, while easy to tick off, distracted me and I felt as if I was reading anecdotal parts that never quite connected to the whole. Eventually, I downloaded an audio version which enabled me to finish the book and then decide, after all, that I did enjoy it.