Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Since he wrote adventure novels, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, I had pictured Robert Louis Stevenson as a robust, energetic man, but he was, in fact, in poor health for much of his life.  This novel focuses its attention mainly on his American wife, Fanny, who served as both his sounding board and his nurse.  The two meet while Fanny and her children are in France for art instruction, as a means of escaping her philandering husband Sam Osbourne.  Her youngest child dies while they are in Europe, and Fanny, wracked with grief and guilt that will haunt her for the rest of her life, returns to the States to try to patch up her marriage.  When Louis, as Stevenson is known to friends, receives a letter that Fanny has “brain fever,” he jeopardizes his own health to travel by boat and then overland train to California to see her.  After her divorce from Sam and marriage to Louis, Fanny, who suffers from seasickness on every ocean-going vessel, soon realizes that Louis thrives at sea.  They eventually settle down in Samoa, along with an entourage of family members, and at this point, the book loses steam.  Louis’s health becomes less precarious, and Fanny buries, at least for a while, her frustration with how Louis’s friends and admirers perceive her.  Throughout their lives, both of these characters wage personal battles.  Louis produces some of his most acclaimed work, including The StrangeCase of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while bedridden.  Fanny, on the other hand, feels that she has sacrificed her own creative ambitions in order to support Louis’s career.  She, more than anyone else, is responsible for keeping Louis healthy enough to keep writing, and her suggestions completely reshape Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into Stevenson’s seminal work.  She’s a strong woman, living in a time in which the literary world is largely closed to women.  This novel gives us good reason to appreciate her influence on Stevenson and to share in her personal dissatisfaction in not gleaning some of the accolades for herself.

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