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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
by Janice Albert

Stevenson's portrait in the Silverado Museum, St. Helena

In her 1985 biography Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny, Alexandra Lapierre narrates the courtship that brought Robert Louis Stevenson into the waiting arms of his distressed lover, the married but ambivalent Mrs. Osbourne. Lapierre's work complements a plenitude of biographies of RLS, and sheds light on a question Californians might well ask: How is it that our state supports so many public memorials to Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scot who came and went in less than a year? As Don Herron remarks in The Literary World of San Francisco, only Jack London, a native son, exceeds Stevenson in the number of public tributes: state parks in two counties, a brace of plaques in San Francisco, and a library devoted exclusively to his work in St. Helena.

Stevenson's mark on California is matched by the region's mark on him, for in coming to California, his life was changed forever. In the first place, the trip nearly killed him. His romance with Fanny Osbourne, begun in France, had met an obstacle when her husband cut off her allowance and called her home. She returned to attempt a reconciliation.

From Monterey a year later, on July 30, 1879, she wired Stevenson a message of ten words-ten words we will never know because he destroyed the telegram. His reply was prompt: "Hold tight. I will be with you in one month." The woman he sought is an interesting figure. Lapierre's portrait, translated from the French, is a healthy counterbalance to stories of American women bound by tradition on the East Coast at this time.

Born in Indiana, Fanny Vandegrift was the daughter of a farmer. On Christmas Eve 1857, at the age of 16 she married the Kentuckian Sam Osbourne and bore him a daughter before he left Indiana to fight in the Civil War. In 1863, Sam decided to accompany a friend to California, and in May 1864, Fanny set out to join him, taking six-year old Belle with her. They shipped out of New York and crossed the isthmus of Panama together, arrived in San Francisco, and caught up with Sam in Virginia City, Nevada. Fanny spent the next few years discovering that she could rise to the challenge of the new, nearly lawless life of mining and to the knowledge that her husband was both reckless with money and supporting a mistress.

They left Nevada to settle in Oakland, and Sam took a job in San Francisco. Fanny, now the mother of three children, began to paint. As a pupil of Virgil Williams, founder of the San Francisco School of Design, she worked on canvases and developed an ambition to study abroad. European art studios were generally closed to women at this time, and Lapierre suggests that Fanny may not have known this. She nonetheless convinced her husband to let her take the children to France, where she and her daughter Belle, now 16, studied at the Julian Academy in Paris. In the summer, the town of Grez on the Loing River near the forest of Fountainbleu served as a retreat. It was here that Fanny met the young Robert Louis Stevenson, eleven years her junior.

Fanny lived in France for three years. Her youngest son, Hervey, died there. In her poverty, Fanny could not afford better care for a boy who developed a progressive, wasting illness and had to be buried in a common grave. In the second year, she renewed her painting lessons; by the third year she was Stevenson's lover and had cared for him during an illness of his own, even going with him to England for medical consultation and meeting his writing friends there. Stevenson attempted to tell his father about her, but the senior Stevenson, a devout Presbyterian, and Fanny did not meet. From Lapierre's biography there is no doubt that Fanny was bound emotionally to one man but legally to another-a conflict that could not last forever.

When Stevenson booked passage on the ship that was to bring him to California, he was not yet the famous creator of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. He was a young man with a law degree, the son of an engineer, who had published one or two travel pieces. Physically frail and nearly broke, he arrived in Monterey only to collapse at Fanny's feet. Her first act as the damsel in distress was to become the nurse of her knight in patched and leaking armor. A short time later, her attorney advised that if she was to retain custody of her son Lloyd, she must leave Stevenson and return to her husband's house. In the interval of waiting, Stevenson was introduced to Monterey and saved from starvation by the generosity of men he met there, especially Jules Simoneau, who went looking for him once and found a man who had not eaten in two days. Later, Stevenson sent Simoneau an autographed first edition of every work he ever published. The French Hotel on Houston Street, one of the addresses in Monterey State Park, is the building that sheltered Stevenson at this critical time.

Stevenson's coming to California secured for him a lifelong nurse, secretary, editor, traveling companion and Recording Angel, as he puts it in his essay "On Marriage." In Lapierre's biography, she carefully delineates the mutual needs of the couple united in what they themselves called the Romance of Destiny. Stevenson, she reminds us, was predisposed toward older women. Before Fanny, he had fallen in love with Mrs. Sitwell, unhappily married, a mother, a world traveler, English, but with many of the physical characteristics of Fanny Osbourne. At the time of meeting the American woman, he was writing to Fanny Sitwell every day. For her part, Fanny Osbourne's attraction to Louis shared aspects of her attraction to her husband Sam. Both were sociable, especially toward children, vivacious, respected by their peers. In San Francisco Sam Osbourne was a founder of the Bohemian Club.

Lapierre suggests ways in which Fanny's own makeup directed her choice of Stevenson over Osbourne. In Louis's chronically poor health, Fanny may have seen a chance to overcome her guilt at having lost her son Hervey. In his determination to become a writer, she may have seen an opportunity to live out her own expressive desires, ones she could not realize as a painter. Her remaining son needed a father, not the errant man she was married to but a man of conscience who loved her alone. Indeed, Stevenson wrote Treasure Island to amuse his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. Lloyd was taken up by the Stevenson family, and provided with the education that his own father could not afford.

Stevenson Memorial, Portsmouth Square, San Francisco

In the spring of 1880, Stevenson moved to San Francisco, staying at 608 Bush, now marked by a bronze plaque. As he recuperated and waited for Fanny's divorce, he often visited Portsmouth Square, now marked by a memorial column. He was married to Fanny on May 19, 1880 in the presence of Dora Williams, Virgil Williams' wife. The couple left for their honeymoon in Napa County, a site suggested by Williams, who owned a ranch in the vicinity of the Silverado Mine. The honeymoon trip provided material for his book, The Silverado Squatters. The Schramsberg Winery, visited by the Stevensons, still survives. Nearby, one can visit Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, while in the valley, the town of St. Helena houses the Silverado Museum at 1490 Library Lane, established to house the Strouse collection of Stevenson books, memorabilia and manuscripts.

Why so much public recognition? The question has an answer. As a young man and as a famous author, Robert Louis Stevenson had the good fortune to draw people to him whom he made, in the words of one biographer, "Happier By His Presence." His marriage to a Californian, as difficult and unorthodox as it was, was the means by which he achieved his dreams. He came to California on an errand of love, and found his love returned abundantly. (1339)

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