This week’s HI Mailbag column is a continuation of last week’s column. The December 3rd article discussed the locations in which Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne Stevenson lived during the early portion of her life. As she was only twenty-four years old when she left her hometown, I thought some of the places she lived in the fifty remaining years of her life might be interesting to readers, as well. Due to the length of the initial article, I decided to devote two columns to Fanny. If you would like to read Part I first, you can do so by clicking here.
When Fanny Osbourne returned to California in 1869, after staying on her family’s farm in Hendricks County for about a year, Sam and she resumed their marriage by setting up housekeeping in a small town adjacent to Oakland, called Brooklyn. She had traveled between Indiana and California multiple times in an effort to save the union. In the early months of 1875, Fanny came to the realization that her marriage was over. Although the couple had welcomed two more children into the family, as well as created a lovely home in the years since their reconciliation, Sam continued to be unfaithful to Fanny. When she learned that her husband was maintaining yet another mistress across the bay in San Francisco, Fanny had had enough. She gathered up her children, packed their bags, took a train across country, and boarded a ship bound for Belgium. Fanny was 35, Isobel was 16, Lloyd was 7, and Hervey was 4.
After arriving in Antwerp, Fanny rented a little stone cottage there. She had always wanted to receive formal training in art, and Belle had demonstrated artistic talents, as well. Mother and daughter had taken some classes at the San Francisco School of Design, but those were cut short by Fanny’s decision to leave her husband. Finding that no good art school in Antwerp would admit women, they moved to Paris within a few months. Both Fanny and Belle entered the Académie Julian.
In Paris the foursome lived frugally but happily, until Hervey contracted tuberculosis. He went downhill quickly and died in April of 1875. Grief-stricken and depressed, Fanny became physically ill herself. A doctor recommended she leave Paris and go to a quiet place in the countryside to restore her health. A fellow student at the art school told her about Grez-sur-Loing, a little village on a tributary of the Seine, which was peaceful, affordable, and not very well known. It was also a place where artists and writers went to exchange ideas and socialize with one another. There at a small dinner party she met Robert Louis Stevenson. A friendship developed between them over the next three years.
In 1878, Fanny and the children returned to the United States. They visited her family in Indiana as they made their way across the continent to California. Not having wanted to deal with the scandal three years earlier, she hadn’t obtained a divorce from Sam before her hasty departure for Europe. She was resolved to have some closure this time. While she was waiting for the divorce to become final, a very sick Robert Louis Stevenson arrived on her doorstep. He told her that he had fallen in love with her the moment he first saw her in Grez. Fanny nursed him to better health, and they were married on May 19, 1880. Fanny had just turned 40; Robert was 29.
The newlywed couple spent their honeymoon in Napa County, California. For two months, they lived in an old bunkhouse at the abandoned Silverado mine camp, on a hill overlooking the town of St. Helena. It was a very romantic period of their lives. There Fanny painted, and Stevenson wrote The Silverado Squatters, considered one of his finest works.
Initially, the news of their marriage was of great concern to the pious, uppercrust Stevenson family in Edinburgh. Fanny was more than ten years older than RLS, she was divorced, she had dependent children, and she was an American. Once Stevenson took his bride home to Edinburgh to meet them, though, they immediately took to her. The were grateful to find Stevenson looking much healthier than when they last saw him. Her father-in-law was so impressed with her literary judgment that he made his son promise never to publish anything without her approval.
The Stevensons traveled constantly for nearly a decade after their marriage, trying to find a climate that would provide some relief for his bronchiectasis. They spent time at health resorts in England, Scotland, France, the United States, and Hawai’i. In 1880, they finally found a place that seemed to ease Stevenson’s symptoms in Western Samoa, an island country in the South Pacific Ocean now known as the Independent State of Samoa. While Stevenson wrote, Fanny went to work turning their rustic plantation beneath Mount Vaea into yet another comfortable home for her family. In addition to refining her already well-established gardening, sewing, and culinary skills, she also worked at further developing her talents for drawing, painting, and writing.
In 1893, Fanny, Robert, Isobel, and Robert’s mother, Margaret, traveled to Sydney, Australia. This was Stevenson’s last trip off the island.
Robert Louis Stevenson died on Monday, December 3, 1894, not from his respiratory problems but from apoplexy. He was buried on the island, surrounded by family and their many newfound Samoan friends. Fanny would spend the rest of her life seeing to it that his writings were published and promoted. Most of Stevenson’s best-known works had been written after he met Fanny.
Six years after Stevenson’s death, Fanny returned to San Francisco. In 1900, she commissioned a noted architect of the day, Willis Polk, to design her Russian Hill mansion. The house at Hyde Street and Lombard Street (“the crookedest street in the world”) is still standing.
Fanny’s final residence was in Santa Barbara, California, which she named Stonehedge. She moved there in 1908. Her companion and protégé for the last decade of her life was another Indianapolis native, Edward Salisbury Field Jr. (1878-1936). “Ned” was an author, playwright, artist, and poet, as well as a real estate developer. His parents had known Fanny in her early years in Indianapolis. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne Stevenson died on February 18, 1914. Interestingly, her cause of death was also apoplexy.
Fanny’s children and friends took her ashes to Samoa, where her remains were buried alongside Stevenson’s. Ned Field married Fanny’s daughter Isobel six months after Fanny’s passing. Although Belle was nineteen years older, she outlived Ned by more than sixteen years.
There are at least three museums dedicated to preserving the memory of Robert Louis Stevenson. One is the Silverado Museum in St. Helena, California, whose website you can visit here. A second is the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Apia, Samoa, whose website you can visit here. A third is the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland, which celebrates the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott, whose website you can visit here.
Fanny’s influence on Stevenson has been a subject of debate for the past one-hundred and thirty years. Her detractors claim that she was an overpowering woman who controlled him. Her advocates say she was his muse, lover, best friend, editor, nurse, and travel companion. It’s unlikely that Stevenson would have lived as long as he did or been as productive as he was without having had Fanny at his side. Stevenson’s own words may have said it best.