‘The Wild Woman of the West’
“My life resembles a wild ride on the crest of a wave that rolls on and never breaks.”
— Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, 1903
“Leaving her philandering husband in San Francisco, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne sets sail for Belgium–her three children in tow–to start a new life. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson … 10 years her junior …”
So begins the text on the back cover of a Ballantine Books hit called “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” by Nancy Horan. Since its appearance in 2014, a smattering of its readers, exclusively women, have made their way to the Stevenson Cottage in Saranac Lake, N.Y., because of Fanny (nickname for Francesca), not Louis. The American woman who would take Robert Louis Stevenson as her second husband achieved recognition on her own merits while the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson is on record as one of the more enduring true life love stories to survive the 19th century.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky is a good read but not the first book on the subject — or the second or third. For its fans who want more, a predecessor by the title “A Romance of Destiny” came from France, in French, English translation the same year, 1995. By Alexandra La Pierre, it too sent readers, exclusively women, to the Stevenson Cottage at Baker’s, again because of Fanny, not Louis. La Pierre’s book comes with considerable historical value. Although partly fictional in form, it is based on meticulous research and has been a mine for information on Fanny’s life before she met RLS. In her own words, “I lived with Fanny for five years, following her across the world, tracking her more than 60,000 miles. I visited all the places she had lived except Davos, Bournemouth, and certain islands in the Pacific (and Saranac Lake!) … the facts conveyed here are strictly true and indicated in the Notes are the reasons for the few guesses I had to make when I could not be certain of what happened, as well as an explanation of my hypotheses and my choices.” Too bad for Ms. La Pierre that she skipped Baker’s because therein are several personal mementos from her subject which would have mightily impressed her.
When it came to younger men, Fanny seemed to have the gravitational force of Jupiter. After the sudden death of RLS in 1894, she had more than one ‘male companion.’ The last of these, Edward Salisbury Field, showed up at Baker’s in 1917, bearing gifts for the brand new Stevenson Society along with his wife, Mrs. Isobel Field who was Fanny’s daughter, therefore, the author’s stepdaughter. ‘Ned’ Field was 34 and ‘Belle’ was 56 when they betrothed not too long after Fanny’s death at age 74 in Santa Barbara, California.
Ned Field, illustrator, dramatist, and screen writer for George Cukor’s production of “Little Women” left a lengthy account of his first encounter with Mrs. RLS, the widow, in January 1903, in an avant-garde bookstore in San Francisco. He began it with a dramatic statement:
“She was the only woman in the world worth dying for … I was 23 years old, I had just spent six months in Paris, and I thought I knew all the excesses of Bohemian life. As a young woman she must have been pretty, by this time she was beautiful … her barbarous jewelry … her heavy, fixed gaze, she was reminiscent of a tropical plant, a world of lilies, of vines and flowers–intense and vivacious, ageless and nameless. Despite her somewhat precious manners … this woman exuded a scent of savagery, and I remember telling myself that this creature must have had mysterious powers that ought not to be toyed with. Furthermore, she was infinitely modest. …I saw passing beneath the whimsical plumes of her hat an amber Napoleonic profile, with no hint of a smile. …I had not spent a day in San Francisco without hearing about her. Her many adventures, her voyages, her scandals, her relationship with one of the most admired writers of her generation provided for endless articles, literary gossip, vulgar tattle.” It goes on.
“I had come across the rude pioneer of the Far West, the gold seeker of American legend. Perched on her wagon in the Nevada deserts, her Winchester on her knees. …I had also encountered descriptions of an artist painter of the Barbizon School during the torched Paris of the Commune, penniless rival of Corot, student with Marie Bashkirtseff at the Academie Julian. And I had been told the story of a cacao planter on a Samoan island, who had dared to support the rights of the natives against the interest of the whites … she was an old classmate of my mother and the only person from Indianapolis who might further my interests in the world. When I had left Los Angeles, where my family had settled, to live in San Francisco, my parents had strongly advised me to pay her a visit. …I hadn’t the slightest intuition that … I was toying with my fate …”
“How can I accept that today, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1914, I closed her eyes for the last time? She was 74 years old, and I thought she was immortal … For someone who refuses mediocrity, Fanny was simply the only woman in the world. To have known her, to have loved her, would have given meaning enough to a man’s life. But to have been loved by her!” Here Ned Field’s narration ends.
Andrew Baker left no known record of any similar feelings he may have felt toward Fanny when Destiny brought them face-to-face somewhere around Berkeley Square in Saranac Lake on a late summer day in 1887. He might have wanted to write something down but it would have been risky on account of Mary, his wife. The only record we have about Fanny at Baker’s by the Bakers comes from Bertha, one of the couple’s twin daughters, sister of Blanche, 10 years of age in 1887. In a letter to Mr. Duncan in 1899, Bertha recalled the day that changed their lives. It was “an accidental meeting. Papa was on his way to town and on reaching the village, he saw one of his neighbours standing in the street talking to Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson. It seems this gentleman had just given directions to Mrs. S. as to finding our house. He then said that she could speak with Papa since he was coming. She did so and arrangements were made for rental of (half) the house.” The only other reference to Fanny was in comparison to the author’s mother, Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, or just Maggie. “We all liked Mrs. Stevenson, the mother of the author, very much. She seemed more like an American than his wife, who was very quiet.”
Right there Bertha hit the nail on the head with two words–“very quiet”–but a noticeable quiet that inspired a nickname, ‘the Sphinx,’ in girlhood. Fanny’s “silences” were loud, as Ned Salisbury put it, “her heavy, fixed gaze … this woman exuded a scent of savagery … this creature must have had mysterious powers that ought not to be toyed with.”
At 29 years of age, Robert Louis Stevenson would brag about this woman as:
Trusty, dusky, vivid, true
With eyes of gold and bramble-dew,
Steel-true and blade-straight
The great artificer
Made my mate.
Honour, anger, valour, fire;
A love that life could never tire,
Death quench or evil stir,
The mighty master
Gave to her.
Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life
Heart-whole and soul-free
The august father
Gave to me.
Before Louis could claim his prize, he would have to make his hero’s journey.