“All things must pass,” sang George Harrison and one of his friends said that “the only thing that’s permanent is change.” Both observations seem to be correct and for two years, two couples who summered in the quaint French riverside village of Grez-sur-Loing were living it up while they could in an impossible dream that they knew couldn’t last. Robert Louis Stevenson from Scotland had discovered there, in the garden behind Chévillons’ inn, the love of his life, Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, from California. Fanny had developed her own feelings for the young Louis who came with physical defects including bleeding lungs. His staying power was in doubt.
Biographers like to debate with themselves if Fanny’s commitment to Louis was possibly more grounded in pity than romantics, that maybe in Louis she had found someone to care for, to fill the vacuum left inside after the tragic death of her five-year-old boy, Hervey, in Paris. That event is actually what had precipitated the presence of Fanny in Grez in the summer of 1876 where she had to be since Fanny was destined to meet Robert Louis Stevenson there. Only then could the two of them provide material for the hit novel from France, Romance of Destiny by Alexandra La Pierre (1995).
When Fanny went to Grez, she had brought her two surviving children, Isobel or “Belle,” 17, and her brother Lloyd, eight. Grez was an artist colony, and there Belle encountered the first big love of her life who was also one of the countless cronies of her mother’s new boyfriend. Frank O’Meara was an Irish painter and Belle loved to talk about him in her autobiography, “This Life I’ve Loved:”
“Frank O’Meara, an Irish boy of twenty was the next arrival at the Hotel Chévillon. He too praised Louis to the skies. This handsome youth, in his rough country tweeds, knitted stockings and stout brogues, with a blue béret on his curly head and a blackthorn shillalah in his hand, distracted me somewhat …
“He was a devout Catholic and often led me into the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where after crossing ourselves with holy water we would light a candle to Saint Anthony, and beg him to postpone the day of parting that we knew was ahead of us …
“I don’t know why my mother decided to return to California; she never told me, but suddenly we were leaving. This beautiful adventure was over and I thought my heart would break.”
It would be naive to think that Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t feel the same way, but he wasn’t about to accept that anything was over.
There was another casualty. Lloyd Osbourne, a future president of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, was only eight and crazy about his new ‘big brother’ “Luly,” his personal handle for Louis Stevenson. Never had he imagined what ‘Fun’ could really entail until Luly came along. Luly accompanied the Osbournes from France to London and then to Chelsea, last stop en route to the ship leaving from Liverpool for New York. When he was all grown up Lloyd wrote his own book called an “Intimate Portrait of R.L.S.” in which he relived that day of departure in August, 1878:
“But when the time came I had my own tragedy of parting, and the picture lives with me as clearly as though it were yesterday. We were standing in front of our compartment, and the moment to say good-bye had come. It was terribly short and sudden and final, and before I could realize it, R.L.S. was walking down the long length of the platform, a diminishing figure in a brown ulster. My eyes followed him hoping that he would look back. But he never turned, and finally disappeared in the crowd. Words cannot express the sense of bereavement, of desolation that suddenly struck at my heart. I knew I would never see him again.”
Ms. Alexandra La Pierre does a fine job summing up Fanny’s situation in her book “Romance of Destiny:”
“Fanny had ceased to exist. At her side, forehead against the glass, Belle was sobbing with rage and pain. Her mother sat silently, rocked by the motion of the train. Matronly and shrewish, aging and unloved, she would die with a man she despised. This journey to France was a hideous failure. Yet she had found what she had come to find–a destiny worthy of her. Life had won out and she renounced it.
“Without talent, without a career, without Hervey, Mrs. Sam Osbourne was sailing into the void. She was returning to her point of departure, this time without hope.”
“Travels with a Donkey Part 2” will run April 18.