Travels with a donkey, part II

Robert Louis Stevenson and Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne had crossed paths in France, in the summer of 1876. There they discovered that life seemed better when they were living together. Ever the optimist, Louis had thought of themselves as Mr. and Mrs. from the start. Unfortunately, the obstacles were enormous including Fanny’s resolve to renounce the affair on pragmatic grounds against the inevitable day of reckoning, the day when the Facts of Life would win out again and Fanny would be forced to let it all go while putting a lot of space between them. But until then …

There was something about these two lovers that has had universal appeal to later generations since their story continues to be celebrated in various ways while predictions are rampant that a movie is coming … someday. In 1998, the late five-time Tony Award winning Actress, Julie Harris, came to the Stevenson Cottage, not once but twice. The first thing Ms. Harris said, still coming through the door, was that she had once played the part of Fanny Stevenson in a play.

But in the Fall of 1878, only one stubborn individual refused to give up believing in a future for L. Stevenson and F. Osbourne and he couldn’t be found because he was somewhere in southern France walking around with a donkey. From Graham Balfour’s biography of his cousin called Life of Robert Louis Stevenson: “All was dark before them. Fanny was not free to follow her inclination, and though the step of seeking a divorce was open to her, yet the interests and feelings of others had to be considered, and for the present all idea of a union was impossible. Stevenson, on his side, was still far from earning his own livelihood and could not expect his parents to give their assistance or even their consent to the marriage.”

Why not?! Besides the stigma of the prospect of divorce in Victorian Scotland, Fanny was probably the antithesis of everything Stevenson’s parents would have visualized for a daughter-in-law. They probably never dreamed in their worst nightmare, that their boy might bring home a married woman ten years his senior, an ‘American’ with two kids, who smoked cigarettes, carried a gun, and didn’t have a job. No wonder Thomas and Margaret never got to meet Fanny until she could call them Mom and Dad.

But Stevenson’s parents knew about her. They prayed that their son’s interest in Fanny was a passing infatuation and thought it was a minor victory if they could just keep it all secret. What happens in France, stays in France–that was their motto. What a relief it was when they heard that their boy’s “Wild woman of the West” was actually going west, all the way back to California, six thousand miles away, an ocean and a continent in between. They wanted so hard to believe it was over.

Thomas and Margaret Stevenson were doomed to once again pay the price for underestimating the will of their son who went around saying and believing that to live life in safety, behind the walls, is not living, just existing. He believed and would demonstrate that to really live, means that if you can’t find what you want behind the wall, then you have to go over it beyond the ramparts and into the unknown to get it. To chase your dream even if it kills you is what RLS was all about and the reason his parents would grow old faster. Like Louis said, “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in the labor.”