Wednesday 17 August 2016

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Finished August 13
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan, read by Kirsten Potter

This fictional biography is based on the lives of Fanny van de Grift Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson. As the book begins Fanny has taken a ship to Europe with her children, ostensibly for her and her teenage daughter Belle to study art, but the real reason was to get away from her husband who was openly cheating on her. Fanny had married young and impetuously and while she still admires many qualities of her husband, she cannot live with his weaknesses.
In Europe, she is still a woman unsure of herself, and her uncertainties show in her interactions with men, obviously looking for confirmation of her attractiveness, as well as her rebelliousness, shown in one way as she openly smokes in an age where women did not do so. Fanny is an unconventional woman, and it may be this that draws the interest of Stevenson to her. He was a decade younger than her, and a bit of a rebel himself, choosing to be a writer rather than the lawyer he was trained to be or the engineer his family had hoped he would be.
Their relationship goes through much drama as Fanny first rebuffs him, then accepts him, then returns to her husband to try to make the marriage work, then finds herself no better off and looks to Louis for support again.
Louis has had health issues since he was a child, and while he has periods where he is well, he has relapses where he is near death. Fanny often takes on the role of nurse to him during these periods, where she can be selfless in her care for him, but she is also a woman highly sensitive to the opinions and judgments of others. She is very emotional and nonconformist, and very capable, but also a woman who worries about her own worth in the eyes of others.
I found this book very interesting, particularly in terms of the life of Stevenson, whom I knew very little about personally prior to this. I had recently read a book, To Travel Hopefully, that references Stevenson's journey from his book Travels with a Donkey, which had intrigued me to buy that book, currently waiting on my shelf to be read.
This novel goes beyond that experience of Stevenson and follows him and Fanny through their lives as they eventually marry, as Stevenson writes the books that made him famous, and as they search for an environment that will be beneficial to Stevenson's health. They were an unconventional couple who did many things that were extraordinary for their times. This book brings them to life, in all their complexity, and draws this reader beyond to search out the books that related to the different times in their lives.
Stevenson wrote the poem that was drawn on for the title of this novel:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
A poem well known for the last two lines, but whose origins and meaning are entwined with Fanny and Louis' relationship.

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