Book review: Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
If you’re looking for an epic love story filled with adventure that takes in Europe, North America and Polynesia along the way, and that has at its heart a real couple, Under the Wide and Starry Sky could be just the book for you. If you’re a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry or prose, even better, because this is Nancy Horan’s brilliant fictionalisation of his meeting and subsequent marriage to Fanny van de Grift.
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent, and opinionated belle Americaine.
A woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature rather than the law – and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair – marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness that spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health following their art and dreams eventually settling in Samoa where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried, with these words on his grave:
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 sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
(Requiem, Robert Louis Stevenson)
The first thing that struck me on reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky was how well Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny van de Grift are brought alive on the page. They are both larger than life characters – Fanny had to be to be any kind of match for Robert – but Nancy Horan not only seems to have found their voices in the pages of their diaries and letters she used in her research but she’s been able to capture the essence of those and channel them into Under a Wide and Starry Sky by writing situations, conversation and behaviour that all seem to hold true.
She gives Fanny her fair share of space in the book, too, which is only right and proper. Fanny was a remarkable woman: a pioneer not only in spirit but more importantly in action, and ahead of her time. She’s a bold, strong woman, who has left the security of (admittedly, a bad) marriage to drag herself and her children across the Atlantic to Europe in pursuit of her artistic ambitions. It’s a brilliantly daring thing to do, and you have to admire her for it. But while she may seem impetuous and wilful, this doesn’t mean she’s easily won over by Robert Louis Stevenson and it’s interesting to see how he’s the one to pursue her, and has to work hard to convince her that they should be together. Of course, even when they do come together, theirs was never going to be an easy partnership; they have real obstacles to overcome and the life of two creatives trying to make a living was never going to be easy, even before you add in the health problems that dog them.
It is at all times a battle of two very strong wills, but theirs is always an intense and passionate love affair, both intellectually and emotionally, to the end. Nancy Horan has done a wonderful job of capturing the spirit, liveliness and passion of Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny van de Grift, and brought them back to life for us within the pages of Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Which is no mean feat when the world they travelled across in search of a place to rest, a place to call home, never seemed big enough to contain them even under that wide and starry sky.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan is published by Two Roads, an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton. It’s available in hardback and paperback and as an ebook and audiobook from Amazon UK, Audible UK (audio download) Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. For more information and updates on the author and her books, check out her Author Website or Facebook Page. There’s also a Pinterest board with more photos of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny here. I originally received a copy of this book for review from the publisher through NetGalley but have since bought copies of it for myself and friends, and for the giveaway below.
I have one copy of Under the Wide and Starry Sky to give away. Leave a comment below with a valid email address so I can contact you and I’ll pick a winner at 5pm on 9 December.