Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

by Nancy Horan


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From Nancy Horan, New York Times bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes her much-anticipated second novel, which tells the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny.
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires.  Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.”
Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen 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 the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales.

Praise for Under the Wide and Starry Sky
“A richly imagined [novel] of love, laughter, pain and sacrifice . . . [Fanny Osbourne] kidnapped Robert Louis Stevenson’s heart.”USA Today
“Powerful . . . flawless . . . a perfect example of what a man and a woman will do for love, and what they can accomplish when it’s meant to be.”Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Spectacular . . . an exhilarating epic about a free-spirited couple who traveled the world yet found home only in one another.”Booklist (starred review)
“Horan’s prose is gorgeous enough to keep a reader transfixed, even if the story itself weren’t so compelling. I kept re-reading passages just to savor the exquisite wordplay. . . . Few writers are as masterful as she is at blending carefully researched history with the novelist’s art.”The Dallas Morning News
“A classic artistic bildungsroman and a retort to the genre, a novel that shows how love and marriage can simultaneously offer inspiration and encumbrance.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Nancy Horan has done it again, capturing the entwined lives of Fanny Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson so uncannily, it reads like truth.”—Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress
“Horan has a distinct knack for evoking the rich, complicated lives of long-gone artists and the women who inspired them.”Entertainment Weekly
“Fanny and Louis are wild-hearted seekers, and Nancy Horan traces their incredible journey fearlessly, plunging us through decades, far-flung continents, and chilling brushes with death. Ambitious and often breathtaking, this sweeping story spills over with spirited, uncompromising life.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345516534
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/21/2014
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 1,277,615
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Nancy Horan is the author of Loving Frank. She is also a journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications. She has two sons, and lives with her husband on an island in Puget Sound.

Read an Excerpt


“Where are the dogs?” Sammy asked, staring up at her.

Fanny Osbourne stood at the boat’s rail, holding an umbrella against the August drizzle. Her feet were planted apart, and each of her boys leaned against a leg. Around them, a forest of masts creaked in the dark harbor. She searched the distance for the shape of a city. Here and there smudges of light promised Antwerp was waiting, just beyond the pier.

“We’ll see the dogs tomorrow,” she told him.

“Are they sleeping now?” the boy asked.

“Yes, they’re surely sleeping.”

Lanterns illuminated the other passengers, whose weary faces reflected her own fatigue. After a ten-day Atlantic crossing, she and the children had transferred to this paddleboat for the tail end of their journey, across the English Channel to Antwerp. Now they huddled on deck among the others—mostly American and English businessmen—waiting for some sign that they could disembark.

Fanny had begun spinning stories about the famous cart-pulling dogs of Antwerp soon after they boarded the ship in New York. As her sons’ patience waned during the long trip, the dogs’ feats became increasingly more fantastic. They swam out to sea to rescue the drowning, dug through the mud to unearth gold, gripped trousers in their teeth and pulled old men out of burning buildings. When they weren’t busy delivering milk around town, the dogs carried children through the cobblestone streets, calling upon bakers who handed out sugar-dusted cakes and apple fritters. Now, moored a few yards away from the great port city, Fanny hoped that the dogcart was not a thing of the past in Antwerp these days.

“Eleven o’clock,” said Mr. Hendricks, the baby-faced surgeon from New York who stood nearby, eyeing his pocket watch. “I suspect we won’t be getting off this boat tonight.” They watched a cluster of customs officials exchange heated Flemish with the captain of their channel steamer.

“Do you understand what’s happening?” Fanny asked.

“The Belgians are refusing to inspect anyone’s trunks until tomorrow.”

“That’s impossible! There aren’t enough beds on this little boat for all of us.”

The surgeon shrugged. “What can one do? I am philosophical about these things.”

“And I am not,” she muttered. “The children are exhausted.”

“Shall I try to secure sleeping cabins for you?” Mr. Hendricks asked, his pretty features wreathed in concern.

The doctor had been kind to Fanny from the moment she’d met him at dinner the first evening of the voyage. “Why, art!” she responded when he asked what had prompted her journey. “Culture. Isn’t that the reason Americans travel to Europe?” The man had stared intently at her across the table, as if deciding whether she was mad or heroic for bringing her three children abroad for an entire year.

“My daughter and I will study figure drawing and painting,” she’d explained. “I want her to have classical training with the best.”

“Ah,” he said knowingly, “you, too, then, are a voluntary exile. I come for the same reason—the best of everything Europe has to offer. This year it’s Paris in the autumn, then Italy for the winter.”

She had watched him maneuver a forkful of peas into his mouth and wondered when he had time to work. He was a bachelor and quite rich, judging from his itinerary and impeccable clothes. His soft black ringlets framed an unlined forehead, round pink cheeks, and the lips of a putto. She had glanced at Sammy next to her, pushing his peas onto a spoon with his left thumb. “Watch how Mr. Hendricks does it,” she whispered in the boy’s ear.

“I can see you have mettle, Mrs. Osbourne,” the surgeon said. “Do you have any French?”

“I don’t, but Belle knows a little.”

Hendricks emitted a worried hum. “If the Old World is to work its magic you’ll need to learn the language. Flemish is spoken in Belgium, but French is a close second. If you plan to travel at all, that’s the better language.”

“Then we all must learn it.”

Having determined the fastest route to the mother’s affections, the surgeon smilingly made his offer. “I would be happy to teach you a few phrases.” Every afternoon for the remainder of the journey, he had conducted language lessons for her and the children in the ship’s library.

Now she told Hendricks, “Don’t ask about the sleeping accommodations quite yet. Give me a few moments.”

Fanny glanced over at her daughter, Belle, who shared an umbrella with the nanny. She beckoned the girl, then bent down to her older boy. “Go to Miss Kate, Sammy,” she said. “You, too, Hervey.” She lifted the three-year-old and carried him to the governess. “Do keep in the background with the children, Kate,” Fanny told the young woman, who took Harvey into her arms. “It’s best the officials don’t see our whole entourage. Belle, you come with me.”

The girl’s eyes pleaded as she ducked under her mother’s umbrella. “Do I have to?”

“You needn’t say a word.” Looking distraught would be no challenge for Belle right now. The wind had whipped the girl’s dark hair into a bird’s nest. Brown crescents hung below her eyes. “We’re almost there, darlin’.” Fanny Osbourne grabbed her daughter’s hand and pushed through a sea of shoulders to reach the circle of officials. Of the Belgians, only one—a lanky gray-headed man—had a promising aspect. He started with surprise when Fanny rested a gloved hand on his forearm. “Do you understand English, sir?” she asked him.

He nodded.

“We are ladies traveling alone.”

The official, a foot taller than she, stared down at her, rubbing his forehead. Beneath the hand cupped over his brow, his eyes traveled artlessly from her mouth to her waist.

“We have come all the way from New York and have experienced nothing but chivalry from the English officers on our ship. Surely there must be some way . . .”

The Belgian shifted from foot to foot while he looked off to the side of her head.

“Sir,” Fanny said, engaging his eyes. “Sir, we entrust ourselves to your courtesy.”

In a matter of minutes, the plump little surgeon was trundling their luggage onto the pier. On deck, the other passengers fumed as a customs man lifted the lids of Fanny’s trunks, gave the contents a perfunctory glance, and motioned for her party to move through the gate.

“Bastards!” someone shouted at the officials as Fanny and her family, along with Mr. Hendricks, followed a porter who loaded their trunks on a cart and led them toward an open horse-drawn wagon with enormous wheels.

Near the terminal, masses of people waited beneath a metal canopy. Women in head scarves sat on stuffed grain sacks clutching their earthly valuables: babies, food baskets, rosaries, satchels. One woman clasped a violin case to her chest.

“They come from all over,” said the surgeon as he helped the children into the wagon. “They’re running from some war or potato field. This is their last stop before America. You can be sure the pickpockets are working tonight.”

Fanny shuddered. Her hand went to her breast to make certain the pouch of bills sewn into her corset was secure, and then to her skirt pocket, where she felt the smooth curve of her derringer.

“Take them to the Hôtel St. Antoine,” Hendricks ordered the driver as the last trunk was hoisted into the back of the vehicle. He turned to Fanny. “When you know where you will be staying permanently, leave a forwarding address at the desk. I will write to you from Paris.” He squeezed her hand, then lifted her into the wagon. “Take care of yourself, dear lady.”

Less than an hour later, ensconced in the only available room of the hotel, she stepped behind a screen, untied her corset, and groaned with relief as it dropped to the floor, money pouch and all. She threw a nightgown over her head and climbed into bed between her slumbering boys. In the narrow bed an arm’s length away, Belle’s head protruded from one end of the sheet, while Miss Kate’s open mouth sent up a snore from the other.

Fanny leaned against the headboard, eyes open. It had been a harrowing monthlong journey to get to this bed. Twelve days’ travel on one rock-hard train seat after another from California to Indianapolis. A few days’ respite at her parents’ house, followed by a mad dash by wagon across flooded rivers to catch the train to New York before their tickets expired.

Six thousand miles lay between Fanny and her husband. Whether he would send her money, as he had promised, was uncertain. Tomorrow she would think about that. Tomorrow she would enroll herself and Belle at the art academy and wangle a ride on a dogcart for the boys. Tomorrow she would find a cheap apartment and begin a new life.

She got out of bed and went to the window. Across the square, Notre Dame Cathedral soared above the other night shapes of Antwerp. The rain had stopped, and the unclouded moon poured white light through the lacy stone cutwork of the church spire. When the cathedral bells rang out midnight, she caught her breath. She had believed in signs since she was a girl. The clanging, loud and joyful as Christmas matins, hit her marrow and set loose a month’s worth of tears.

If that isn’t a good omen, she thought, I don’t know what is.

She climbed back into bed, slid down between her boys, and slept at last.

Reading Group Guide


Lauren Belfer is the author of the novels A Fierce Radiance (a Washington Post Best Novel of the Year, an NPR Best Mystery of the Year, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice Book) and City of Light (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Times bestseller). She lives in New York City.
Lauren Belfer: When I first heard that Under the Wide and Starry Sky was about Robert Louis Stevenson, I thought—perfect, I’ll be spending time with an old friend. Was I ever wrong about that! Under the Wide and Starry Sky captures a Stevenson I never imagined and a story I never knew, a story that’s filled with adventure, anguish, and heartbreak. How did you discover the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne?
Nancy Horan: I was visiting the Monterey Bay area and discovered that Stevenson had lived there in 1879. I wondered what the Scottish author of Treasure Island was doing there. I soon learned that he had come to California seeking to marry an American woman he had met in France. Naturally I was curious about the woman. Who was this Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne who so upended Stevenson’s life? I did some initial research about both of them, and when I learned about their amazing life together, I knew I had the concept for my next novel.
LB: Writing a book requires passion and commitment, especially when you’re exploring such a rich, almost overwhelming, subject. What was it about this particular story that touched you so deeply that you wanted to devote years to researching and writing it?
NH: The fact that the story was sweeping was part of the attraction. Louis and Fanny’s life together resembled a Stevenson historical romance, along the lines of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. In fact, Henry James worried after Louis’s death that his adventurous life might overshadow the importance of his work. I was very interested in the artistic pursuits of both Louis and Fanny and the course those pursuits took. Most of all I was drawn by the love story between these two very different people from different backgrounds, each of whom possessed enormous grit. In the end, I saw it as an exploration of a long-lasting partnership between two creative people that was marked by joy, conflict, huge difficulties, and devotion.
LB: How did you go about doing your research? Did you follow in Louis and Fanny’s footsteps and travel the world? Or at least part of the world? Did you immerse yourself in their letters, journals, and diaries?
NH: I began by reading a wonderful biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, J. C. Furnas’s Voyage to Windward. I also read Margaret Mackay’s The Violent Friend, a biography of Fanny.Those two fine books gave me an overview and convinced me that the story of Louis and Fanny was one worthy of novelization. Biographies are helpful as starting points, but I am cautious because I think biographers sometimes bring their own biases to their work. I always go to primary sources to do the real research, because I want to get it right and draw my own conclusions. I read Louis’s papers at Yale University and Fanny’s unpublished letters at the University of California-Berkeley. Stevenson’s letters are published in eight volumes and I read those. And I did follow in their footsteps by visiting many of the places they lived in the U.S. and Europe, including Louis’s boyhood home in Edinburgh, which is now a bed and breakfast. Different landscapes and cultures exerted powerful influences on both of them, so it was useful to experience those places.
LB: Were Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels a resource for you? Did you study the novels to gain insights into his values and beliefs?
NH: A great joy during the research process was reading as much of Stevenson’s work as possible. He was a literary athlete who produced some thirteen novels, a large number of shorts stories, and many wonderful essays. He was fearless about trying different genres, and he wrote poetry and music as well. In his stories and novels, Stevenson is a master at showing the moral complexity of his characters. The most obvious example is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the wicked pirate Long John Silver is also capable of kindness in Treasure Island. This complexity runs through his later stories that were written in Samoa, such as The Beach of  Falesa, which is narrated by a bigoted copra trader, stationed in Falesa by his firm, who falls in love with a native woman and finds himself the father of mixed-race children. He cares about his kids and knows that if he were to return to England with his family, they would face discrimination. So he remains in the islands. He states at the end of the story that he still prefers the company of whites, but that opinion is not borne out by the facts of his life. He is changed to a degree, even if he can’t recognize it. Stevenson is dealing with issues close to his heart in this story: his disdain for class distinctions and his deep concerns about the impact of colonization upon the native people of the South Seas. What interests me is that he chose to tell the story from the trader’s point of view.
LB: Many readers wonder about the line between fact and fiction in “historical fiction.” When letters, journals, and diaries are available, do you quote the actual words of your characters, the way a biographer might? Do you have any personal rules to guide you, when you put real people into scenes and conversations that are imaginary?
NH: My general rule is that because these were real people, I try to get it as right as I can. I feel I owe it to them. I stick to agreed-upon facts as a framework, because it was the historical story that drew me in the first place. The dialogue is invented, except for a few quotes. When I use these lines I put them into the mouths of the people who spoke them. If I quote from a diary or letter, I put it in italics, and if it is more than a couple of sentences, I make note of it in the Afterword. Because Louis was a prolific letter writer and Fanny was a diary keeper, I was sometimes able to write dialogue informed by how the characters were feeling at the time. But people are not always forthcoming in their written correspondence or diaries. Even with the rich resource material available for this book, much interpretation and imagining took place.
LB: To me, writing about real people is both a blessing and a curse: The writer knows what’s going to happen, which removes the burden of making up a plot—that’s the blessing part. But the writer still has to create suspense, for herself as well as for the reader, even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion. That’s not easy. Your books are highly suspenseful. What do you focus on to build suspense?
NH: Ah, you are so right about that mixed blessing. I am drawn to big personalities and stories with powerful arcs that are visible to me when I set out, so I mostly know where the story is going and I feel that because these people are fascinating to me, they have the potential to be fascinating to others. That’s the blessing. The challenge is in finding the inherent conflicts and shaping the story in such a way that the reader feels tension and wonders: What will these people do next? Some of their struggles are against forces (health, nature) over which they have limited control, while other struggles arise out of their flaws. It’s these personal frailties that are especially interesting to me and that lead to tension. The suspense flows out of the uncertainty one feels about complicated personalities who are given to unpredictable choices. And it flows out of having two points of view alternately telling the tale.
LB: I’ve read that one of your goals in a novel is to show people confronting the consequences of their actions and choices. Robert Louis Stevenson is credited with a wonderful quote, “Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.” How do you go about creating this sense of reckoning through the course of a novel?
NH: Once I’ve settled on the narrative arc of the story and who will tell it, I follow the characters on their journeys—and in the case of Under the Wide and Starry Sky, the whole book is an account of Fanny and Louis’s individual and joint journeys. In writing each piece of their story I observed the decisions they made and the consequences of those choices. Sometimes the choices reflect the character’s strengths, and other times their weaknesses. I don’t judge the characters—that’s key.
I try to understand why they chose to act in certain ways and to feel things with them as they move forward. Though I map out the plot and know how it will end, there is a process of discovery going on the whole time. I may see new connections between actual events, or notice unexpected themes rising up on their own. Over the course of the book there are actions, ideas, and words that ideally reverberate across the chapters so that by the end, there is a certain inevitability about the denouement.
LB: You and I both published our first novels when we were beyond our twenties. When did you begin to write fiction? Do you have a collection of unpublished novels in your closet? What types of jobs did you do before you wrote Loving Frank?
NH: I love that phrase—beyond our twenties! My first career was as an English teacher. Later, I worked as a freelance writer in the Chicago area when my children were small and I wanted to work part-time from home. I did primarily newspaper feature stories, though I also co-authored a book on garden design. About ten years into my journalism career, I decided to take a couple of fiction classes through the University of Chicago, and that’s where I caught the bug. I had no idea when I began writing Loving Frank that my future work would be called “historical fiction.” I simply wanted to tell a fascinating and powerful story about real people in novel form. Now I know that I’m drawn to foreign times and places, and that the pleasure of research in tandem with the writing will keep me hooked for the five or so years I require to write a novel. There are no unfinished novels sitting in a desk drawer, but there is one in my head.
LB: What novels have inspired you over the course of your life?
NH: So many books have inspired me. I recall reading a book called The  Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy in fourth grade that moved me greatly. It was about a young Hungarian prince, a boy who had everything until the Nazis took over and his life fell apart. Recently my husband hunted down a copy and gave it to me as a gift. It was interesting to discover that it’s historical fiction, for I had little interest in history as a kid, but the human drama was enormously compelling to me. Another book I loved when I was young was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. In high school I got hooked on books by the Brontës—Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in particular. Crime and  Punishment knocked me over when I was induced to read it by a wonderful high school teacher. Later, in college, I majored in English and I was fed a steady diet of the classics. Nothing compares to the value of a massive infusion of beautiful language into a young, receptive brain. I benefited from it all, especially Dickens and Shakespeare. American writers helped me locate my voice and exposed me to great style. Hemingway’s work led me to prefer spare language. I was also drawn to the Southern women writers—Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter— who were such witty and clever storytellers. Here was a whole collection of writers who didn’t flinch from portraying disturbing characters and events. Over the years, there have been many more books that moved and inspired me, but exposure early on to the ones I’ve mentioned influenced me most as a writer.
LB: I’m always curious about the daily routines of writers. How do you structure your time? Do you turn off Internet access when you work? Do you have any tricks for taking yourself out of the everyday world and entering the private universe of your imagination?
NH: There are some people who produce two pages a day; others who work from eight to two. I don’t belong in either category. I stay connected to the story rather intensely. I may work two hours or ten, but I think about the work continually. I give myself mental breaks, of course, especially when I’m stuck. When that happens, I get away from the whole thing to clear my brain so I can see with new eyes when I return to it. As for entering a private universe, a quiet space and a laptop or legal pad are all that’s required. Long solo walks are important, too. A lot of writing problems get solved on foot.

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any point in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and Louis enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. “Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache; at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that was once my grandfather’s,” wrote Louis, in an 1885 letter describing John Singer Sargent’s painting Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife. “It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited.” If you can, look  up  Sargent’s  painting  (http://www.jssgallery.org/paintings/robert_louis_stevenson_and_his_wife.htm; 1885; Steve Wynn collection); or just consider Louis’s description above. What do you think of this portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does Louis do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does—her gardening for example, of which she writes in her diary, “a blossom on my rose tree is like a poem written by my son”—is not that of an artist. Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art to be, and how does it manifest itself and impact those around her? Do you agree with her views?

10. Why do you think Horan chooses “Out of my country and myself I go” as the epigraph for this book?

11. What is Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary legacy? In what ways does reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky change your view of him and his writing?

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