Robert Louis Stevenson in California - the Love Story
In 1876 an American woman was traveling in Europe with her three children under the financial support from her Oakland, California husband. She and her daughter were in Paris seeking art lessons and this woman, Fanny Osbourne Van der Grift, was to later become the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson … but the marriage was not easily achieved.
Stevenson was born into a prosperous family in Scotland with a history as expert lighthouse engineers. When young Stevenson showed no inclination to become an engineer, his father encouraged him to study law. Upon graduating from college and passing the Bar in Edinburgh, Stevenson chose not to practice law. He chose instead to escape family expectations and went to France with his cousin, a painter, to be closer to the bohemian art life flourishing there. Stevenson greatly enjoyed the outdoor life in France, canoeing, camping, and sharing quaint village life with the many open-air painters working in the countryside under white umbrellas. He wore his hair long and sported an exotic smoking cap from India.
When Robert and Fanny met in Grez, France they began a devoted friendship that spanned two continents and an ocean, and would eventually see them married. After three years together in France, Fanny was called back to California. In response to a telegram from her a year later, presumably about her poor health, Stevenson fast embarked on a 6,000 mile voyage across the Atlantic and train ride across North America to reach her. By the time he arrived in Monterey to find her, it was he who had become seriously ill from the strain of travel, and she who had recovered. Even though Stevenson spent much of his time in California recovering from one ailment or another, he wrote prolifically, and waited, waited, for Fanny to divorce her husband and marry this thin, sickly Scot who had forsaken his family approval and wealth to come to her. Her children didn't find him much of a prospect, but respected his devotion to their mother. And he himself had to be cared for by friends he found in Monterey as his health faltered repeatedly awaiting Fanny's decision about divorce and marriage.
Stevenson himself noted that " falling in love is the one illogical adventure … the effect is out of all proportion with the cause."
But his poem that followed their time together in Grez captures the longing well :
Know you the river near Grez,
A river deep and clear ?
Among the lilies all the way,
That ancient river runs to-day
From snowy weir to weir.
The love I hold was borne by her;
And now, though far away,
My lonely spirit hears the stir
Of water round that starling spur
Beside the bridge at Grez.
Fanny and her husband had not spent a great deal of their marriage together - he had been wandering the mountains of the Sierras and Rockies in search of gold, or working in San Francisco across the bay form his family, and carrying on a life very independent from the life Fanny shared with her children in their cottage in Oakland. While they remained good friends, it was not a marriage that was destined to bind them to one another for much longer. They did agree, on amiable terms, to divorce, and Fanny then was free to marry the Scottish writer in San Francisco. It was with her ex-husbands help that they found a cottage for their honeymoon, and then on their own located a very rustic cabin several thousand feet up a mountain in Sonoma for their first weeks of married life, joined by her son. This primitive camping in a tumbled down shack was the source for his work, The Silverado Squatters.
They were an unusual pair. Stevenson was tall, thin, pale and frail. Fanny was short, solid, dark skinned, and a hearty maternal image. He was just ready to turn thirty upon their marriage, she was over forty. But they loved each other devotedly, and it was a successful marriage. Upon learning of his son's impending marriage, and health problems, his father - who had been infuriated by his son's silent escape to American - broke down and promised him a stable income allowance for his married years. When it came time to return to Scotland, exactly a year to the day from when he had departed, Stevenson had acquired a wife and two stepchildren, the acceptance of his father, and, a mature voice as a writer earned as a result of the difficulties of his year in California. The California adventure turned a young man who wrote of pleasure travels into a mature writer who had the depth of experience to become the author of some of the world's most respected adventure stories, like Treasure Island.