When her best-selling debut novel, "Loving Frank" — about Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her notorious extramarital affair with architect Frank Lloyd Wright — appeared in 2007, Nancy Horan seems to have ushered in a new literary genre. Since "Loving Frank," a great many novels have appeared that explore the often difficult lives of the wives or companions of famous male artists and writers.
Horan, a former resident of Oak Park, returns to the same theme in her new historical novel, "Under the Wide and Starry Sky." In it she charts the long, mostly happy and yet challenging marriage of Robert Louis Stevenson, the 19th century Scottish writer most famous for "Treasure Island" and "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a free-spirited divorcee from Indiana.
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In "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," Fanny and Louis (as he was called) travel the world in search of a place where his delicate health could improve. (He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, although this remains in doubt.) Along the way, they interact with their literary and artistic friends and shape each other's careers as writers; Fanny also wrote fiction, but found herself eclipsed by her beloved husband's growing fame.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Horan for a phone interview from her home on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington near Seattle. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: When I interviewed your friend Elizabeth Berg last year for Printers Row Journal, she noted that some people say you started a genre with "Loving Frank" — the Woman Behind the Famous Man story. And it's true that there have been a number of books in that vein since "Loving Frank" was published. Therese Anne Fowler's "Z," about Zelda Fitzgerald, is a recent example, and now we have your own "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," about Fanny Osbourne, the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson. What's your reaction?
A: First of all, I don't know that I started any genre. Many of those books were well under way by the time "Loving Frank" came out. But also, I come at it from a different perspective. You know, I found these women by first becoming interested in the men. I was interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, and discovered that he had this whole chapter of his life involving this woman (Cheney) that few people knew about. And when I learned about this woman, I thought she was worthy of a book on her own. And I certainly feel that way about Fanny Osbourne, who I learned about as a result of becoming interested in Stevenson. So it's difficult, because I don't think of them as the women behind the men. I think of them as the women beside the men, and I think of the men as being beside the women. And you know, neither one of these women was a passive person or someone who felt downtrodden. But when you go back 135 years, women played certain roles in American culture, so you don't know about as many famous women from the 1870s as you do about famous men from that period. But there were a whole lot of women from that time who were living full lives, and Fanny Osbourne is an example.
Q: If there were a Woman Behind the Man genre, a common thread would certainly be the difficulty for the woman of having a partner who's a famous man, a famous artist, especially when she herself has artistic ambition, as Mamah and Fanny do.
A: I think that's true. I guess I'm drawn to artists and literary people and want to learn about them. What I discovered is that yes, it was difficult for Fanny to be married to Robert Louis Stevenson, in terms of the spotlight. Of course, that can go both ways; if the woman is famous, the man has to deal with that. But beyond that, what struck me about Fanny and Louis is that they were both interesting characters that I bumped into. I was in Monterey, Calif., and learned about Stevenson having been there. When I learned why he was there, and who he was seeking there, that led me to Fanny. So it's really about story for me. And in the end, this is a story about a long-term marriage, about how these very different characters from different cultures managed to stay together.
Q: It seems to have helped, in the case of the Stevensons as well as Wright and Cheney, for the woman to have a personality strong enough to stand up to the man. Osbourne more or less wore the pants in the family, it seems.
A: She did, off and on. She was the one who controlled access to him sometimes. But she also deferred to him a lot. And really, the focus of their life together was his health, seeking a place where they could live that he would be healthy. That's what she devoted herself to. So to say she wore the pants in the family‚ well, sometimes she did.
Q: It's true, though, that one of the things that attracted him to her was her independence and spunk. The first time they meet, she rolls her own cigarettes, and later accuses him of mocking her. So right from the beginning, she sets a tone of being someone not to be trifled with.
A: Absolutely. You've got her. You know, she's a woman who's lived in mining camps. She knew how to make a home almost anyplace, and she did. She was just a very inventive woman, and a survivor on so many levels. So I was impressed by her grit. I mean, think about what she did, embarking on a two-year sea voyage with your husband and being seasick every single day.
Q: Too bad they didn't have Dramamine then.
A: Yeah, too bad. You know, she would sleep out on the deck sometimes with the other sailors because it was so hot in the cabin, and rats would run across her face in the middle of the night. So I have to think, could I have done that? I think the answer is no. I think she was like a number of women in those days who had pioneer qualities.
Q: The book also offers a new perspective on Stevenson. We think of him as the author of children's literature, basically, with "Treasure Island" the great example. But your perspective seems to be that that's a little reductive, that we should think of him as a better, more complex writer than we give him credit for.
A: Oh, very much so. And he's getting a lot more attention from scholars now. You know, he wrote in a lot of different genres. If you think of him as a children's writer, what about "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"? That's not children's literature. That's a dark, Gothic exploration of the duality of human nature. Later on, he did more realistic fiction, but because of his personality, he defended the fact that he wrote Romantic literature like "Treasure Island." He didn't care for writers who dwelled on sordidness in a gratuitous way. He once said that the job of the writer is "to find where joy resides, and send the reader on his way," something like that. And I think that because he had so much illness in his life and had been confined to his bed for so long, he had to invent himself every day as a positive person. Some days he was more successful at that than other days. And he wrote books like "Treasure Island" in that spirit.
Q: It's interesting that the author of "Treasure Island" could also produce "Jekyll and Hyde," which is so completely different. It seemed to come out of, not quite nowhere, but close.
A: Yes, and it had a shocking effect, and made people pay attention to him. It was almost immediately made into a drama for the theater, and it just struck a chord. People have interpreted it differently; some say it's a study of the hypocrisy of Victorian morality, for example. But he got at something there. When he died at 44, he was really at the height of his powers, but then the modern psychological novel was coming along, and his star kind of fell for a while. "Treasure Island" never went out of print, but some people considered him an old fuddy-duddy. Now he's being reexamined and regarded as a brilliant writer.
Q: A brilliant writer who influenced other writers, including Melville.
A: And many others, yes. Nabokov. Hemingway. The list goes on and on.
Q: His poetry's very good, too. "My Bed Is a Boat," that's one of my favorites of his.
A: Oh yes, I love that one. When people learned I was working on a story about him, people started coming up to me and reciting poems of his that their parents had read them as children. They still have a lot of affection for Stevenson.
Q: And he was, perhaps unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, a very likable man most of the time.
A: Definitely. He was an energetic, hilarious guy that people called "the Great Exhilarator." Sometimes he'd laugh so hysterically that he'd have to have his hand bent backward. He's got to feel pain in order to stop laughing! I think he was just so deprived of fun when he was little that he just loved having a grand time however he could. He was always the best talker in the room. Conversation was really an art form then, and Stevenson was among the best at it. His letters are delightful, so funny and contemporary.
Q: His exact health problems are still a little mysterious, apparently.
A: Yes, he was thought to have tuberculosis, and his symptoms were very much like TB, but it's interesting that the people around him didn't develop tuberculosis. And he didn't die of tuberculosis; he died from a brain aneurysm. So it's hard to say. We'll probably never have a definitive answer.
Q: And maybe the fact that he was such a delightful person explains why he's much more present in this novel than Wright was in "Loving Frank."
A: Well, for me, it has more to do with who's telling the story. One of the great lessons I learned about historical fiction from writing "Loving Frank" is that you don't try to disguise what people did; my approach was to try to understand the characters and why they did what they did. Wright's explanation of why he didn't pay his bills on time is that he needed beautiful things around him to create. You might not agree, but that's the way he saw it. I tried not to judge him or Mamah. I gave them the benefit of the doubt as best I could. With Stevenson and Fanny, I'm doing the same thing. I'm letting them do what they did, but I'm trying not to judge them.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1
"Under the Wide and Starry Sky"
By Nancy Horan, Ballantine Books, 496 pages, $26
Horan will appear at noon, Tuesday at the University Club, 76 E. Monroe. Reservations: (312) 847-446-8880.