Books: Fanny

4 minute read

OUR SAMOAN ADVENTURE (264 pp.)—Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson—Harper ($4).

Teacher, tender comrade, wife, A fellow-farer true through life, Heart whole and soul free, The August Father gave to me.

At the summit of Mt. Vaea on Upolu in the Samoa Islands, these lines are inscribed on an unpretentious tomb. Set in another part of the monument are the more famous lines beginning

Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie . . .

In this grave lies a man once hailed as a great writer, but currently out of fashion. Buried beside him is a woman who was hardly thought of as a writer at all, but who may well burst forth posthumously with a bestseller. Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson has been known —if at all—as a sort of two-dimensional adjunct to her great husband Robert Louis Stevenson. Now, all at once, Fanny is three-dimensional. Anthologist-Author Charles Neider, aided by infra-red and ultraviolet light, but hindered by often almost illegible handwriting, has published Fanny’s diary, which he discovered gathering dust in a Monterey, Calif, museum.

Eye for the Ridiculous. Editor Neider’s eye-racking job was complicated by the fact that many passages scattered throughout the fading ledger had been deleted—crossed out by a modern pen using blue ink, probably after Fanny’s death in 1914. Under the probing rays, the suppressed passages turned out, in the main, to be hasty bursts of irritation over petty matters, which Fanny would no doubt have scratched out herself, had it occurred to her that anyone might ever want to print her diary. Despite such outbursts, this is a happy-souled and sometimes uproarious book. It belongs to the domestic misadventure school, but it is a book entirely lacking in self-pity.

The remarkable discovery is that, by the standards of today, Fanny was in some ways a better writer than her husband. She could not evoke a mood; Stevenson was one of the great mood-evokers. Neither could she give one the sight, smell and taste of an island dawn, a rainy day in Edinburgh, or a starlight night aboard ship. But she had directness, forceful earthiness and an eye for the ridiculous.

The diary starts in September 1890, when the Stevensons first settled down at Vailima, their home on Upolu. Louis, who was tubercular, had traveled the globe in search of health, and the Samoan climate seemed to help. Indianapolis-born Fanny had been a pioneer of sorts in California in post-Gold-Rush days. She was married to a restless clerk-soldier-prospector, later divorced him. The easy, outdoor life in Samoa was made for her. Her enthusiasm seems to have cheered Louis; it only annoyed his mother, who hated Samoa. Fanny wrote: “She dislikes the life here which we find so enchanting, and is disappointed and soured that she is not able to persuade us to throw it all up and go to the colonies. We have given the colonies a fair trial, and they mean death to Louis … It is very difficult for me to understand that anyone can prefer a life of calls, leaving and receiving cards, with a proper church and invested meals and a nap on Sundays . . .”

Soul of a Peasant? Fanny delighted in a fairyland peopled with lovely and fantastically incompetent natives who were always either crying or laughing, and for ever trying to help. “Simi [the butler] … is breaking everything we possess. He smiles with a kind tolerance when he smashes something precious, and is more like an English colonel than words can express.”

In January 1894, the year he died, Robert Louis Stevenson began to fear that his work was going stale and wrote that he could actually wish to die, though suicide “is not thought the ticket in the best circles.” In December 1894, at 44, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. His mother was present, and it is her account of the death that Editor Neider presents. There is nothing more from Fanny. The spell was broken, the ledger book was closed, and there was nothing left but to sell Vailima and eventually return to the States. Twenty years later she died, and her ashes were carried back to Samoa.

It is unfortunate that Fanny attached no importance whatever to her writing, and that she accepted, though with injured feelings, Louis’ good-natured taunt that she had the “soul of a peasant.” A mere four years with Fanny Stevenson’s steady eye leaves the reader wanting more.

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