You may know him as one of literature's most famous writers. Or for his timeless classics Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But did you know Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson's American wife Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne was a cigarette-rolling, pistol-owning firecracker of a woman? My new book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, ranges from the artists' colonies of Europe and the mining camps of Nevada to the mountains of Switzerland and the shores of Polynesia. It explores the Stevensons's unusual relationship and the ways in which they changed the literary and artistic landscape around them. Read on for even more revealing facts about writing legend Robert Louis Stevenson!
He invented the sleeping bag.
An enthusiastic traveler, Stevenson enjoyed sleeping under the stars. In 1878, the Scottish writer designed a six-foot square sleeping sack, made of "green waterproof cart-cloth without and blue sheep's fur within" for a 12-day hike through a mountainous region of southern France. He was nursing a broken heart, for the American woman he loved had left him. By writing a travel narrative, he hoped to earn enough money to pursue her and persuade her to marry him. The adventure and the sleeping bag are memorialized in his book, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
He almost died on a goat ranch in Monterey, California.
Seeking the hand of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, who was married with children when he'd first met her at a French artists' resort three years earlier, Stevenson set out in 1879 for America, crossing the Atlantic in steerage conditions, then traveling by emigrant train from New Jersey to California. He had been bedridden with lung illness during long periods in his life, but the grueling journey to Monterey, where Fanny was staying, nearly killed him. Emaciated, lacking money for shelter, and rebuffed once again by an uncertain Fanny, Stevenson rode out into the countryside near Monterey to camp. A goat farmer found him unconscious the next day, and carried him back to his family's cabin where he nursed the severely ill writer for three weeks.
He married an Indiana woman 10 years his senior.
Fanny Osbourne was 40 by the time she divorced her philandering husband and wed Stevenson. She was not the sort of bride the writer's upper crust parents had imagined for him. Fanny carried a pistol, rolled her own cigarettes, and had lived in Nevada mining camps with her first husband. But Louis, as he was called by friends and family, loved her for her beauty, adventurous spirit, and strong character traits, not the least of which was grit. Nearly broke and seeking clean air and sunshine for Louis's lungs, they spent their honeymoon in an abandoned mining shack on Mt. St. Helena in Napa.
He used a pseudonym when Treasure Island was first published.
Stevenson's romantic pirate novel began as a rainy day amusement to entertain Fanny's 12-year-old son, Lloyd Osbourne, while the family was vacationing in Scotland in 1881. RLS drew a map of an island, and in short order imagined the characters of Long John Silver and Billy Bones. Soon he was publishing chapters of the story under the nom-de-plume of Captain George North in a children's periodical called "Young Folks." The pseudonym may have been an attempt to give the impression the author was a salty sea captain. When the material was published as a book, Stevenson's proper name was on the cover.
He wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in six days while confined to bed.
Three days, actually, using pen and ink pot. According to Lloyd Osbourne, however, RLS tossed the manuscript--some 30,000 words-- into the fireplace when Fanny objected that the story's allegory was not evident enough. In the next three days, he wrote a second draft of the story, which is the version we know today. While Treasure Island brought him notice, Jekyll and Hyde brought him fame. By the time of his death at age 44 in 1894, Stevenson was a towering literary figure. His output included some 13 novels, as well as volumes of essays and short stories, plays, poetry, and music.
He gave away his birthday to a 12-year-old girl.
While Stevenson lived in Samoa, he met the daughter of the country's U.S. Commissioner, Annie Ide. Distraught over having to share her birthday with a major holiday - Christmas - Annie received a surprise from the witty author; Stevenson wrote a detailed "legal" letter reassigning his birthday to the young girl:
I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind and pretty well I thank you in body:
Have transferred, and do hereby transfer to the said A. H. Ide, All and Whole of my rights and privileges in the 13th day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said A. H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats and receipt of gifts, compliments and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors;
He is buried on a mountaintop in Samoa.
Having lived a life together as adventurous as those of RLS's most romantic characters, the Stevensons built a home called Vailima near Mt. Vaea in Samoa. When Stevenson died in 1894, his body was carried to the top of the mountain for burial. On his tombstone is carved the poem he began in 1879 when he was crossing America on the emigrant train and feared he might be dying. It is called "Requiem."
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.