Fanny and Louie – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Robert Louis Stevenson’s global honeymoon

Robert Louis Stevenson. Photograph: Henry Walter Barnett

Robert Louis Stevenson. Photograph: Henry Walter Barnett


One foggy morning in 1880, budding writer Robert Louis Stevenson took stepson-to-be Lloyd to the top of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.

Louie (29) and Lloyd (12) had a thing for oceans, views, and storytelling. As fog lifted, they commanded a 360-degree panorama: Nob Hill (Stevenson’s “hill of palaces”), Russian Hill, Chinatown, Mount Tam, Alcatraz and the Pacific, with wharves and sails.

Inspired, they invented a pirate story about a boy called Jim who lived at the Benbow Inn, and ran away on a ship called the Hispaniola.

According to Louie – who should know – Lloyd added bits to Treasure Island. Lloyd adored pirates because they had treasure, a peg-leg and parrot-toting Long John Silver, and skeleton pointing with a bony finger!

By 20 years on Treasure Island was a smash, and Stevenson was living in Samoa after sailing the globe, with Lloyd and his family.

But on that morning, both worried about the same woman: Lloyd’s mother. Fanny had married at 17. Lloyd’s father, Sam Osborne, was a dazzling war hero, frequenter of Wild West brothels, and all-round badass.

Less than five feet, dusky, and pugnacious, Fanny rolled her own cigarettes and chain-smoked. She carried a pistol she could clean and shoot. She painted and wrote magazine articles to feed her family, since Sam gambled away all their money.

Five years earlier, Fanny had left Sam in fury for a French art colony, taking her children. One summer evening at her dinner, Louie climbed in through the window. Fresh from a kayaking trip, he wasn’t looking his best.

So it wasn’t “lightning,” as the French say, but he was soon calling her the most beautiful woman on earth, his “stormy petrel.” And “tiger lily” – “trusty, dusky, vivid, true” as he put it in the last of his poems:

“Steel-true and blade-straight,

The great Artificer

Made my mate.

For a while, nothing happened. Fanny was ten years older than him and still married with her children, while Louie’s priggish parents wanted him to become a lighthouse engineer (the family business) or at least a lawyer.

But love, as Bizet’s Carmen tells us, is a rebellious bird.

So the lovers were stymied. Suddenly, Fanny left for a Californian reunion with badass Sam, but Louie begged her to write with news.

Desolate in Scottish rains, Louie wrote a piece called “On Falling In Love,” and got an unexpected letter from Fanny, saying that she was suing for divorce and going to live in Monterey.

Louie immediately bought a steerage ticket and suffered through a gruelling transatlantic crossing and even rougher train trip across the continent. On arrival he remarked he didn’t know who got off the train since he, Stevenson, he said, died on the track several hundreds of miles ago.

Yet for him it was always about love. “Falling in love is the one illogical adventure . . . the one thing which we are tempted to think of as supernatural in our trite and reasonable world. The effect is out of all proportion with the cause,” he writes in his article.

At one point, he’d been missing Fanny so much that the waiter suggested serving him a frill on his plate.

But Louie’s recklessness paid off. Fanny gave in. In Edinburgh, his parents caved too and bestowed a stipend.

And lo! Treasure Island became a bestseller and pirates became all the rage, staples, from Disney to Johnny Depp’s.

Stevenson became established. But first Fanny had to nurse him back from death’s door because he’d caught pneumonia.

They married (quietly) and went to Calistoga hot springs in the Wine Country and spent their honeymoon squatting in a ruined miner’s cabin on Mount Helena because they couldn’t afford a hotel and never had trouble roughing it.

They fixed up the cabin and then they wrote Silverado Squatters about the local winemakers.

Many years later when they all lived together on Samoa in the South Seas, Lloyd and family too, RLS wrote many more love poems to Fanny.

And much more happened to Fanny and Louie, but their enduring tribute is the gold Hispaniola statue in Portsmouth Square at the heart of Chinatown.

It’s inscribed with this quote from Treasure Island, known as the “Christmas Sermon.”

“ . . . To be honest, to be kind, to earn a little and spend a little less; to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not to be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation – above all, on the same grim conditions, to keep friends with himself – here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.”

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