Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

Ballantine Books, 2013

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

Horan’s first historical novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, Loving Frank, failed to entice me, I suspect because she kept so very closely to the very well publicized lives and affairs of the famous architect. I felt I got no deeper into the psyche of the lead characters than that which I had really read and known.  Loving Frank (reviewed here) being a novel, not a biography, I felt Horan could have digressed a bit more, taken a little more poetic licence, done a bit more interpretation.  In Under the Wide and Starry Sky, again, Horan writes about a famous person, writer Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and this time she got the balance between historical fact and fiction right. Again, she tells the story from the point of view of the famous person’s lover – in this instance Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne.

Written by her daughter, The life of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson, published 1920 by Chatto & Windus, London
Written by her daughter, The life of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson, published 1920 by Chatto & Windus, London

I think the test of success of a historical novel is whether it stimulates and intrigues you enough that you go and find out more about the subject yourself. In this Horan succeeded, this time. (Read Fanny’s description of their journey The Cruise Of The Janet Nichol Among The South Sea Islands (1914) – it’s quite interesting).

Fanny is a fascinating character, and Horan’s description of the tumultuous and passionate relationship between her and Stevenson is very moving. I had no idea that Stevenson wrote such wonderful love poems addressed to her. I had primarily thought of him as a writer of children’s books not a romantic poet. Horan intriguingly depicts Fanny’s frustration at being Stevenson’s editor, muse and promotor, while suppressing her own need to write. Fanny becomes ill, and, as she strays into madness, one expects her to die, but it is Stevenson whose death is a shocker. This one is worth a re-read – a keeper in other words. Definitely recommended.

(Stevenson in Love, a two-part radio play by Mike Harris based on the classic travelogues, journals and personal letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, voiced by David Tennant, was broadcast by the BBC in 2011. The stories attempt to capture Stevenson’s feelings for Fanny Osbourne, and how they affected him on his travels.)


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