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When Robert Louis Stevenson Was One Of Us
Out of an agonizing American experience, the frail Scots author mined a treasure and carried it away with him
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Scotland and spent the last years of his life in Samoa, but for a year he lived in California, and that year was a turning point in his life. It is not too much to say that he belongs at least as much to us as he does to Scotland or to Samoa.
Even today Americans who love books remember that Stevenson was often sick as a child “and lay abed,” tenderly cared for by his affluent and loving family. But few know that in August 1879 he traveled from Scotland to California, desperately sick and by his own choice almost penniless. He was in pursuit of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman whom he had loved for three years and would marry in California.
No man is any use,” Stevenson wrote, “until he has dared everything.” He left for America to pursue Fanny without a word to his parents.
Stevenson had first met Fanny in 1876 at Grez, an artists’ colony in the Forest of Fontainebleau, near Paris, that he visited often while traveling through Europe. She had been separated from her philandering husband, Sam Osbourne, and had moved to France, but Osbourne was with her then, having rushed to her side when their youngest child died. In the summer of 1877 Fanny and Stevenson were again together at Grez, without Osbourne, and were in love. By 1878 all their friends and his family knew that they were lovers. Stevenson’s intentions were honorable, but Fanny was of two minds. Whatever Sam’s failings as a husband, he was a devoted and affectionate father to their two surviving children, Isobel and Samuel Lloyd. Stevenson was appealing and talented; he had written some essays and short stories and a book of travel, An Inland Voyage, that Henry James had called “charming,” but so far his yearly income was no more than a hundred pounds, and he spent it as fast as he earned it. He was as dependent on his family as a child. In fact, he was like a child, a sickly child who had always been supported and guided by apprehensive and adoring parents.
Yet he was now in his late twenties. If he was fit to marry Fanny Osbourne, he realized, he must prove that he could survive on his own. “No man is any use,” he wrote, “until he has dared everything.” The situation came to a climax when Sam Osbourne withdrew his financial support of his wife. In an agony of indecision Fanny left for California and returned to her husband; there, with worry and stress mounting, she fell ill. She sent Stevenson a cable that stirred him to leave posthaste to join her. On August 7, 1879, he set sail from Port Clyde, Glasgow, without a word to his parents. He would not ask them for help or risk a scene. Later, one of his Songs of Travel, entitled “Youth and Love,” recalled the moment of decision:
Determined not to be “a consistent first-class passenger in life,” he took with him very little of this world’s goods: a change of clothes, an ulster, thick boots, a broad-brimmed hat, and a steamer rug in which were wrapped six volumes of American history. He would travel second class on the Devonia, whose steerage carried emigrants. His quarters on board would be cramped and comfortless, but he wanted them so. He hoped to find a publisher in New York for something written en route that could bring in a few dollars. If Fanny did not meet him in New York, he would go on by the cheapest train, hoping to reach San Francisco with a little money still in his pocket.
In The Amateur Emigrant, published in 1895, Stevenson told about his ten-day voyage aboard the Devonia. The ship met with high seas and heavy rain for most of the crossing: “The engine pounded, the screw tossed out of the water with a roar, and shook the ship from end to end; the bows battled with loud reports against the billows.” In the hellhole of steerage, close to his second-class cabin, men, women, and children were packed in like animals, “more or less unwashed, lying immersed together in the same close air all night, and their litter of meat, dirty dishes and rank bedding tumbled all day together in foul disorder.”
Stevenson spent the better part of each day writing, but he also joined in the life of the steerage passengers as if he were one of them, and because of the filth to which he was exposed or because of nervous strain, he developed a maddening itch on his hands and lost fourteen pounds. At five foot ten, he now weighed 105 pounds. He approached New York in a pitiable condition.
There was a faint hope that his journey would end quickly. Fanny might have returned to her parents’ home in Indiana; she might even meet him when he landed. If not, he wondered whether he could bear it. But he looked for Fanny among the crowds at the dock in vain.