- Historic Sites
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
The woman he had come so far to find was no beauty by any standards his parents could have understood. Instead of being patrician, young, tall, slender, and fair, she was plain Hoosier, forty, short, and dumpy, her skin swarthy. Her curly dark hair was turning gray, and she had cut it short. She smoked cigarettes, and she took off her shoes and stockings at the least excuse. Stevenson adored her. Years later he wrote of her:
Fanny had first been called a tiger lily by her staid Presbyterian family in Indianapolis. They regretted her dark skin and her tomboy ways, but despite these defects, she was an acknowledged beauty in her teens. S. S. McClure, the American publisher, admired her exotic looks in later years and gave her credit for much more: “a wealth of experience, a reach of imagination, a sense of humor ... a fair-mindedness, a large judgment, a robust . . . philosophy of life.” She lived her life with great intensity and had a fiery temper. Stevenson once called her “a violent friend, a brimstone enemy.”
At Monterey, Fanny was surrounded by the group that was to be Stevenson’s adopted family for the rest of his life. Nellie Van de Grift, Fanny’s young sister, was being courted by Adolfo Sanchez, a wellborn and delightful man who, for want of a better job, ran a local saloon. Fanny’s daughter, Isobel, known as Belle, resembled her mother both in appearance and in her choice of a suitor. She had just made a runaway marriage with a talented but penniless artist, Joe Strong. The youngest member of the family, Sam—known by his middle name, Lloyd—was a tall, gangling, blond boy of twelve; he mattered most in the question of his mother’s divorce. Nellie and Isobel were no longer children, but Lloyd could still be torn apart by rough handling. He had sincerely loved Stevenson since their first meeting at Grez three years before. Now he might see this friend as the villain of the piece in the breakup of his mother’s marriage. Stevenson resolved to do his best for Lloyd.
But it seemed for a while that there might be no divorce. Sam Osbourne still saw Fanny on occasional weekend visits, and Lloyd once heard her say through a closed door, “Oh, Sam, forgive me!” After an emotional reunion with RLS in Señora Bonifacio’s parlor, Fanny had second thoughts. She was appalled at his extreme emaciation and obvious illness; she soon found that he had voluntarily cut himself off from his one dependable source of income, his parents. Fanny was not at all mercenary, but she might still need to help Nellie and Belle, and Lloyd was completely dependent on her. Having summoned her lover from the other side of the world, Fanny now put him off while she thought about her situation.
Stevenson was baffled. He wrote with wry humor to his Scottish friend Charles Baxter: “My news is nil. I know nothing. I go out camping . . . and now say goodbye to you, having had the itch and a broken heart.” He hired a horse and a buckboard, intending to spend a week or so in the mountains above Carmel Valley. But he had overestimated his strength. On the second day of his camping trip he fell under a pine tree, and he lay there half-conscious for two nights, with goat bells and tree toads sounding like some crazy hallucination in his ears. He was found by Jonathan Wright, a retired man, now a goat herder, who carried Stevenson to the cabin where he lived with a friend, Capt. Anson Smith.
As soon as RLS was able to write again, he worked on a poem that was to be called “Requiem.” We know that he expected to die, but we do not know “where he longed to be.” Perhaps it was Scotland; perhaps he thought of a grave in the Santa Lucia hills of California. In 1879 he wrote three verses, each with this refrain:
Five years later in the south of France, he wrote the final version, which became perhaps his best-known poem: