Recalling the love of an authors life
Editors note: This is the second in a two-part series on Robert Louis Stevensons travels through the Sierra Nevada.In the summer of 1879, author, poet and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson is traveling aboard a crowded and slow moving emigrant passenger train, heading west to California to be with the woman he loves. Although Fanny Osbourne was married with children and living in California, she had telegraphed Stevenson in France saying that she had failed to reconcile with her husband and had initiated divorce proceedings. On board the train, Stevenson is deathly ill, suffering from tuberculosis, malaria, and pleurisy. His experiences on the emigrant train inspired two essays that were later published in two small volumes, The Amateur Emigrant and Crossing the Plains. This journey to America would forever change his style and vision. Ironically, Stevensons father, embarrassed that his son had written about traveling with common emigrants, purchased the copyrights to keep the essays from being published. The train made meal stops, but Stevenson complained about the long delays; We had rarely less than 20 minutes for each meal, and if we had not spent another 20 minutes waiting for some express upon a side track among miles of desert, we might have taken up to an hour for each repast and [still] arrived at San Francisco on time. To make matters worse, at nearly every meal break when the passengers stepped off the train to buy a bite to eat or take short walk, some wise guy would yell All aboard! and laugh as the frantic emigrants ran back to the train.Stevenson felt better when the train reached Ogden, Utah, and he boarded the Central Pacific for the last leg of his journey through Nevada, past Truckee, and down into California.The change, he wrote, was doubly welcome; for, first we had better cars on the new line; and, second, those in which we had been cooped up for more than 90 hours had begun to stink abominably. The cars on the Central Pacific were nearly twice as high, and so proportionally airier; they were freshly varnished, which gave us all a sense of cleanliness as though we had bathed; the seats drew out and joined in the center, so that there was no more need for bed-boards; and there was an upper tier of berths which could be closed by day and opened by night.Stevenson endured the sweltering journey across northern Nevada in a feverish stupor, but he felt better once the train passed Reno and ascended the Truckee River Canyon. He wrote, It was a clear moonlit night; but the valley was too narrow to admit the moonshine direct, and only a diffused glimmer whitened the tall rocks and relieved the blackness of the pines. The air struck chill, but tasted good and vigorous in the nostrils a fine, dry, old mountain atmosphere. I was dead sleepy, but I returned to roost with a grateful mountain feeling in my heart.
The train rumbled along the cascading Truckee River and pulled into Truckee for a freight and passenger stop. When Stevenson awoke later that day, it was eerily dark. The train was careening through the long wooden snowsheds that protected the line from deep snow and avalanches in the Sierra Nevada.In The Amateur Emigrant, Stevenson described his impression of the California mountains: I had one glimpse of a huge pine-forested ravine upon my left, a foaming river, and a sky already coloured with the fires of dawn. I am usually very calm over the displays of nature; but you will scarce believe how my heart leaped at this. Few people have praised God more happily than I did. And thenceforward, down by Blue Caon, Alta, Dutch Flat, and all the old mining camps, through a sea of mountain forests, dropping thousands of feet toward sea-level as we went … this was the good country we had been going to for so long.On Aug. 30, 1879, an exhausted Stevenson stumbled into Monterey where Fanny and her children were living in a rented house, away from her philandering husband Sam Osbourne in San Francisco. In his quest for love, the ailing writer had risked his life traveling from Europe to the California coast. Fannys son, Lloyd, who had met the Scotsman in France the prior year, wrote, [Stevenson] looked ill, even to my childish gaze; his clothes, no longer picturesque but merely shabby, hung loosely on his shrunken body.It would take nearly four more months for Fanny to obtain her divorce during which time Stevenson nearly died twice. The divorce was granted Dec. 15 in a private ceremony in San Francisco; Fanny and Stevenson were married in May 1880. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in a small cabin on Mount St. Helena north of Napa Valley where Stevenson wrote The Silverado Squatters. The following year they moved to Europe where Stevenson penned Treasure Island to please Fannys son Lloyd. This popular story of buried treasure, pirates and excitement launched his fame as a childrens adventure writer. In the years that followed, Stevenson, with Fannys crucial help, wrote Kidnapped and the psychological thriller The Strange Cast of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.On the advice of doctors, in 1887 the family relocated to a health spa at Saranac Lake, N.Y. Stevensons condition did not improve, however, so the following year Robert, Fanny, and her children took the train to San Francisco. From there they boarded a ship to sail the Pacific Ocean in a search for the perfect climate that might sooth Stevensons chronic illness.The Stevenson family cruised the South Seas, finally settling on the island of Upolu in Samoa. Robert Louis Stevenson died there of a brain hemorrhage in December 1894, at the age of 45. With love, strength and care, Fanny had kept him alive for many years beyond his expected lifespan. Her sister Nellie later wrote It seems to me that it not too much to say that the world owes it to Fanny that [Stevenson] lived to produce his best works. Three years after Stevensons death, Fanny returned to San Francisco. She had money, fame and style. When she traveled she wore flowing Samoan-style gowns, ornate jewelry, lace, velvet and red ballerina slippers. Although she was nearly 60 years old, she captivated many artistic young men in San Francisco. At first Fanny spent a lot of time with a 30-year-old writer, until 1904 when she met Edward Ned Field, a 23-year-old dramatist and screenwriter more than 40 years younger than she. The couple never married, but for the last decade of her life, Fanny and Ned gave parties in California and toured Europe together. Fanny died suddenly of a stroke in Santa Barbara on Feb. 18, 1914, at age 74. Days after Fannys funeral, Ned Field wrote For someone who refuses mediocrity, Fanny was simply the only woman in the world. To have known her, to have loved her, would have given meaning enough to a mans life. But to have been loved by her!Ned Field found it very difficult to get over Fannys death. In an interesting twist to this fascinating story, six months after Fanny Stevensons death, he married her daughter, Belle, who looked so much like Fanny that they matched feature to feature. Belle was 22 years older than Ned.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.
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