Books: Stories about trouble and strife

FANNY STEVENSON by Alexandra Lapierre, trs Carol Cosman Fourth Estate pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
IN 1880, when he was 30 years old, Robert Louis Stevenson married an American woman, a penniless divorcee 11 years his senior. Highly controversial at the time, RLS's marriage has ever since raised the dust of disputation. After Stevenson's death, his relation Graham Balfour wrote his official biography under the watchful eye of Fanny, Stevenson's widow, a paranoid and prickly fantasist. In that pious work Fanny appeared as the devoted nurse, muse and confidante of her ailing husband. The consoling Balfour legend is a fraud and has often been exposed as such. Now the French novelist Alexandra Lapierre steps forward as another champion of Frances Vandegrift, aka Fanny Osbourne, Mrs Louis Stevenson.

Lapierre has dug up some new evidence, but it all relates to the period after RLS's death. She establishes that in 1898 Fanny had an affair with a young San Francisco artist named Gelette Burgess. She also adds new detail to the story of Fanny's liaison with Ned Field five years later. Field became the sensation of the Bay area when, after Fanny's death in 1914, he married her promiscuous daughter Belle.

However, the Stevenson buff will want to know what new light is shed on Fanny's marriage with RLS, which is, after all, the only reason we remember this tempestuous woman. In this curious book, Lapierre says that her motivation for a five-year pursuit of Fanny was the desire to rehabilitate her in the eyes of a Stevenson biographer, J C Furnas, who published A Voyage to Windward in 1952. Not only is this tantamount to admitting that the evidence was going to be tailored to her preconceptions, but there is the further oddity that Furnas was actually extremely sympathetic to Fanny.

Oddity becomes eccentricity when Lapierre melds genuine research with entirely imaginary reconstructions of crucial episodes, where she reverts to her true metier as novelist. Of the numerous examples one could give of fiction triumphing over fact, perhaps the following imaginary scene of lovemaking between Fanny and her first husband Sam Osbourne is most striking: "Fanny watched him revel in his pleasure while she held herself back, the brutality of her joy in bringing him, drowning him in pleasure while she remained on the brink." It needs to be stressed that we have no evidence whatever that this was the situation in the Osbourne marital bed.

Lapierre's technique soon becomes plain. If her interpretations are sanctioned by the archives, she quotes extensively (sometimes for two or three pages on end) from extant letters; if they are not, she simply invents a scene as if she were writing a historical novel. Occasionally she mixes glossed letters, sayings and apothegms from Stevenson's essays and her own invented dialogue in one giant bouillabaisse.

Even when allowances have been made for Lapierre's hybrid methods, the picture of Fanny that emerges is itself a rum mixture of naive credulity, falsification and shrewd insight. On the side of credulity there is Lapierre's swallowing whole Sam Osbourne's tall tales of close encounters with Indians, and her unwise interpretation of Fanny's return to the US and Osbourne in 1878 as an act of renunciation. There is also her anachronistic bringing to bear of 20th-century feminist standards, as when she says: "This is still one of Fanny's contradictions, that this woman in search of herself was above all a consummate housewife." On the side of falsification, Lapierre deals with one bizarre episode, when Fanny claimed to have been diagnosed as having cancer (another of her fantasies), by saying: "I have deleted this episode which even further complicated their relations."

But, on the credit side, Lapierre is alive to Fanny's paranoia, rage, hypochondria and self-deception. She argues that Fanny did not "love" RLS in any normal sense, but simply made him the lodestone of her identity. She is not deceived by the self-proclaimed talents of the Osbourne family; she realises that Fanny could nurse grudges everlastingly "no one escaped her resentment with the singular exception of Henry James" and is appalled by her ignorance.

It is interesting, though, to find Fanny's champion admitting that it was above all women Fanny did not get on with: "A certain reciprocated antipathy would always characterise her relations with her female peers." She concludes that Fanny suffered either from Bright's disease or schizophrenia, and possibly both. Lapierre's methods and slapdash way with evidence often irritate, but she does probe deeply, and she argues, rightly, that Fanny's love for RLS masked an equal and opposite hatred, fuelled by the realisation that he was the creative genius she could never be.