Barefoot in Samoa

Sue Gaisford finds the stuff of romance in a lurid Life of Mrs R L Stevenson; Fanny Stevenson: Muse, Adventuress and Romantic Enigma by Alexandra Lapierre, translated by Carol Cosman Fourth Estate, pounds 18.99
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When Robert Louis Stevenson married Fanny Osbourne in 1880 he was, he said, "a mere complication of cough and bones". He was 30, had only just begun his writing career and was on the point of death from consumption. Fanny was 11 years older and an avid reader of the Lancet; she was certain she could keep him alive. She took him - sometimes on a stretcher - all over the world, looking for a healthy environment; she protected him as he wrote and helped to edit his work. They settled finally in Samoa where, in 1894, he suffered a fatal aneurism while helping her to make mayonnaise. It is fair to say that without her we would never have heard of him.

Such a woman deserves to be celebrated just for that. But Fanny Stevenson's life was remarkable even without her famous husband. Alexandra Lapierre has undertaken extensive research to uncover many new details of her wildly unconventional existence before, during and after the Stevenson years. It is an amazing story.

Her first husband was a raffish character called Sam Osbourne whom she married at 16. Taking their six-year-old daughter with her, she followed him from comfortable Indiana down to the feverish swamps of Panama and out to the Nevada desert, where he had bought shares in a silver-mine. For the 20 years of their marriage she created homes for them wherever they settled, making their furniture herself, cultivating gardens, shooting rattlesnakes, rolling her own cigarettes, taking in sewing, wheedling support when they went bust, surviving for two years when she thought he had been killed by Indians, caring for their three children.

Eventually, exasperated by his philandering, she set sail for Europe, determined to learn to paint. It was while she was holidaying in an artists' colony in rural France that she met Stevenson, who persuaded her to divorce Osbourne and marry him. After his death she acquired a lover 28 years younger than herself, before ending her days with an even younger man, Ned Field. It was to be Field who tenderly transported her ashes to the Samoan mountain-top where Stevenson was buried, and Field who rounded off the curious story by marrying Fanny's daughter Belle, when he was 34 and she 56.

It is the stuff of romance, and that is exactly what Alexandra Lapierre has made of it. She has lived and breathed her heroine's life, and shares her suffering with her reader. "You have to see this part of Nevada," she says, "to appreciate the desolation. When I finally set foot in Austin, following Fanny's trail, I had only one idea, to get out of there fast!" She has gazed on the Pacific from Fanny's garden in Santa Barbara, she has fought through Samoan jungles and been "pricked bloody by their thorns, swollen by their poison". But she didn't go to Bournemouth, where the Stevensons lived for several years, where they entertained his literary friends and where so much of his finest work was written. Why not? Would it have been just too easy?

Fanny hated leaving that house. She wrote: "Life had been too happy at Skerrymore - the envying gods had struck it down". But here Lapierre chooses not to believe her. Picturing her crossing America on a train soon afterwards, she writes "She closed her eyes. But she could not sleep. She hadn't a single happy memory from those last years at Bournemouth". You see, the biographer knows best. And what she doesn't know for sure, she invents. This includes long stretches of imagined dialogue (often sounding risibly like a re-make of Gone with the Wind) and passages of deep purple prose describing intense experiences. (High spots of a river trip in France can serve as an example: "The boat followed in a magical torpor ... Fanny's chest was prominent under a light dress. Her thin, muscular arms rolled, her mouth fluttered, red and full".) Sexual encounters are plain embarrassing. We are asked to imagine how "savagely Fanny watched [Sam] revel in his pleasure ... the brutality of her joy in bringing him, drowning him in pleasure while she remained on the brink".

Lurid colours abound, from mauve and mustard floral curtains to "blond palm trees and brick-coloured laburnums". Fanny's clothes are equally bizarre, whether she is "lashed into a corset", "stifled by a profusion of frogs and loops", or sporting "a white collar, a puce-green skirt and a cropped jacket of Scottish wool". No wonder she chose to go barefoot in a night-dress in Samoa.

The book was originally written in French and some of these problems are caused by the translation, which is often maladroit, and sometimes wickedly funny. In an extremely melodramatic paragraph, 50 miners, desperate for the sight of a woman, wait for the midnight stage-coach. They are all wearing "the same dirty felt hat over the eyes, the same flannel shirt, the same brown canvas pants". A miner's life was hard, but not that hard. Carol Cosman's grasp of grammar is loose, and can slip. We become used to the idea that Fanny could turn her hand to any task, but we are still startled by the sentence "Fanny had set down her spade to sew on the veranda".

Linguistic bloomers aside, the book offers a further challenge. Despite her obviously exhaustive researches, Alexandra Lapierre has decided to dispense with the usual technical addenda of conventional scholarly biography. She provides an impressive bibliography but no index, and the notes she offers are imprecise. Often she splices several documents together, describes a scene which probably happened, or sketches a conversation which, honestly, seems unlikely. Would Stevenson have said "I always end up standing on my own two legs, but until now the feet belonged to my father. And now these feet are yours!"? Lapierre asks us to trust her, but it's sometimes hard.

The best chapter describes the death in Paris of Fanny's younger son, aged 4, from necrotic tuberculosis, an almost unbelievably terrible disease. Here Fanny's own letters are allowed to tell the harrowing story and, at last, as she pours out her anxiety and then her howling grief, we can truly appreciate the heroic stature of the woman who managed to survive such horror. Robert Louis Stevenson recognised it from the start. In dedicating his last book to her, he gave her all the credit for his work, and, incidentally, for the work of Alexandra Lapierre: "if this the least be good, if any deed be done, if any fire burn in the imperfect page, the praise is thine".