What do the wives and loves of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pablo Picasso, William Shakespeare, and Frank Lloyd Wright have in common? They all have recently appeared as the main characters in literary novels. Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife” tells us the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Nancy Horan’s “Under the wide and starry sky” portrays Fanny Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife. Another book by Horan, “Loving Frank” profiles Martha “Mamah” Borthwick’s relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright. “Madame Picasso” by Anne Girard is about Eva Gouel, Picasso’s companion and a great muse in his artwork. Andrea Chapin’s “The Tutor” tells the story of a muse of Shakespeare.
When we were at Saranac Lake last fall on our Adirondack holiday I was surprised to learn that Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer known for his adventure stories such as Treasure Island, had spent some time there, from 1887-1888, for his health. While we were in the Adirondacks I picked up “The Adirondack Reader,” which has selections of letters from Robert Louis Stevenson, his mother Margaret Balfour Stevenson, and a memoir by his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. Coincidentally, as I was reading these writings, I was reading the historical novel about the love story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny. Reading this wonderful novel, “Under the wide and starry sky,” by Nancy Horan, brought to life even more the excerpts from “The Adirondack Reader,” regarding this famous author and his family, especially their time in upstate New York.
I love this kind of confluence, of mixing a place with fact and fiction, to make for a richer understanding of a time and place, and the characters which populate them. I only wish we could have visited the Robert Louis Stevenson cottage, but next time!