Once in a while, when the name of R. L. S. is mentioned in conversation, someone says to us: “Ah well, you’re one of the Stevenson idolators, aren’t you?” And this is said with a curious air of cynical superiority, as of one who has experienced all these things and is superbly tolerant of the shallow mind that can still admire Tusitala. His work (such people will generally tell you) was brilliant but “artificial” … and for the true certificated milk of the word one must come along to such modern giants as Dreiser and Hergesheimer and Cabell. For these artists, each in his due place, we have only the most genial respect. But when the passion of our youth is impugned as “idolatry” we feel in our spirit an intense weariness. We feel the pacifism of the wise and secretive mind that remains tacit when its most perfect inward certainties are assailed. One does not argue, for there are certain things not arguable. One shrugs. After all, what human gesture more eloquent (or more satisfying to the performer) than the shrug?
There is a little village on the skirts of the Forest of Fontainebleau (heavenly region of springtime and romance!) where the crystal-green eddies of the Loing slip under an old gray bridge with sharp angled piers of stone. Near the bridge is a quiet little inn, one of the many happy places in that country long frequented by artists for painting and “villegiature.” Behind the inn is a garden beside the river-bank. The salle a manger, as in so many of those inns at Barbizon, Moret, and the other Fontainebleau villages, is panelled and frescoed with humorous and high-spirited impromptus done by visiting painters.
In the summer of 1876 an anxious rumour passed among the artist colonies. It was said that an American lady and her two children had arrived at Grez, and the young bohemians who regarded this region as their own sacred retreat were startled and alarmed. Were their chosen haunts to be invaded by tourists–and tourists of the disturbing sex? Among three happy irresponsibles this humorous anxiety was particularly acute. One of the trio was sent over to Grez as a scout, to spy out the situation and report. The emissary went, and failed to return. A second explorer was dispatched to study the problem. He, too, was swallowed up in silence. The third, impatiently waiting tidings from his faithless friends, set out to make an end of this mystery. He reached the inn at dusk: it was a gentle summer evening; the windows were open to the tender air; lamps were lit within, and a merry party sat at dinner. Through the open window the suspicious venturer saw the recreant ambassadors, gay with laughter. And there, sitting in the lamplight, was the American lady–a slender, thoughtful enchantress with eyes as dark and glowing as the wine. Thus it was that Robert Louis Stevenson first saw Fanny Osbourne.
A few days later Mrs. Osbourne’s eighteen-year-old daughter Isobel wrote in a letter: “There is a young Scotchman here, a Mr. Stevenson. He is such a nice-looking ugly man, and I would rather listen to him talk than read the most interesting book…. Mama is ever so much better and is getting prettier every day.”
“The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson,” written by her sister Mrs. Sanchez (the mother of “little Louis Sanchez on the beach at Monterey” remembered by lovers of “A Child’s Garden of Verses”) is a book that none of the so-called idolaters will want to overlook. The romantic excitements of R. L. S.’s youth were tame indeed compared to those of Fanny Van de Grift. R. L. S. had been thrilled enough by a few nights spent in the dark with the docile ass of the Cevennes; but here was one, sprung from sober Philadelphia blood, born in Indianapolis and baptized by Henry Ward Beecher, who had pioneered across the fabled Isthmus, lived in the roaring mining camps of Nevada, worked for a dressmaker in Frisco, and venturously taken her young children to Belgium and France to study art. She had been married at seventeen, had already once thought herself to be a widow in fact by the temporary disappearance of her first husband; and was now, after enduring repeated infidelities, prepared to make herself a widow in law. Daring horse woman, a good shot, a supreme cook, artist, writer, and a very Gene Stratton Porter among flowers, fearless, beautiful, and of unique charm–where could another woman have been found so marvellously gifted to be the wife of a romancer? It seems odd that Philadelphia and Edinburgh, the two most conservatively minded cities of the Anglo-Saxon earth, should have combined to produce this, the most radiant pair of adventurers in our recent annals.