Their Collaboration

A large part of our research focused on learning about the Stevensons’ lives, including where they traveled with each other and their various family members, and how they interacted with one another. Normally, we would do this through archival research, but we discovered someone else had also taken an interest in Fanny’s marriage to Robert Louis, and had published work about the couple. This was Nancy Horan, the bestselling historical fiction novelist of Under the Wide and Starry Sky.1

While reading historical fiction novels is not generally accepted as a mode of research in the humanities, Horan’s novel stands out as something of an anomaly. Her deep and thorough research into Fanny and her husband Robert Louis is clear, which makes the novel a compelling read while also providing a startlingly accurate glimpse into the lives and feelings of the literary couple. Both Mrs. and Mr. Stevenson wrote prolifically, in letters, journals, as well as fiction and other prose. Horan’s novel is just that: a novel. Yet, it would take a Stevensonian scholar to point out inconsistencies beyond the expected fictionalisation, and much of the story is drawn directly from the records and archives of the Stevensons and their circle.

The most exciting part of the novel is the importance it places on Fanny and her highly-motivated, impetuous, loving efforts to keep Robert Louis alive. Fanny and Robert Louis’s illnesses are not underplayed, and Horan makes it especially clear that he could easily have died long before producing his greatest works had Fanny not worked so hard to improve his health. The perspective that Horan’s novel presents is one of a couple fighting to be together across continents, through medical crises, and despite the disapproval of many. Rather than becoming the literary cliché of the “Woman Behind the Man,” Horan instead shows both husband and wife to be nuanced, complicated individuals and collaborators.

Given our extensive research into Fanny and Robert Louis as literary collaborators, we have included some interesting quotes from the novel that speak to the coordination and co-editing processes the couple may have used. We do know from letters and records that the two frequently discussed their work, and we have in prefatory materials and introductions some idea of who conceived of some of the original storylines. A caveat: Horan’s work is fiction, but it is insightful and compelling. The following excerpts, whether all fact or partial fiction, are based on thorough research, and we would be remiss not to look at Under the Wide and Starry Sky as a valuable interpretation of the lives of the Stevensons.


On Fanny and Robert Louis’s collaboration:

“There was no pretense that they were equals. When he had first read one of her stories he said, “You have a colorful way of saying things.” Her spirits had sailed high on that remark until the next time she showed him a story and he said, “This is perfectly awful.” She knew she was not a bad writer, but she suspected Louis found her stories, with their supernatural twists, a bit beneath his literary standards. “Maudlin!” he had written next to one of her paragraphs.

After a time, she no longer asked for his help. He neither encouraged her to write nor discouraged her, though he admitted that two writers in one family was quite a lot. Still, Fanny cherished their time at that shared desk.” (pp.207-208)

On Fanny’s involvement:

“As she nursed Louis in the weeks that followed, she acted as his amanuensis as well. He was forbidden to pace, let alone get out of bed, though that did not stop him from dramatizing the dialogue as he dictated pieces of a romance he was calling Prince Otto. He growled the prince’s lines and spoke in a high pitch for the females. During the hours she wrote for him, Fanny fell under the spell of his storytelling. She found herself whiling away hours with him as he processed one plot approach after another. She loved collaborating with him, but it was not her only work; there were meals to cook, sheets to change, bedpans to empty.” (pp.234)

On The Dynamiter’s Authorship”

“Over dinner they celebrated the publication of Louis’s A Child’s Garden of Verses in March and his new collection of short stories in April– The Dynamiter, based on the tales Fanny had invented for him at Hyères.

“Were you pleased with the reviews?” Katharine asked.

“Well enough,” Louis said.

Fanny felt a flush of anger. “I would have been more pleased had just one newspaper mentioned my name in a review.”

“Your name is on the cover of the book next to mine, Fan,” Louis said. “That’s where it matters.” ” (pp.252)

 On the editorial process:

“Louis arranged himself in his favorite chair. He loved reading his work aloud. It was a self-indulgence, poorly disguised. He used Fanny’s criticism and edits when he thought them right, though she could just as well have read his manuscripts. But he loved to feel his tongue shape the sounds of the words he’d written on paper. He loved to hear a voice out loud––Long John Silver’s, for example––after having heard it only in his head. Reading was his reward after any day’s work, and he savored the attention of his little troupe of true believers. It was with plot that Fanny’s attentiveness helped. She would pepper him with questions: How exactly did the chest get there? Or How would the others know?” (pp.262)

 On Robert Louis Stevenson’s first attempts at South Seas writing:

“Fanny grabbed a couple of sheets of paper and went to her own desk to write a letter to Colvin.

Louis has the most enchanting material that any one ever had in the whole world for his book, and I am afraid he is going to spoil it all. He has taken it into his Scotch Stevenson head … that his book must be a sort of scientific and historical impersonal thing comparing the different language (of which he knows nothing, really) and the different peoples … and the whole thing to be impersonal, leaving out all he knows of the people themselves … I am going to ask you to throw all the weight of your influence as heavily as possible in the scales with me … otherwise Louis will spend a good deal of time in Sydney actually reading other people’s books on the islands. What a thing it is to have a “man of genius” to deal with. It is like managing an overbred horse. Why with my own feeble hand I could write a book that the whole world would jump at …

Fanny hurriedly sealed the letter inside an envelope and hid it between the pages of a book before Louis returned. Tomorrow, when she went into town, she would post it.” (pp.343)

On Apemama:

“In the mornings, Louis wrote. In the afternoons he and Lloyd collaborated on a novel set in the pacific. After, they fantasized about having their own copra trading boat. In the evenings, Louis walked on the beach under the stars, playing his flageolet.” (pp.350)

 On the Janet Nicoll:

“The Big Book of the South Seas soaked his brain. Colvin has written to him in Sydney, objecting to his concept for the volume. He was singing the same tune as Fanny, that the book should be in the vein of Travels with a Donkey. The letter left Louis feeling uncomfortably out of tune with the two people he trusted most. Neither seemed to understand that he wasn’t the same man who had written that early book.

Something had happened over the two years since he and Fanny had left Bournemouth. He wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but he felt himself changed. Physically, to be sure. To function in the world as other men functioned, to no longer view himself as an invalid, was still miraculous to him. He felt more alive than he’d been in a very long time. He was hungry to learn about the world, to be in the world.” (pp.362)

 Fanny and Robert Louis discuss the South Seas volume:

“ “Louis, listen to me. We have seen things that no one else has seen. And to write in an academic way about the South Seas people with only a few personal anecdotes is a terrible mistake. You should have seen what Lloyd and I saw on the island today. The people were so colorful […] ”

“I have no desire to cast myself as the witty narrator who tells amusing stories about the quaint characters I encounter in my rambles,” Louis said. “It belittles them, and it cheapens the significance of the tragedy happening to the people here. This material is bigger than I am, and there’s too much at stake. What we are witnessing is the imminent disappearance of ancient traditions […] Somebody needs to document their languages, their rituals and beliefs, to alert the world to what is happening here.”

“ […] If you choose to ignore the stories of what we’ve experienced, I will tell them. This is our journey, Louis, not just yours.” ” (pp.363)

 Robert Louis reflecting on Fanny’s criticism:

“Fanny had no claim to be the arbiter of what he wrote and published. He had been pleased enough to see her taking notes so diligently with her journal propped on barrels, on her pillow, on the floor, whenever she had a moment to write. Her notes were useful to him, and her perceptions about the women she’d encountered on this voyage were especially interesting. But her perceptions were not identical to his. Proud as she was of her instincts, they were often flawed.” (pp.365)

 On “The Beach at Falesa”:

“The story was entirely unromantic. It would seduce English readers not because it had white men in it but because it was powerful, full of living, breathing characters. As far as he knew, it was the first truly realistic South Seas fiction anybody had done; every other writer had gotten waylaid by the romance of the place.” (pp.383)

 Moors and Robert Louis on The Wrong Box:

“In the end, you wrote the whole thing over.”

The Wrong Box? I wrote the final draft, yes.”

“I much prefer your own work,” Moors said. He sipped his beer. “This collaboration business is a mistake, as I see it.” (pp.394)


  1. Horan, Nancy. Under the Wide and Starry Sky. New York: Ballantine, 2014. Print.