Stevenson’s Treasure: A “sinful, mad business” or following the heart?

I bring you a guest post by a friend in the world of historical fiction, Mark Wiederanders, who has written a book about Robert Louis Stevenson. I still have a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses on my shelf that looks like it was originally my father’s. And I distinctly remember a gorgeous copy of Treasure Island that I suspect my brother must have. Who didn’t love these books? It turns out Stevenson had quite a story buried in his own life. Now Mark has put it all in a darn good book of his own, Stevenson’s Treasure. Here’s his guest post:

book cover image Stevenson's Treasure Mark Wiederanders Fireship Press
A friend who read my novel, about Robert Louis Stevenson’s wild dash to America to pursue a married American with whom he had fallen in love, said that the book captivated her but made her squirm.
“Why?” asked I.
She wrinkled up her nose and said, “I felt so sorry for his parents!”
Her comment stopped me; mostly I had been getting a different reaction to the book, along the lines of “Wow, Stevenson was a guy who followed his heart to the max, and I admire that!” or, “He was so romantic!”
Without being a story-wrecker, I’ll pose a central question raised by Stevenson’s Treasure which readers can answer for themselves (or better yet, post your thoughts in the comments of this blog and/or email them via my website, and I’ll post them):
Is it best to follow your heart, no matter the consequences?
I can’t think of a better example of risking everything to follow one’s heart than “Louis” Stevenson’s quest to make Fanny Osbourne his wife. When he decided to bolt from his parents’ home in Scotland in 1879 to pursue Fanny Osbourne in California he knowingly risked:
• His parents’ disapproval and rejection – Louis’s father raged about his son’s “sinful mad business” with the older, married woman, and hatched various schemes to get Louis home;
• Disownment and financial ruin – Louis assumed his father’s financial support would end, and his earnings from writing, at the time, were a pittance;
• Losing friends that were dear to him – they generally sided with his father, at times fearing that Louis had lost both his sanity and his ability to write due to his scandalous involvement with Fanny;
• His fledgling writing career – as Stevenson’s Treasure dramatizes, Louis’s essays and stories sent from California were met with disdain by some of the same “friends” who had championed lesser work that he did before the affair;
• Life itself – the arduous, 6,000-mile trip via steamer and rail put Louis, ill with lung ailments, in miserable health by the time he arrived on Fanny’s Monterey doorstep. More than once during that year his sleep-deprived struggle to have Fanny and a writing career, plus lack of self-care, left him close to death.
When I took screenwriting classes several years ago I was urged to write “Go For It!” movies in which the hero or heroine takes huge risks to reach a goal, passes a point of no return in which he/she must either “win or die trying,” and then, against all odds, spectacularly succeeds. The industry loves these movies because they hook audiences early and keep them in their seats through at least one greasy tub of overpriced popcorn.
Louis Stevenson’s quest (which you can learn more about by reading Stevenson’s Treasure, “Behind the Book” on my website, and biographies on RLS) follows the Go For It arc. His August, 1879 letters to friends show that he was well aware of the risks and consequences. Before leaving Scotland he made out a will. En route to California he wrote to Teddy Henley, “I am doing right; I know no one will think so, and don’t care. My body, however, is all to whistles….” And, to Sidney Colvin, “No man is any use until he has dared everything; I feel just now as if I had, and so might become a man.”
By contrast, the risks in the prototypical Go For It movie, Flashdance, are mundane. “Alex,” an earnest, sexy, working-class heroine played by Jennifer Beals, follows her heart to compete for a spot in a dance conservatory. If she fails, she faces the consequence of continuing to ride her ten-speed bike to work as a welder (a dated example, but the film was so successful it has been revived as a Broadway play).
I loved Flashdance, but who is a better example of the risk-all, Go For It life, Alex the flash-dancer or Robert Louis Stevenson?
Going back to my friend’s comment, Stevenson’s journey that year had life-changing consequences, not just to himself but to persons who never asked to be involved in his drama including his parents, Fanny’s husband, and her children.
When is it best to follow your heart?
Portrait of RLS and Fanny by John Singer Sargent


Stevenson’s Treasure: A “sinful, mad business” or following the heart? — 4 Comments

  1. I wish he hadn’t done it. Who knows how many years that journey took off his life? And it breaks my heart that he gave up children of his own blood. All this for a woman who reportedly had a bit of a hard time deciding whether she wanted him or not, even after he put himself through hell to get to her. But that was his marrow.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rebecca! I partly agree: the journey, and other wild ones RLS made may have shortened his life, and he was a man of strong marrow! But my piece did not clarify that he had no children of his own; rather, Fanny Osbourne had two children by her first husband, Sam.

  3. As the Fanny of Stevenson’s Treasure makes clear, it was not only his heart Louis was following: he was hearing her heartbeat as well. Had he been pursuing a woman who didn’t care for him out of some mad idea he could win her, it would have been a foolish effort leading to no good end. Fanny wanted a life bigger than she had with her husband,and Louis understood that. It may have taken years off his life, but it was the life in the years they had together that mattered.

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