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19 May 2021

From the NS archive: Intensely remembered ladies

25 July 1969: On Fanny Stevenson and Jane Austen, two women “mildly patronised by Henry James”.

By Claire Tomalin

In this 1969 article the biographer and former New Statesman literary editor Claire Tomalin considered two different biographies, both of women “mildly patronised by Henry James”. In “The Violent Friend: The Story of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson”, Margaret Mackay describes Fanny Stevenson, a white American woman who was sneered at by the Victorian literary establishment for her tanned complexion, curly hair and independent spirit. No matter her suitability as a wife, she certainly cared for her husband: Fanny met Robert when he was sick, and married him as he appeared to be dying; “She kept him alive for 14 years,” Tomalin asserts. “Jane Austen and Her World” by Marghanita Laski, meanwhile, reinforces the similarities of Austen to Fielding, Swift and Pope. It encourages us to “fix our attention upon the Austen tribe and tie-ups with the novels”, rather than ask for such details of a creative and emotional life.


“He’s merrit a black woman” was the below-stairs verdict when Robert Louis Stevenson brought his wife Fanny to Edinburgh in 1880. She and Louis favoured the description “tiger lily”, others later described her as a “grizzled lioness”; her uncle-in-law, approvingly, “besom”. Ten years older than her sickly second husband, crop-haired, chain-smoking, penniless, with two children to support, divorced, American: she was hardly a pattern for Victorian brides.

As a child in Indianapolis in the 1840s, Fanny Vandegrift read a lot and ran wild, sunbonnet sewn into her hair in a vain attempt to combat her swarthiness; she enjoyed squeezing wild grapes into a calabash and referred to the juice (typically) as “the blood-red wine”. Years later she advised her daughter Belle to avoid ordinary dress so as not to appear a “plain, little pudgy dark woman. Keep to the slightly oriental, the rather unusual, and you are a houri.” In photographs Fanny and Belle appear as strong, broody, sometimes discontented presences of almost rasping femininity. No wonder the late Victorian literary establishment resented their bagging of Louis, the adored bright boy. Fanny quarrelled with them all – Colvin, Gosse, Henley – except the politic Henry James, who confined himself to sly teasing, as in his letter to Louis in Samoa:

I know what you all magnificently eat, and what dear Mrs Louis splendidly (but not a somewhat transparently – no?) wears. Please assure that intensely remembered lady of my dumb fidelity…

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Fanny in fact wore loose dresses in the South Seas, and went barefoot, sensibly enough. The unconventionality that unnerved Louis’ friends was precisely what he valued in her and Belle:

From European womankind
They are divided and defined
By the free limb and the plain mind
The nobler gait, the naked foot,
The indiscreeter petticoat…

To both Fanny and Louis the myth of their instant, irrevocable falling in love and uncloudedly maintained romance was very distant. It was upheld in her sister Nellie Sanchez’s biography, published in 1919, five years after Fanny’s death: a charming book drawing on personal reminiscence of the time of the marriage, and only a little glossed over as to the awkward fact here and there (it may have been Nellie who inked out depressed passages in Fanny’s diary, now restored). Mrs Sanchez attributes to her sister an “atmosphere of thrilling New World romance that appealed with irresistible force to the man who was himself Romance personified”. Fewer claims are laid for Romance today (RLS’s fiction suffers more than his life story, perhaps); and Margaret Mackay’s detailed new biography of Fanny is cooler than her predecessor’s.

However, like Stevenson’s chief biographers, she confirms that Fanny, for all her hypochondria, glooms and second sights, was a blessing, becoming (in JC Furnas’s phrase) “the medium whereby Louis lived daily life”.

When she met him he was sick, when she married him he appeared to be dying; she nursed, bullied, travelled him out of tuberculosis, enduring at one time or another life in a yellow brick Bournemouth villa and months of seasickness in the high seas; she kept him alive for 14 years.

After his death she remained enough of a houri to attract a man 40 years her junior; Ned Field lived with her until she died at 74, when he promptly married Belle, who was a mere 20 years older than him. He was probably not Fanny’s lover, but eyebrows were raised; and Henry James commented, hearing of her presence in France with Ned and incorrectly surmising that she would not come to England: “Poor lady, poor barbarous and merely instinctive lady – ah, what a tangled web we weave!”

Mrs Mackay stresses James’s role as chorus to the Stevensons’ progress, dedicating her book to him and suggesting that Fanny can be viewed as a Jamesian heroine. Certainly James delighted in their adventures – “they are a romantic lot” – and was fond of Fanny, writing her one of her most treasured letters on the death of Louis. But he refused to act as literary executor; perhaps this was the artist’s self-protective armour.

And James did more than comment, he was able to receive Louis’ unburdening of quarrelsome moments in Samoa; a healing function for a friend:

“We fell out my wife and I” the other night; she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear… Here is a little comedy for Henry James to write.

Louis knew how to return blows, and hurt Fanny deeply by telling her she had the soul of a peasant. Probably he was only gibing at her passion for gardening; but if we feel there was something coarse about her, some mixed motives in the impulsive beginnings of her relationship with Louis (she did after all return to her husband Sam after living with Louis, and we still do not know the wording of the telegram with which she summoned him to California), we should bear in mind that she stands forever contrasted with one of the finest, wittiest, most piercing minds of her time. His gratitude to her at any rate expressed itself thus, when he spoke of marriage:

The whole material of life is turned over and over, ideas are struck out and shared, the two persons more and more adapt their notions one to suit the other, and in process of time, without sound of trumpet, they conduct each other into new worlds of thought.

This excuses a good deal of instinct and barbarism. Another lady mildly patronised by Henry James, this time for her “light felicity”, is the subject of a brief and finely illustrated work, Jane Austen and Her World. Miss Laski opens and closes with more 19th-cen­­­tury carping; there is the “washy, water-gruel” variety, and a letter by Lady Knatchbull, Jane Austen’s favourite niece, in which she speaks of her late aunts’ (Jane and Cassandra) “common-ness”:

If it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent… they would have been, tho’ not less clever and agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society and its ways.

– a particularly well-found quotation. The effect of this beautifully written and produced book is certainly to reinforce our sense of Austen’s attitudes and environment – urban, landscape, family – being so much closer to Fielding, Swift, Pope than (say) Wordsworth. Could it have been a creeping 19th-century fashion for muffling that led her to remove Mrs Jennings’s reference to a natural child in the second edition of Sense and Sensibility? Critics have recently seen strong links between her work and Shaftesbury’s moral system. but alas Miss Laski has not come up with any fresh evidence to prove whether Jane read him.

The old family details are as much as we can hope for, carefully combed through. Her initial reticence, her sister’s discretion and deletions, mean we must fix our attention upon the Austen tribe and tie-ups with the novels, not ask for the creative and emotional life. Contemplating the melancholy childbed death-roll of the sisters-in-law and acquaintances, one has a renewed sense of the intensity with which she dwelt on the years of premarital education and flowering in young women’s lives. “Poor animal,” she described her once lively, novel-writing niece Anna, feared pregnant for the third time in three years. “She will be worn out before she is thirty – I am very sorry for her.”

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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