Santa Clara Valley Lives: Author follows love interest to local area

Courtesy of Historic Bay Area Visionaries and California Historical Society


Note: This is Part 2 in a series that began last week.


Author Robert Louis Stevenson made the 6,000-mile journey from his home in Scotland to the Bay Area in 1879 because he had fallen in love with a woman from California. Her name was Fanny Osbourne and the two had met in France. He knew that she was married and had been for 20 years, but she had recently moved from Oakland to Monterey to distance herself from her unfaithful spouse. Stevenson set off in hot pursuit.

Arriving in Oakland on Aug. 30, 1879, after his trip across the U.S. on the transcontinental railroad, he took a ferry across the San Francisco Bay. Then, he caught the morning train south, which took him through the heart of the Santa Clara Valley and deposited him in Salinas at approximately 1:30 that afternoon. There, he hopped the Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad, which took him straight to the Monterey wharf.

The only son of a wealthy engineer, Stevenson suffered from lung disease. At 5 feet, 10 inches tall, he weighed only 118 pounds when he left home, and then lost 14 pounds on his journey. When he arrived in Monterey and found the house where Fanny was staying, the two fell into each other’s arms and wept. Her 11-year-old son Lloyd was there and later wrote: “His clothes, no longer picturesque but merely shabby, hung loosely on his shrunken body.”

Fanny was 11 years older than Stevenson and did not immediately accept his proposal of marriage. But in mid-October, she returned to Oakland and filed for divorce. Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne were married in San Francisco in May 1880.

With Fanny at his side, Stevenson returned to Scotland and reconciled with his parents. The next few years were among the richest of his creative life and included the publication of “Treasure Island,” “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Kidnapped.” Some say that Fanny was a great muse. Some say that she loved money and Stevenson worked hard to pay the bills. Who knows what sparks a writer’s imagination?

Fanny traveled with him back to America in 1887 and across the Pacific looking for a better climate for his health. She was at his side when he died in Samoa in 1894 at the age of 44. His life was brief, but his work has endured. And so has the tale of his epic journey west and his unlikely romance with a certain woman of California.

Robin Chapman’s new book, “Historic Bay Area Visionaries,” will be published Oct. 15. The Market Street Railway and the California State Railroad Museum provided information for this column.

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