Christmas 1879 should have been happy for author Robert Louis Stevenson, who had come to California from Scotland in August, pursuing a woman he loved named Fanny Osbourne.
He met her in France in 1876 and was besotted with this creature who rolled her own cigarettes and liked to slip off her shoes as they talked, perching her tiny feet on the nearest chair.
Inconveniently, she was married to someone else. When she and her two children returned to California, Stevenson was devastated. When he received a cable saying she had again left her husband, Sam – a Civil War veteran and bon vivant with a wandering eye – RLS slipped away from home and made the 6,000-mile journey to her side. The only child of doting parents, he was afraid his family would disown him.
He was also an invalid and the journey almost killed him. By the time he caught up with Fanny in Monterey, his weight had dropped to 109 pounds, and she thought her 5-foot-10-inch lover looked terrible. It didn’t help that he was now estranged from his wealthy parents. When he proposed, Fanny demurred. He had to go out on a hike and almost die before she said yes. She filed for divorce and returned to Oakland to await the decree. In December, the divorce came through and Stevenson headed to San Francisco to be near her.
He caught the narrow-gauge line out of Monterey and took the Southern Pacific through the Santa Clara Valley. In San Francisco, he found a tiny apartment on Bush Street. But his holiday was not merry. Fanny spent Christmas with her family. As Stevenson wrote on Dec. 26: “For four days I have spoken to no one but my landlady or landlord, or to restaurant waiters. This is not a gay way to pass Christmas, is it?”
But none of us can know what lies ahead, and on that Christmas, Stevenson was on the brink of real happiness. That spring, Fanny nursed him back to health and they were married in San Francisco in May 1880. They returned to Scotland, where he began the richest period of his literary life: Over the next seven years, he penned “Treasure Island,” “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and many other works we still read today.
Never imagine your future rests on one bad day. That’s what a soon-to-be famous writer learned from his Christmas in California.
Robin Chapman is the author of “Historic Bay Area Visionaries” (The History Press, 2018), which includes a profile of Robert Louis Stevenson in California.