March 21, 2016 | Robyn Pritzker.
Amongst the most misunderstood literary partnerships to date is that of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. The two coauthored several volumes, to wide critical disapproval, and Fanny was her husband’s amanuensis and editor for many years through his bouts of ill health. Fanny was an artist in her own right, a trained painter and an author who penned several short stories and captivating travel diaries during her family’s extensive travels across Europe, North America, and the Pacific Islands. Robert Louis Stevenson frequently mentioned their collaboration in his letters, referencing the two of them hard at work together on his latest pieces , but nonetheless critics and biographers like Frank McLynn and T.C. Livingstone have long asserted that Fanny’s influence was minimal if not actually detrimental.
There are several enigmas overshadowing the Stevenson pair, including a plagiarism scandal, and some controversy over who contributed what, but the most notorious incident surrounds the fate of the lost first draft of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Throughout various letters and family biographies, there has remained an uncertainty about whether Fanny may have burned the first draft, or if Louis burned it after hearing her critique. Lloyd Osbourne, Fanny’s son, wrote in his own memoirs that his stepfather burned the manuscript himself to ensure he would write a better version. In a letter to William Henley only discovered about 15 years ago, Fanny wrote that the initial story was “a quire full of utter nonsense,” with allegorical aspects that were not as clear as they should be. However, Fanny only mentions that she plans to burn the draft in the future, after Henley has read it, which never came to pass, as the manuscript was destroyed. Fanny also told Henley that her husband “said it was his greatest work.”) Stevenson specialists have reported that the author reacted to the manuscript’s destruction with a “flurry of creative hysteria” and wrote an entire new copy in just three days. Other letters from the Stevenson’s suggest the second draft took several months to be completed. The only real conclusion to be drawn about the initial manuscript is that it’s fate has been hotly contested.
Bizarrely, when Fanny’s aforementioned letter to Henley was found and auctioned off in 2000, headlines boasted such sensationalism as: “Stevenson’s wife burnt Jekyll and Hyde ‘nonsense,’” and “The story of Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde and Fanny, the angry wife who burned the first draft.”  For some reason, critics cite her written intentions in the letter as evidence she had destroyed the draft despite a different letter being found that effectively validated Lloyd’s version of events, that Mr. Stevenson burned it himself. So why have historians and biographers blamed Fanny for this destructive act when so little evidence supports it? Why have we been so quick to assume that Jekyll and Hyde was a success in spite of Fanny, when in reality it is the rewritten version, in which allegory is so vivid and meaningful, that has fascinated us for so long? As Stevenson’s main critic and editor, Fanny was undeniably the catalyst for the revised edition, and consequently the driving force behind one of his greatest works.
If Fanny’s contributions to her husband’s work had been offered more respect or critical scrutiny, we might today remember the Stevensons together, as their talents were deeply complementary. The aspects of writing Stevenson found challenging, Fanny thought simple. While recognition was always just beyond Fanny’s reach, Stevenson won critical acclaim. Stevenson was manic, Fanny was consistent. Together, they were responsible for one of the stronger voices in late-Victorian literature. Fanny had always been more comfortable writing about the realm of the fantastic, and her childhood reverence for ghost stories was noted by all of her family members.  She showed an ease writing parable and allegory, and with creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and interstitiality, while her husband constantly bemoaned his inability to properly put his wild dreams on paper. His frustration with this dissonance was solved, though tempestuously, in the production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A great deal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s legacy is tied to the mysteries of their partnership, something shared by many literary wives and partners. Theories of authorship, and discourse on the value of the muse, the scribe, and the editor are all constantly at play. Where women were often discouraged from literary pursuits, they found ways to exercise their skills in the private realm, helping their brothers, husbands, or friends. Between Mr and Mrs Stevenson, there was a bond of love for each other, and for telling stories. If we look beyond their marriage and interrogate their collaboration, we may find answers to questions we haven’t yet thought to ask.
Robyn is a graduate of McGill University and the University of Edinburgh. Her research involves the Victorian print trade, women, authorship, and digital humanities. Otherwise, Robyn is an avid ghost story reader with heterochromia and a penchant for the outdoors.
Edited by Matthew Tibble and Amadeus Chen.
1. Bradford Booth, ed . The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson: Volume 5, July 1884 August 1887 (New Haven: Yale Uni Press, 1995).
2. Fanny Stevenson. ‘Letter to William Henley’, 1885.
4. Margaret Mackprang Mackay. The Violent Friend (New York: Doubleday, 1968), p. 22.
1.Image courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina.
2. Fanny Stevenson and friends of the family in Samoa. Image courtesy of Capital Collections