Fanny and Louis in Grez

wide starry sky

Nancy Horan, the bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes now with her long-awaited second novel, based on the nineteenth century love story between Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, a not-exactly-divorced American mother of three and the much younger writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The pair met in the summer of 1875 in Grez, an art colony in France in the Fountainebleu Forest. Fanny had arrived in France the year before to escape her unhappy marriage and to study art alongside her 17 year-old daughter Belle.

Fanny and Belle were enjoying their studies in the women’s drawing classes at the Académie Julian alongside other international students, including May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister. (You can read more about May Alcott’s art studies and travels through France at my previous post, Little Women in Dinan.)

After enduring an unspeakable tragedy in Paris, Fanny decides to bring her children to Grez for some quiet recovery time in the country. A fellow art student at the Académie Julian suggested a quiet place, “an inn at Grez, on the Loing River. It’s close to Barbizon but away from all the bustle, and cheap. It’s near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Fanny talks her estranged husband from California into supporting them for one more year in Europe.

Nancy Horan describes Grez-sur-Loing well:

[N]estled in the midst of vast farm fields, the village was a smattering of stone houses, a picturesque bridge, and a ruined twelfth-century tower with ferns growing in its cracked walls.

During my year in France I loved to plan field trips to art history sites, and I just happened to spend a gray day in Grez myself. You can read another post (Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing) about my trip to Grez, which includes directions and more information about the different artists who lived and painted there.

Here are some photos of Grez that readers of Under the Wide and Starry Sky and fans of Robert Louis Stevenson might especially enjoy:

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. The picturesque  12th century Tour de Ganne is in the background.

The 17th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The 12th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The Tour de Ganne in Grez from the grassy walk down toward the river

The Tour de Ganne in Grez as seen from the grassy walk down toward the river

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

In the book, Nancy Horan has Fanny’s friend Margaret Wright tell her about the Hotel Chevillon in Grez, “one of the most bohemian of the bohemian gathering places near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Says Margaret:

Barbizon has become too fashionable. It’s overrun by poseurs more interested in the mis-en-scene than in producing any actual art. The real painters go to Grez. . . . And you needn’t worry. They will leave you alone, I think.

Little did Fanny know that the bohemians who enjoyed the summer season at Hotel Chevillon were dismayed to hear that an American woman and her children had arrived at the inn. Bob Stevenson (Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, and an artist in his own right) arrived ahead of the group of “Glasgow Boys” from Scotland with the intention of chasing Fanny away. In the book, Bob Stevenson hints Fanny might want to find other more suitable accommodations:

There’s an onslaught about to begin. . . . Once the others start to arrive you’ll discover this isn’t the place to be if you are hoping for a little peace. Madame Chevillon said you had come for the quiet. . . . There are places not far from here that would serve you much better if you are here to rest. . . .

But things would turn out much differently than the Stevensons had planned. Within a few short weeks, both of the Stevenson cousins would have a crush on Fanny. Although Fanny was 10 years older than Louis, they found comfort in each others hearts and minds. In the meantime, Fanny’s 17 year-old daughter Belle fell in love with the Irish artist Frank O’Meara.

The Hotel Chevillon still stands today, although it is not open to the public. It is a private art residency center operated by The Grez-sur-Loing Foundation in Sweden, which manages a stipend program for visiting artists, authors and photographers. There is even a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship available for interested writers (the application deadline for 2014 is February 28th, but it looks like it is limited to residents of Scotland.)

Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter.

Hotel Chevillon, the place where Fanny and Louis met,  is still standing! It is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter. It was restored in 1994 and serves as an art center and residency program.

Hotel Chevillon: the place where Fanny Van de Grif Osbourne met Robert Louis Stevenson.

Hotel Chevillon from the street.

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relx by the river

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon from the nearby bridge. Just on the other side of this wall is where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relax.

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there? Source: Carol Ferrelly, http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/writing/2013/11/five-things-robert-louis-stevenson-fellowship

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there back in the day? Source: Carol Ferrelly, http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/writing/2013/11/five-things-robert-louis-stevenson-fellowship

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez and painted this captivating picture of the garden at Hotel Chevillon.

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez. This painting captures the feel of the garden at Hotel Chevillon back in the time of Fanny and Louis. Source: http://www.paintingmainia.com

After their summer meeting in Grez, Fanny and her children returned to Paris, where they settled into an apartment in Montmartre. Louis would continue his pursuit of Fanny from Paris to California and beyond. They would finally marry in 1880 and spend their years traveling the world.

John Singer Sargent would paint a strange but perceptive portrait of RLS and Fanny when they were all living in Bournemouth, England in 1885. Apparently, Fanny was not too happy about the way she is marginalized and made to look so Moorish in this painting. As for me, I find it fascinating. What an odd pair.

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Under The Wide and Starry Sky is an interesting portrait of an unorthodox and artistic couple from history, not unlike the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. However, this love story didn’t seem nearly as compelling as Loving Frank, and I’m not sure why. Neither RLS nor Fanny are particularly admirable people, but then, neither were Frank and Mamah. For some reason, it bothered me that Fanny lacked any substantial talent or drive as an artist, that she acted so passively in the face of her son’s serious illness, and that she waffled over her commitment to a horrible marriage. Maybe it’s my mistake, expecting a 19th century woman to act with as much agency as a 21st century woman, but still, it interfered with my ability to identify and sympathize with Fanny. I have to admit, I take strange delight in the take-down Fanny suffers under the paintbrush of John Singer Sargent.

Even if Under the Wide and Starry Sky doesn’t measure up to Loving Frank, I would still recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially if you are interested in learning more about the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson or the 19th century art scene in Paris. And if you happen to be visiting Paris anytime soon, I highly recommend a day trip out to Grez.  

Napoleon and his Women

I am always thrilled to hear when Michelle Moran has another new book out. After enjoying Madame Tussaud so much just a year or so ago, I was excited to see that Moran has already written another book set in France.

The Second Empress (Crown, U.S. August 2012) is about Napoleon’s short second marriage to 18 year-old Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, after his first marriage to Joséphine Beauharnais ended in divorce. Although Napoleon and Josephine were still in love, Josephine was unable to have any more children. She had married Napoleon at the age of 32, and was already the mother of two teenagers from her first marriage. By the time of Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce in 1810, Josephine was 46 and her daughter Hortense was 27. Napoleon had to have an heir, and within a year of his second marriage, the young Marie-Louise had given birth to their son Napoleon II. Okay, enough history – just wanted to give some background.

The Second Empress is not only about Napoleon and Marie-Louise, but it is also about Napoleon’s strange power-hungry sister Pauline. The chapters told from Pauline’s point of view are ridiculously good. The story alludes to the innuendo of incest between Pauline and Napoleon, which adds an extra creepy layer of intrigue. I also enjoyed the way Moran developed a relationship between Josephine’s daughter Hortense and Marie-Louise. The two women, who were close to the same age, actually learned to like and respect each other. It’s clear that Marie-Louise can’t stand Napoleon, and that all she really wants is to have his heir and get the hell out of France. In the meantime, Napoleon keeps writing love letter to Josephine, who was awarded her beloved Chateau de Malmaison in the divorce.

Last spring I visited Chateau de Fontainebleu and Chateau de Malmaison, two of the homes in which Napoleon and Josephine had lived in the outskirts of Paris. Here are some photos and comments to help you enjoy The Second Empress even more.

The Cour d’Honneur at Fontainebleau, also known as the Cour des Adieux in memory of Napoleon’s farewell speech before his departure to Elba in April 1814.

The Diana Gallery at Fontainebleau, the large ballroom decorated with works depicting the myths of Diana, as mentioned in Chapter 13 of the book. Hortense takes Marie-Louise on a tour of Fontainebleau, and they stop here. Marie-Louise looks out the windows and reflects: “Only twenty years ago Marie-Antoinette walked these paths. I imagine my great-aunt in her flowing chemise, and I wonder if she can see me now . . . . An entire revolution left half a million people dead, and for what? This ballroom is just as lavish, this court just as full of greed and excess. Nothing has changed except the name of France’s ruler, and now, instead of an L on the throne, there is a golden N.”

In the meantime, Josephine is living on the other side of Paris at Malmaison, the home she had found and decorated in 1799, while Napoleon was in Egypt. Napoleon gave Malmaison and all of its contents to Josephine in the divorce. Josephine died there in 1814.

Salon at Malmaison

Napoleon’s billiard room at Malmaison

Josephine’s bedroom at Malmaison.

The cedar tree that Napoleon and Josephine planted in 1800 to celebrate his Italian victory at Marengo. It’s called the Marengo Cedar, and it still stands on the grounds today.

What I believe are Josephine’s shoes. Dainty!

The library at Malmaison. Awesome.

I absolutely loved my trip out to Malmaison and took about a million more photos. I feel like I need to spare you from a vacation slide nightmare, otherwise I’d just post them all here. I enjoyed Fontainebleau as well, but there is something much more intimate about Malmaison. If you’re interested in more, you can take your own virtual tour on the Chateau Malmaison website. If you are planning a trip to Paris, I recommend the minivan tour with the folks at Paris Vision, who will take you to Malmaison, Petit Malmaison and the church where Josephine is buried all in one afternoon. Paris Vision also offers a minivan tour to Fontainebleau.

Before you go, whether online or for real, you really should read The Second Empress by Michelle Moran. Definitely a recommended read for French history fans.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of the book and paid for my own tours. I received no consideration for my recommendations. If I like a book I tell you, and the same goes for the tours.