San Francisco is such a beautiful city that it’s almost easy to forgive it for being a place where writers mostly starve. When I go there, I like to visit 608 Bush Street. It’s now a barber shop, but in 1979, it was a lodging house operated by Mary Carson, Robert Louis Stevenson lodged there for several weeks while he was trying to persuade Fanny Osbourne to divorce her husband and marry him instead. He’d met her in France, where she was studying painting, and fallen in love with her. She left him there and returned to California to rejoin her husband, possibly because her husband refused to continue to support her unless she returned home and brought her children with her.
Stevenson followed her across the ocean, without telling his parents that he was pursuing a woman who was older than he, married, and already a mother. He caught up with her in Monterey, where her husband Sam had taken the family for a long vacation in an attempt to repair a marriage that was very clearly on the rocks. Fanny wrote later about his arrival in Monterey: “I remember him walking into the room and the outcry of delight that greeted him, the incoherence of laughter, the tears, the heart-swelling joy of reunion.”
Her daughter Belle remembered it another way: “Louis’ conduct was not that of a romantic lover who had followed a sweetheart halfway round the world. Although he was gay and full of banter, he was almost coldly casual towards my mother and she to him,” she wrote later.
He couldn’t have been a prepossessing sight. Thin as a rail at the best of times, he’d just come across the ocean on an emigrant ship and then headed cross-country on a train in which the sleeping accommodations were minimal. Having spent the ocean crossing socializing with fellow passengers, exploring around the ship, and writing at the small table in his cabin, he spent the train trip babysitting the bratty children of an overburdened mother, itching from a rash that covered his hands, and sleeping on narrow boards that turned the train’s bench seats into sleeping accommodations. In 1888, he wrote, “I myself dread, worse than almost any other imaginable peril, that miraculous and really insane invention, the American railroad car. Heaven help the man — may I add the woman — that sets foot in one. Ah, if it were only an ocean to cross, it would be a matter of small thought to me — and great pleasure. But the railroad car — every man has his weak point; and I fear the railroad car as abjectly as I do an earwig, and, on the whole, on better grounds.”
By the time he arrived in Monterey, he was on the verge of physical collapse. In a letter to his friend Edmund Gosse, he said, “When I came here I had a week’s misery and a fortnight’s illness, and since then I have been more or less busy in being content…. I was pretty nearly slain; my spirit lay down and kicked for three days…”
While Fanny waffled about whether or not she wanted to leave Sam to marry a penniless writer who had made the supremely romantic gesture of following her across the ocean while planning to get a book out of the experience, Louis took off on a camping trip in the hills above Monterey. He collapsed there and was found on the verge of death by a pair of shepherds who owned an Angora goat ranch. They carried him back to their house and nursed him back to health. “I was up at an Angora goat-ranche in the Santa Lucia Mountains, nursed by an old frontiers-man, a mighty hunter of bears and I scarcely slept or ate, or thought for four days. Two nights I lay out under a tree in a sort of stupor, doing nothing but fetch water for myself and horse, light a fire and make coffee, and all night awake hearing the goat-bells ringing and the tree-frogs singing when each new noise was enough to set me mad. Then the bear-hunter came round, pronounced me ‘real sick,’ and ordered me up to the ranche,” as Stevenson told it in his letter to Edmund Gosse.
When he was well enough, he returned to Monterey, but Fanny still hadn’t made up her mind. He left her there and went to San Francisco, where he moved into the lodging house on Bush Street, where he lived on a starvation budget, took walks through the city and wrote her letters. A year later, he described San Francisco in an article he wrote for Fraser’s Magazine in an article that includes a prescient hint of the fire that would destroy the city following the earthquake of 1906: “Hill after hill is crowded with the palaces of San Francisco; its long streets lie in regular bars of darkness, east and west, across the sparkling picture; a forest of masts bristles like bulrushes about its feet… What enchantment of the Arabian Nights can equal the evocation of a roaring city, in a few years of a man’s life, from the marshes and the blowing sand… Such swiftness of increase, as with an overgrown youth, suggests a corresponding swiftness of destruction….”
In the end, it probably wasn’t so much the romance of it all as the collision between Stevenson’s weak lungs and San Francisco’s fogs that persuaded Fanny to show him some mercy. She moved him out of his room on Bush Street to a hotel in Oakland that was close enough to where she was living that she could nurse him. But when he started spitting up blood and both she and he were convinced that he was dying, she defied her qualms about her reputation and moved him into her cottage in Oakland, where he recovered enough to persuade her to take the chance of marrying him. The two of them left California along with Fanny’s children after she wrote a letter to his parents letting them know that their Louis was broke and sick and they sent him the money to buy passage back to Scotland for his new family.