It’s tempting to think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous visit to Mount St. Helena with his bride Fanny as a romantic idyll, but that doesn’t fit the facts.
In truth, the vacation that inspired the classic book “Silverado Squatters” was woefully short on creature comforts, Stevenson scholar Robert Swearingen said during a May 10 lecture at the St. Helena Public Library.
Swearingen’s talk, titled “A Scot Abroad in Napa Valley,” was the first in a pair of back-to-back events organized by the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. After the lecture, the museum hosted a spirits tasting put on by Napa Valley Distillery.
Stevenson, then 29, spent two months on Mount St. Helena during the summer of 1880, shortly after marrying divorcee Fanny Osborne, age 40, in San Francisco. Stevenson, who’d always been sickly, was recovering from an almost-deadly bout of “galloping consumption” – probably a form of tuberculosis – and thought the Napa Valley and the Mayacamas Mountains would be a nice place to convalesce.
What followed was a series of discoveries, adventures and misadventures that resulted in a book that drew vivid portraits of Napa Valley residents – many of them eccentrics, in Stevenson’s eyes – and the early wine industry.
The couple visited the Diamond Mountain home of German immigrant Jacob Schram, who was already a prominent name in the wine business. After he gave the Stevensons a tour of his vineyards, Robert came away with some colorful anecdotes to record in his book and Fanny came away with a bad case of poison oak.
The Stevensons were nonplussed by a trip to the Petrified Forest.
“Doubtless, the heart of the geologist beats quicker at the sight; but, for my part, I was mightily unmoved,” Stevenson later wrote. “Sight-seeing is the art of disappointment.”
The couple, joined by Fanny’s son Lloyd from her previous marriage and a dog named Chuchu, stayed in a small, run-down cabin at the abandoned Silverado mining camp. It was hardly the kind of place that would make for an acceptable honeymoon nowadays – Stevenson’s book describes walking around with rattlesnakes “whizzing on every side like spinning wheels.”
Fanny and Lloyd got sick enough that Robert brought them into Calistoga to recuperate. When they returned to Silverado, they found that a side of bacon, a hatchet and two knives were missing. A shady family they’d gotten to know, the Hansons, blamed “wild cats” for making off with it – even the hatchet and knives.
But despite those setbacks, Stevenson was thrilled with the valley’s flora and fauna, the colorful characters they encountered (except for the Hansons) and the experience of living as “a Scot abroad” in rough-and-tumble America, Swearingen said.