The history of artists and authors is littered with wives who have been fundamental influencers—even collaborators—on their spouses’ work, but who didn’t always receive their due.
F. Scott Fitzgerald secretly “borrowed” portions of Zelda’s diaries and passed them off as his own creation.
Jeanne-Claude was only added as a co-creator on her husband Christo’s works several decades after they began their artistic partnership. And Vera Nabokov did it all for Vladimir—she inspired, she typed, she taught his classes, and she saved him from his destructive whims.
This tribe of often-overlooked partners also includes Fanny Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s first reader and his most ardent supporter.
But she was more than that. Fanny was also her husband’s fiercest critic, and when it came to the first draft of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, her influence took a more destructive shape.
Stevenson met Fanny, his future American wife, while they were both vacationing in the French countryside in the summer of 1876. Robert was visiting a cousin and searching for an idea for his next book; Fanny was recovering from the death of her youngest child and her troubled marriage.
The two fell in love and carried on their scandalous affair for two years before Fanny returned to the U.S. and to her husband in 1878. But by the end of the next year, they couldn’t stay apart. Fanny obtained a divorce and officially threw her lot in with Robert when the two were married in 1880.
Five years later, in the summer of 1885, the couple was installed in their home in Bournemouth on the coast of England while Stevenson convalesce from his riot of illnesses (tuberculosis caused a domino effect of health problems for him throughout most of his life).
It would end up being a productive time for the writer, but one on which he would later reflect, “Remember the pallid brute that lived in Skerryvore like a weevil in a biscuit.”
By this time, he had already published Treasure Island as well as a variety of other works, but fame and fortune had so far eluded him. Stevenson was well-regarded among his artistic set, but he had yet to achieve financial security or wider renown.
During this time, the seeds of a new story were already bouncing around in his head. He had become interested in the “duality of man’s nature and the alternation of good and evil,” as his early biographer Graham Balfour wrote, but he hadn’t yet figured out the story in which to explore this idea.
Then, one night, Stevenson went to sleep and had a delicious nightmare. With thoughts of good and evil on his mind—not to mention his alleged medicinal use of cocaine to help with the effects of tuberculosis—it’s not surprising that his dreams would take a dark and twisted turn.
That night, three scenes would come to him that would inspire his next novel. It was during his dream of a scene in which a good man transformed into an evil one, that Fanny intervened.
“In the small hours of one morning, I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis,” Fanny remembered. “Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’”
According to legend—and Stevenson himself—he furiously wrote the first draft of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde over the course of only three days. When he was done, he did what he always did and showed it to his wife for her judgement.
Fanny wasn’t known to hold back when it came to her husband’s work. They would have long arguments and heated debates about her critiques and the merits of the writing he had produced.
According to Nellie van de Grift Sanchez’s 1920 biography The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, “In this battle of wits they found intense enjoyment, and it was, in fact, an intellectual comradeship that few writers have been fortunate enough to enjoy in their own households.”
Regardless of the enjoyment each of the parties found in the battles, it was a process that Fanny took very seriously. In a later letter to her mother-in-law, she made sure her husband would always have a fierce familial critic in his ranks.
She wrote, "If I die before Louis, my last earnest request is that he shall publish nothing without his father's approval. I know that means little short of destruction to both of them, but there will be no one else. The field is always covered with my dead and wounded, and often I am forced to a compromise, but still I make a very good fight.”
So when Stevenson showed her his whirlwind first draft of his latest book, she had to be honest. She hated it. She wrote down her criticisms, primarily that the book was written merely as a story rather than as an allegory of good versus evil, which she thought would have been the better move. She gave her written pronouncement to the writer and left him alone.
From here, it’s impossible to know the exact series of events. Early accounts stated that Stevenson himself threw his budding novel into the fire and burned it to a crisp. Different sources ascribe his action to different sets of motives—a fit of rage, of acceptance, or even the beginning stages of continued inspiration.
But in 2000, a letter written by Fanny was discovered that suggested Stevenson may not have been the literary arsonist after all.
To the art critic and poet WE Henley, Fanny mentioned this first draft of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, writing, "He wrote nearly a quire full of utter nonsense. Fortunately he has forgotten all about it now, and I shall burn it after I show it to you. He said it was his greatest work.”
Many experts think this solves the mystery of the first draft of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Liz Merry, the head of the book department at the auction house that handled Fanny’s letter, told the Independent, “This should end speculation about what happened to the first draft of Dr Jekyll—it seems clear she incinerated it. It's a very romantic tale. Fanny was a very important critic in his life and it's my belief she thought 'Dr Jekyll,' which was partly based on a dream, was not worthy of him.”
Regardless of who burned the letter or whether Fanny thought the root of the story was salvageable, Stephenson wrote a new version. As “I drive on with Jekyll: bankruptcy at my heels,” the writer wrote, he dashed out his next draft, again only in three days (although the editing process would take a bit longer).
It was this version that would eventually be published and go on to secure Stephenson’s reputation and financial security.
Fanny was a trusted advisor to Stephenson throughout his short career, so it is fairly safe to assume that her criticisms and edits only improved the work. But we will never know for sure how dramatically the versions differed, or the extent of Fanny’s influence on this important entry in the European literary canon.
And that’s OK, because what we do know is that this act of destruction led to a truly inspired act of creation.
“That an invalid in my husband's condition performed the manual labour alone seems incredible,” Fanny wrote after the fact. “He was suffering from continual hemorrhages and hardly allowed to speak, his conversation carried on by means of a slate and pencil.”
On January 1, 1886, just days before the book was officially published, Stevenson gave his own pronouncement in a letter he wrote to his cousin Katharine de Mattos, to whom he had dedicated his latest work.
He ended his missive writing, “I only wish the verses were better, but at least you like the story; and it is sent to you by the one that loves you—Jekyll and not Hyde.”