In the mid to late 1870s, RLS was often at Barbizon, Grez-sur-Loing and the nearby Fontainebleau region of France. For those wishing to follow in RLS’s footsteps, these are all communes of the Seine-et-Marne department of France. Fontainebleau is a municipality of Paris, around 35 miles from the city centre. It is most well-known for its forest, which RLS particularly enjoyed:
“The charm of Fontainebleau is a thing apart. It is a place that people love even more than they admire. The vigorous forest air, the silence, the majestic avenues of highway, the wilderness of tumbled boulders, the great age and dignity of certain groves – these are but ingredients, they are not the secret of the philtre. The place is sanative; the air, the light, the perfumes, and the shapes of things concord in happy harmony” (“Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 108).
During this period, these areas were thriving artistic communities, a refuge to aspiring artists like Bob Stevenson. Stevenson not only experienced the Bohemian French lifestyle during his visits here with his cousin, he also met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the woman who would later be his wife (for more details of their meeting see the section, below, devoted to Grez-sur-Loing).
RLS wrote about his time at Fontainebleau, Barbizon and Grez in “Forest Notes” (1876), which you can read in Essays of Travel. He also wrote about his experiences here in “Fontainebleau” (1884), which you can read in Across the Plains (1884).
Barbizon, Grez and Fontainebleau also found a place in RLS’s fiction. “The Treasure of Franchard” (1883), for example, is set in Grez. In The Wrecker (1892) Loudon Dodd studies to be a sculptor in Paris. While there, he and his artist friends take a trip to Fontainebleau. Later, when Dodd is searching for Carthew, he tracks him down in Barbizon. Indeed, RLS addresses his friend Will H. Low, the American artist, in the epilogue to The Wrecker. Low and Stevenson met at Barbizon and RLS reminisces about their time there.
On this page you will also find information about other places in the Fontainebleau region, including Acheres-la-Foret, Chaillet-en-Biere, Recloses, Bourron-Marlotte, Montigny-sur-Loing, Nemours and Moret-sur-Loing.
“For some time a consistent Barbizonian; et ego in Arcadia visi, it was a pleasant season; and the noiseless hamlet lying close among the borders of the wood is for me, as for so many others, a green spot in memory”
(RLS, “Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 123)
While at Barbizon, RLS stayed at Hotel Siron. His first stay occurred from 29 March-19 April 1875. He had travelled there with Bob Stevenson from Paris.
Stevenson returned to Barbizon in August 1875 with Bob and Walter Simpson. He wrote: “Bob is very well indeed and has made great improvements in his work. Simpson and I cannot see that anyone hereabout paints as well as he does: the only doubt is whether an English public would care about them”
(Letter from RLS to his mother, early August 1875, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 155).
In late August RLS left Barbizon with Simpson for a walking tour of the valley of the Loing, which he would later describe in “An Epilogue to An Inland Voyage (1888) (The police cell where he was imprisoned at the end of the walk is at 17, rue de Gien, Chatillon-sur-Loire; its ‘Gendarmerie’ sign is still visible.) He then proceeded to Paris and then to Germany with his parents from 2-6 September (after the trip with his parents he was briefly in Paris again before returning home to Edinburgh).
On 15 April 1876, RLS went to London en route to Barbizon for another visit: “We’re off to Barbizon for some more health and forest and ozone”
(Letter from RLS to his mother, late April 1876, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 173).
He stayed in Barbizon until mid-May, returning to Edinburgh on 18 May.
Stevenson was in Barbizon and Grez in July of 1878. He left Paris for Grez on 11 July, spending most of his time there and in London until 15 August (when he was in Paris, Montargis, Le Puy and Monastier before setting off on the journey that would be Travels with a Donkey ). RLS was in Barbizon on 15 July 1878.
RLS was in Barbizon once more in April 1881. After wintering in Davos, he arrived in Barbizon on 19 April, staying until c. 26 April when he returned to Paris.
“But Gretz is a merry place after its kind: pretty to see, merry to inhabit. The course of its pellucid river, whether up or down, is full of gentle attractions for the navigator: islanded reed-mazes where, in autumn, the red berries cluster; the mirrored and inverted images of trees, lilies, and mills, and the foam and thunder of weirs. And of all noble sweeps of roadway, none is nobler, on a windy dusk, than the highroad to Nemours between its lines of talking poplar”
(RLS, “Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 135)
RLS spent three days in Grez in August 1875, and later at the end of the month set off from there on a walking tour up the Loing valley. There is now a 154 km Stevenson trail from Grez to Châtillon following this walk.
When RLS was next in Grez, in September 1876, he was to have an extremely significant encounter: he met Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, the woman who would later be his wife.
Although accounts of Stevenson’s life disagree about the exact date they met (some suggest, for example, that it was in July 1876), it seems likely that it was indeed after RLS and Simpson had finished their “inland voyage”. They began the trip that would become RLS’s An Inland Voyage (1878) on 25 August 1876 and finished on c.13/14 September 1876. in Pontoise. From Pontoise it seems RLS visited Paris briefly before going on to Grez. For more about their journey, see the Rivers in North France and Belgium pages of the website.
RLS met Fanny at the Hotel Chevillon in Grez. She was here with her daughter Belle and son Lloyd to recuperate after the death of her son Hervey (the family had originally come to France so that Fanny and Belle could study art). Lloyd described the Osbourne family’s first meeting with RLS:
“Then in the dusk of a summer’s day, as we all sat at dinner about the long table d’hote, some sixteen or eighteen people, of whom my mother and sister were the only women and I the only child, there was a startling sound at one of the open windows giving onto the street, and in vaulted a young man with a dusty knapsack on his back. The whole company rose in an uproar of delight, mobbing the newcomer with outstretched hands and cries of greeting. He was borne to a chair; was made to sit down in state, and still laughing and talking in the general hubbub was introduced to my mother and sister. ‘My cousin, Mr Stevenson,’ said Bob, and there ensued a grave inclination of heads, while I wriggled on my chair very much overcome and shyly stole peeps at the stranger”
(Lloyd Osbourne, “Introduction”, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vailima edn, vol I [New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1921], p. xiv).
Although we can not know how accurate this account is, it does give an indication of the kind of stories that have built up around Stevenson: the stories about his life become almost mythic, or a series of adventures that he himself might have written about in his fiction.
On the visit when RLS met Fanny he stayed in Grez and Paris until 11 October 1876. He arrived home in Edinburgh on 16 October.
RLS was next in Grez in June and July of 1877. On 19 June he left Edinburgh for Paris. He stayed in both Grez and Paris until he returned to Edinburgh on 19 July.
After a brief holiday in Cornwall with his parents, RLS returned to Grez (and Fanny) in August 1877. He left Cornwall on the 16th and stayed in Grez until late September, when he went on to Paris. He spent the rest of September and all of October in Paris with Fanny and her children.
In his letters to his mother during this stay at Grez, RLS seemed particularly anxious. He had not yet told his parents about Fanny, and it may be that he was also worried about Fanny returning his affection. He also seemed to be making amends for past grievances with his parents:
“I don’t believe you people know how much I care for you; I always get writing in this tune nowadays; for I feel so keenly that I do not make my love felt when I am with you. But if you will exercise a little faith, you may believe me – and I do not think you will believe over the mark. I have a bad character, and that makes me behave ill to you; but my heart is what you would wish. Also, I may tell my father, for I think it will please him, that since I have been here, I have been meditating a great deal about Christianity and I never saw it to be so wise and noble and consolatory as I do now”
(Letter from RLS to his mother, early August 1877, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 220).
On 11 July 1878 RLS left Paris for Grez. Between the 11th and early August 1878, he stayed in Grez (spending a day in Barbizon). In early August RLS went to London to see Fanny and her children who were preparing to return home to Fanny’s husband (they left for New York from Liverpool on 15 August). It is unclear how Fanny and RLS left their relationship at that point. Stevenson was, however, deeply upset about the departure and depressed about his future with Fanny. It was in this mood that he left for his walking tour of the Cevennes (passing first through Paris, Montargis, Le Puy and Monastier. He later wrote about the walk in Travels with a Donkey ).
Acheres-la-Foret, Chailly-en-Biere, Recloses
Stevenson was often unimpressed by the places he visited in the Fontainebleau region. For example, he wrote: “Chailly-en-Biere has outlived all things, and lies dustily slumbering in the plain – the cemetery of itself” (“Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 137).
Of Acheres, Recloses and Bourron-Marlotte he had to say: “Acheres and Recloses still wait a pioneer; Bourron (RLS was referring to Bourron-Marlotte, see below) is out of the question, being merely Gretz over again, without the river, the bridge, or the beauty” (“Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 138).
“I scarcely know Marlotte, and, very likely for that reason, am not much in love with it. It seems a glaring and unsightly hamlet”
(RLS, “Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains (London: Chatto and Windus, 1892), p. 138)
During a visit to Barbizon, RLS stayed in Marlotte on 7 April 1875.
“It was a most airy, quaint, and pleasant place of residence, just too rustic to be stagey; and from my memories of the place in general, and that garden trellis in particular – at morning, visited by birds, or at night, when the dew fell and the stars were of the party – I am inclined to think perhaps too favourably of the future of Montigny”
(RLS, “Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 137)
RLS also visited Montigny-sur-Loing. His friend Will H. Low, the American Artist, installed himself at Montigny to work on his painting.
Nemours and Moret-sur-Loing
While in the Fontainebleau region of France, RLS visited Nemours and Moret. He commented that “They are indeed, too populous” (“Fontainebleau”, in Across the Plains [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892)], p. 137). For more on Nemours, see the section on the Walking Tour of the Valley of Loing in Other France.
According to Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), RLS was in Moret-sur-Loing in the summer of 1877. He and Bob planned to travel in a canal barge moored there – a barge which they humorously named The Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne. However, their plans never materialized.
Images courtesy of Alan Marchbank