In accordance with our meta agreement to have topic challenges and a later meta agreement to have topic challenges lasting for two months and overlapping by one month, it is time to announce the May–June 2023 topic challenge.
Based on the number of votes (+7, -2), our 68th topic challenge will be
the works of Robert Louis Stevenson
What's a topic challenge?
See the meta posts linked above, and also this main Meta post. In short, during May and June 2023 you are invited to try to get hold of a work by Stevenson and ask questions about it.
Participation is not obligatory in any sense, and questions on other works are more than welcome during May and June too; they just won't count as part of this topic challenge.
How can I take part?
By getting hold of one or more works by Robert Louis Stevenson and
- asking good questions about it or
- answering questions that have been posted as part of this challenge or
- writing a review of a book by or about Stevenson on our Tumblr blog.
Questions about these works should be tagged robert-louis-stevenson and the work's title (if it is a book-length work). We'll keep a list of all such questions in an answer to this meta post.
The Scottish R L Stevenson (1850–1894) was greatly popular during his lifetime. For most of the 20th C., however, writers and critics considered his work rather second-rate. But recently his works have begun to attract critical attention again, undoing what Margot Livesey, writing in the November 1994 issue of The Atlantic, called "the long process by which Stevenson's work has been devalued". As Stevenson's works begins to regain critical favor, he also deserves to regain the wide readership he once enjoyed.
Stevenson's writings run the gamut:
- Poetry (A Child's Garden of Verses, 1885)
- Novels (Kidnapped, 1885)
- Travel writing (The Amateur Emigrant, 1895)
- Short stories ("The Bottle Imp", 1891)
- Essays, including literary criticism
- Drama (in collaboration with W. E. Henley)
Besides, in each of these genres, his works span a wide range. For example, his novels include children's stories (Treasure Island, 1883); horror (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886); historical fiction (Kidnapped); social realism (The Weir of Hermiston, 1896). Stevenson has something to offer every reader.
The range of genres is matched by a range of settings. Stevenson traveled widely. His works are set in Scotland (Kidnapped); England (Jekyll and Hyde); Continental Europe (Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, 1879); the USA (The Amateur Emigrant); the South Seas (Eight Years in Samoa, 1892). His portrait of the exploitation of the South Sea Islanders has led postcolonial critics to value him as an early anti-imperialist voice.
Above all, Stevenson is eminently readable. In his novels, for example, the plots can be action-packed to the point of melodrama, making them exceptionally gripping. That quality makes it easy to overlook the beauty his prose style. Stevenson is among the very greatest stylists of the English language. These few sentences from the opening chapter of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde capture perfectly the nature of the friendship between the dry-as-dust Gabriel Utterson and the man-about-town Richard Enfield:
It was a nut to crack for many, what these to could see in each other, or what subject they could find in common. It was reported by those who encountered them in their Sunday walks, that they said nothing, looked singularly dull, and would hail with obvious relief the appearance of a friend. For all that, the two men put the greatest store by these excursions, counted them the chief jewel of each week, and not only set aside occasions of pleasure, but even resisted the calls of business, that they might enjoy them uninterrupted.
Stevenson piles irony upon irony in this description. The bit about "would hail with obvious relief the appearance of a friend" is laugh-out-loud funny. Yet the very precise twist at the end, where we learn that the men won't give up their mutual Sunday walk even if they could easily plead the necessity of work, tells us that there is a genuine bond of affection here. This sort of double perspective is hard to pull off, and Stevenson does it without breaking a sweat. Few writers rise to this level of expertise in handling the resources of the language.
The variety of genre, form, and setting that Stevenson's work means that he has something to offer practically every reader. The trajectory of critical attitudes to his work, from celebratory to dismissive to rediscovery, also makes him an interesting subject. Finally, his works are out of copyright and freely available at the RLS website. For these reasons, I think he is a good candidate for a topic challenge.
- Vote for the next topic challenge or propose your own!