The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886. It’s a novella ie very short, just 60 pages in the Oxford University Press edition. Reams have been written about the notion of the Double in Stevenson’s fiction. It’s easy to associate it with ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, serialised just four years later, and claim there was a Victorian fascination with the dark underbelly of their world (and particularly of London, where both novels are set). Maybe. Though remember Gray was heavily criticised on its magazine publication, so much so that Wilde had to tone down the book version.

Best bit For my money the early chapters (some only a few pages long) suffer from the same shortcomings as the New Arabian Nights ie a lack of detail and a lack of narrative drive. The horror is told but not really described. It feels loose, until the fairly scary letter left by the dead Dr Lanyon describes witnessing Jekyll’s transformation – and then the whole thing is pulled together by Jekyll’s harrowing written confession. This last section could have stood on its own, frankly, and would have been one of the most powerful short stories in the canon.

Style The style is much tauter than the New Arabian nights. Tighter, each phrase packing meaning.

“The scud had banked over the moon, and it was now quite dark. The wind, which only broke in puffs and draughts into that deep well of building, tossed the light of the candle to and fro about their steps, until they came into the shelter of the theatre, where they sat down silently to wait. London hummed solemnly all around; but nearer at hand, the stillness was only broken by the sounds of a footfall moving to and fro along the cabinet floor.”

Dream Apparently the inspiration for the story came to Stevenson in a dream. He wrote a draft and showed it to his wife who said it’s more an allegory than a story. So he burned that version and rewrote the whole thing from scratch in six days. Impressive.

London Like the New Arabian Nights, the setting is London, London, London. Not by accident but as a pre-requisite, London being the biggest city in the world, one which struck all visitors as so vast that a man could be anonymous, have multiple identities, seek out strange adventures, get away with murder.

Freud Freud was 20 when this was published. Unlikely he ever knew about it. He was led to his ‘discoveries’ by the persistence of patients with compulsive, neurotic or hysterical symptoms which appeared to be the result of conflict and suppression. Ie the ‘civilised’ part of the mind trying to suppress or control damage done to, early memories of, or lusts arising from, the more ‘primitive’, base personality. I was struck that the scientist Jekyll speculates that there are more than just two sides to a personality.

This is more in line with Freud – with his tripartite system of id, ego and superego – but also with modern neuroscience which suggests the mind is a congeries of interlocking systems. Either way it undermines the simplistic ‘Doubles’ debate.

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens.”

Darwin and science In the OUP introduction it explains how Darwin’s works (On The Origin of Species 1859, The Descent of Man 1870) had led to a widespread cultural anxiety about the possible degeneration of humanity to a baser state ie there is no Providence guiding human affairs inexorably upwards. There is no necessary reason why Evolution should work in what we puny mortals consider a more moral direction. For me the interesting aspect of Jekyll isn’t the religious one – the anxiety of the Scottish Calvinist tradition going back through Hogg and beyond etc; it’s the connection it makes between scientific experimentation and degeneration. Rather than linking back to a Scottish religious past, for me Jekyll links forward to a science fiction future. HG Wells and his anxiety that science could unleash the Beast – eg The Island of Dr Moreau, 1896.

Adaptations There are umpteen movie versions. The 1941 one stars Spencer Tracy and gives him Ingrid Bergman as a completely factitious love interest.

Trailer for the Spencer Tracy version of Jekyll on YouTube


A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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  1. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) « Books & Boots

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