Last time I looked at the genesis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Now I would like to examine something of what Stevenson intended in this published version, in effect a fresh draft of his original idea. And I’d like to suggest that Stevenson, in a mischievous Hyde-ian mood, plays with the reader throughout the text, deliberately manipulating reactions and assumptions in a very clever way. Touching the nerve of an audience who were mostly very well aware of just what he was getting at.
Now this latter point has been undervalued for much of the novel’s published life, because we lack the ability to see the story in the way its first readers did. They did not know that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person. We do know and it’s hard to put that thought out of our minds. But let’s try to do so.
The novel is presented through the eyes of several characters, all of them – except one – unreliable narrators, because they only know a part of what is happening and are bringing their own social assumptions to what they see.
The principal narrator is Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer. Then there is Richard Enfield, a friend of Utterson’s who reveals a tiny bit of the tale to him. There is a second-hand account from a housemaid who may, because of her romantic leanings, be the most unreliable narrator of all. There is Dr Lanyon, who finds out the truth too late though he imparts it in a letter to Utterson. And there is Dr Jekyll himself, who knows the whole truth – but how he presents it is questionable.
Rather skilfully, Stevenson shows us that a first-person account may be loaded to produce a certain interpretation. His Jekyll wants, through his confession, to present himself in the best possible light. Though given what has happened that’s not too easy for him to do. Stevenson presents those difficulties in the sub-text.
I posit the thought that here is how the first readers might have perceived the story from its opening. Dr Jekyll, a respectable scientist of around fifty, has somehow come into acquaintanceship with a much younger man, Edward Hyde. Hyde is given the run of Jekyll’s house, is obviously being kept by him, has been provided with a home of his own in Soho, and become the legatee in Jekyll’s will – which Jekyll has lodged with Utterson with the instructions that Hyde should have the full rein of Jekyll’s property if the latter should disappear.
We are told that in his youth Jekyll was wild and had ‘certain appetites’. Stevenson doesn’t actually say what these appetites were. The reader is left to make up his or her own mind, though once again Stevenson loads the dice. I suggest that, in the mind of the Victorian reader, there would be only two possibilities strong enough to shock – sexual appetites or drugs. And given that many Victorians took substances that are now illegal, and quite regularly at that, probably the former.
It is quite clear, and not just from some sub-textual reading, that Hyde appears to have Jekyll in thrall to him. Utterson, in his narration, believes that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll. But why?
The suggestion has been made that early readers might have thought this to be a homosexual relationship, where a rent boy is blackmailing a client. A not unusual scenario in the London of this period, as Oscar Wilde found to his cost.
This gay theory receives a boost from the incident in the tale where Hyde murders the supposedly respectable Member of Parliament Sir Danvers Carew.
This scene is worth looking at in some detail, though we have to bear in mind that we are seeing it through what is effectively the witness statement of a housemaid, who only observes it from a distant window. She witnesses the encounter between Carew and Hyde. It is eleven o’clock at night. She reports that:
‘an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman (Hyde)… When they had come within speech…the old man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it sometimes appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was please to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something too, of a well-founded self-content.’ (My italics)
Notice those qualifications: Why only ‘seemed to breathe such an old-world kindness of disposition’?
The maid then sees Hyde become enraged and beat Carew to death with a heavy walking cane.
What were the first readers of Jekyll and Hyde meant to make of this? Here is a wealthy gentleman, supposedly respectable, though down by the river late at night, accosting a young man of what was then considered to be the lower classes in a very pretty manner of politeness?
Stevenson, of course, given the time of publication, couldn’t be more specific. But I would suggest that he knew perfectly well what he was implying. Every man about town, and Stevenson had certainly been one of them in his time, would have understood the principles of homosexual pick-ups, even if – like Stevenson – they were heterosexual themselves.
The other time we see Hyde using violence is earlier in the novel where he knocks down and tramples a little girl. This is shown to us as an impatient act of violence only. Yet even some of the novel’s first readers put a different construction upon it, drawing upon the time they were living in.
In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that ‘The trampling scene perhaps a convention: he was talking of something unsuitable for fiction.’
Stevenson presents us with an image of Hyde paying off the father of the little girl with a cheque from Jekyll’s cheque book. We are perhaps meant to be reminded of W.T.Stead’s journalistic purchase of a young girl in his famous expose of child prostitution, which was the scandal celebre of London at the time. It happened in the same year that Stevenson wrote his book.
Sometimes, when I read of Hyde out on the streets in that way I’m reminded of those other supposedly respectable Victorian gentlemen who created a different persona so that they might be able to indulge in pleasures of which their families and friends might disapprove. If you read the pages of the sexual diarist known as Walter, though he lived during the earlier Victorian period, you get a feeling that this was another Hyde, though without his more violent instincts.
And, as people remarked not long after the novel’s publication, perhaps Jack the Ripper was Jekyll by day and Hyde by night. The belief that the serial killer was a doctor was prevalent almost from the start of the murders.
Another possibility that might have come into the mind of an early reader is that Hyde is Jekyll’s illegitimate son. This suggested by the remark that Jekyll had gone slumming in his youth to satisfy those ‘certain appetites’. And that Jekyll is concealing the relationship because Hyde is either insane or, as Stevenson notes, malformed.
In his confession, which ends the book, Jekyll writes that as a young man he had ‘a certain gaiety of disposition…Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures.’ He tells us that he turned away from all of that as he aged, until the point of the story where the now respectable Dr Jekyll yearns to explore these feelings once again; transforming himself into Hyde to avoid compromising his reputation. Unfortunately, his creation loses control, going, presumably, far beyond Jekyll’s original and youthful vices. Jekyll confesses to the reader:
‘The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn towards the monstrous…’
And in quite an early conversation in the narrative, Stevenson has Jekyll tell Utterson – and perhaps issue the more salacious reader with a caveat against assuming too much – that ‘it isn’t what you fancy; it is not as bad as that…’
Perhaps not as Jekyll but what about his indulgences as Hyde?
The conclusion of the story, Jekyll’s written confession, is a masterpiece of narration, as Hyde and Jekyll battle each other to present a point of view. The first revelation of the truth about the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde has driven Dr Lanyon to his death. Here we are given a detailed reason why.
The novel succeeds or fails here. The fictional narrator, supposedly Jekyll, hardly, at this point, knows who he is. At one point he seems to be looking and considering whether to let either Jekyll or Hyde triumph. He has become some third-person standing outside them both, unsure of which way to lean:
‘To cast in my lot with Jekyll, was to die to those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper. To cast it in with Hyde, was to die to a thousand interests and aspirations, and to become, at a blow and forever, despised and friendless.’
There is no answer, only death. The desires of Dr Jekyll can only be subdued that way.
There is no doubt that the first readers were shocked at the conclusion. It inspired a huge amount of comment in society at the time. Not just in the newspapers and reviews, but as the subject of church sermons and philosophical debates. The Victorian readership were forced to confront the reality of the nature of man. That there is light and darkness within all of us.
But they may well have breathed a sigh of relief that the solution to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was not much worse. Not any of the other socially unacceptable possibilities that a very clever writer had planted in their minds.