I was interested to see that a new British television series of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde airs in a week or two. The story has been perennially popular since Robert Louis Stevenson first wrote it in 1885 while enjoying a seaside recuperation at Bournemouth. It was published a year later.
It is one of those rare works of fiction where you can just say the title and everyone will know what you mean. Although, the majority, I suspect, have never read the original tale, taking their knowledge of the story from films and television. Many will not even know that the correct title is actually “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.
We can, of course, never read it in quite the same way as its first readers. By now surely everyone knows that Jekyll transforms into the malignant Hyde? The original shock value of that transformation can never be recaptured. But how often today do we read or hear of someone having a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality?
I’ll deal with a few of the films and the new television version – set not in Victorian times but in the 1930s – in a few weeks. But now I want to go back to Stevenson’s original story
Why does the story still hold such power 130 years after it was written? To start with, it was an instant bestseller. The book sold over 40,000 copies in its first six months. It was read with interest by Queen Victoria herself, the prime minister and had an influence on writers and artists. The story and its moral implications became the subject of newspaper editorials and church sermons. It almost instantly inspired stage-plays, with members of audiences reportedly fainting during the transformation scenes – well, that was the spin put out by theatre managements anyway!
Richard Mansfield’s acting performance in the role in the London of 1888 just happened to come along at the same time as the Whitechapel Murders. Indeed, some audience members thought that Mansfield might even be Jack the Ripper. Or that the story and play might have inspired the killings. The kind of publicity that modern-day authors would kill for (pun intended!) The gentler Stevenson would probably have been less sure.
Legend has it that Stevenson wrote and corrected the story more or less in three days. Legend has it wrong, I’m afraid. The actual work covered about six weeks in time, though that’s not bad going for a 64,000 word book. And it was not originally envisaged as a moral parable. Stevenson was hard up and needed the money, as authors tend to do. It certainly fulfilled that purpose.
In fact it was written and intended to be published as a “crawler” – one of those Christmas stories so beloved of Dickens, slightly scary, designed to appeal for the mass-market, something with a slight gothic edge. Rather like his previous yarns “The Body Snatcher” and “Olalla”. Stevenson meant it to be published for the Christmas of 1885. In fact it appeared a month later.
Interestingly, given the nature of the plot, his publisher Longmans issued it in two separate editions; a cloth binding for the wealthier reader of literature at 1s 6d and a cheaper paper covered edition for mass readership at 1 shilling. Almost as soon as a copy had crossed the Atlantic it was massively pirated, robbing Stevenson of much needed royalties.
The story goes that Stevenson gained the germ of the story during a nightmare – worth pointing out that he was, like many a Victorian, taking drugs at the time for poor health – being woken by his wife Fanny as he cried out in his sleep. He told her it was a pity that he’d been wakened as he was dreaming “a fine boguey tale.”
Inspired, he wrote a version of it down at white heat and presented it to his spouse to read. Famously, she tore his tale to shreds, saying that he’d missed an opportunity to present the morality of the plot. To her horror he threw the manuscript into the fire, and began again.
But what was that original draft like, and why did Fanny object so much? It’s possible that it resembled far more some of the film versions, with the sexual overtones of Hyde as a man about town, depicting Victorian London in all its grimmest aspects. Suggestions have been made that this was what scared Fanny so much. She was, after all, trying to nurture a literary genius towards deserved and widespread fame. And these were prudish times. At least for works that were to find an audience in print.
On the other hand, Stevenson himself, in a letter to a friend, decried a stage production that included more sexual connotations to the story, though his own argument in that letter makes little logical sense.
It is quite likely that in the earlier version, Jekyll created Hyde as a cover and alibi so that he might carry out his own unpleasant yearnings. When we think back on the story, memory might play us false. Readers tend to remember Jekyll as all good and Hyde as all bad. But that’s not what Stevenson actually says in the text.
While Hyde is irredeemably evil, Stevenson quite clearly suggests a side of Jekyll that is at best louche and at worst, well?
One of the characters remembers that Jekyll was ‘wild when he was young; a long while ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; a ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condemned the fault.’
Now what is all that about? I believe it to be a trace of the character of Jekyll left behind from the original draft. After all, and it’s the question that the reader should always be asking, why has Jekyll created the ability of becoming Hyde in the first place? Scientific curiosity or something more prurient?
Was Stevenson recalling something of his own youth? He was brought up with a respectable Edinburgh background. His first real influence was his very Calvinistic nurse. And yet Stevenson went wild in his youth, roaming the streets and brothels of his native city, almost with an alternative identity as ‘Velvet Coat’, as the dwellers in its underworld nicknamed him. It’s known that he fell in love with a young prostitute, even considering the prospect of marriage to her – to the horror of his family. Word had got around. Edinburgh is quite a small place.
And for all that the book is set in London, there are surely elements of Edinburgh there too. We see the respectable squares of the city and the rookeries that are really not so far away. The duality of the city landscape, something like Edinburgh’s old and new towns, where there is the past and poverty on one side and enlightenment and wealth on the other.
The city that Stevenson describes, London, is shown to the reader in a nightmarish way, with its citizens almost morally drowning under a sea of fog, which clings to the streets and buildings like the corruption and depravity that are not so very far away.
Jekyll’s own house is shown to have two sides, like its owner. It remains a fashionable home in a slightly run down but respectable square. But to its rear is the block where Jekyll carries out his experiments.
We are told that they were once the dissecting rooms of a respectable surgeon – bringing forward suggestions of body snatching and doubtful acts of anatomy. The block has its own door leading to a more dubious area of the town – the suggestion is that this is the door through which stolen bodies were smuggled. The street beyond is not quite a rookery but a poor place, where the denizens of the underworld might linger. Respectable gentlemen only seem to walk it armed with a heavy cane – or perhaps a swordstick.
And it is quite clear that it is those elements that Jekyll wishes to explore, behind the alias of his sinister alter ego. And though Stevenson destroyed his original draft, written at such speed, the writer within him took over, presenting a series of assumptions and challenges for the careful reader.
Next week I shall look at how Stevenson suggests secrets in his book, how he plays – I think quite deliberately – with his readers’ imaginings. And I shall try to recapture the feelings the first readers of the story might have had, trying to put to one side the now well-known solution to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.