The reading group met to discuss Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

jekyllThis time it was the turn of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, his celebrated 1886 effort in the style of the late romantic novel of sensation involving drugs, child-abuse, murder and indeterminate vice, not to mention dual personality and shape-shifting. An eminent clinician (Jekyll) indulges in ‘transcendental medicine’ and periodically secretly converts himself, by swallowing a potion, into (and out of) a smaller and younger immoral pleasure-seeker with a short temper (Hyde). During one of these episodes, he beats a member of parliament to death and, finally tracked down, unable to convert himself back into said eminent clinician through lack of potion, commits suicide.

It made Sara think of Edgar Allan Poe writing Dostoevsky’s The double, thanks to our recent repertoire. She’d liked it because it was short and prim. Made the odd mention of crunching bones stand out, as they should. Vivid descriptions of fog – and she should know since she’d just been to Liverpool. Fog maybe a device referring to the covert nature of Jekyll’s transformation. She suspected there were lots of possible allegorical interpretations of the story’s elements, that’s why it was so enduring. How about a split Scots/English personality? Calvinist/spontaneous? Stevenson had problems with his religious father, she’d read. Victorian hypocrisy? Maybe it was about being gay. Ian Rankin, the Scots crime author, had reported that the Jack-the-ripper murders had been attributed to a real version of the fictional Hyde. Stevenson’s wife had burned the first draft of the book – maybe that was because of sexual violence in its content? There are hardly any women in the end product. Hyde, of course is a name which refers to concealment… in disguise, Jekyll gets away with the sort of hairy-ape behaviour you’d expect from a Eugene O’Neill character.

Malcolm agreed about Hyde meaning ‘hide’, and you had to look no further than the business of Hyde’s size – during the transformation, Jekyll shrinks so that his clothes flap about him. Hyde’s the little horror inside the ostensible Jekyll. And certainly, it’s Edgar Allan Poe all over, especially in the repeated allusions to the unspeakable ‘depravity’ Hyde gets up to – what ever is he doing? Of course, Poe can go on for pages without getting to the point, but at least Stevenson gives us a trampled child, drugs (naturally), a murder, and, finally, suicide. (Mind you, Poe had lots of teenage girls to make up for it.) Rory had doubts about the homosexuality idea, since nothing suggests it, but Jenny pointed out that 1886 was the year Kraft-Ebbing published his Sexual Psychopathy, so things like sadism and ‘self-abuse’ might be topical for the time. Good research.

Whereas Liz had liked the period prose, Rory had been irritated by the pace of the plot (the form of the work is part narrative and part epistolary, all build-up until Jekyll’s first-person written confession lets the cat out of the bag at the end) and Janet by the preponderance of pompous old men. The last, according to Tim, merely the picture of the age. But (Janet again) wasn’t it significant that Jekyll ends up as Hyde? Bestiality prevails. Whereas nowadays, to Liz’s knowledge, transformations in fiction tend to be of the Incredible Hulk kind, simply a means of restorative justice. [Stevenson’s chemical transformation preceded Bram Stoker’s genetic one by a few years, but both were essentially down-hill. – Ed.]

And another thing, picking up irritations from the intro to Rory’s edition, what is the importance of the last sentence of the story:’ Here, then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Jekyll to an end.’? Why, it’s schizophrenic syntax! First person narrator referring to himself in the third person… who does he think he is? Julius Caesar? (That’s what he did, Caesar, in his histories, started the whole 3P ball rolling.) Anyway, how appropriate for a split personality!

Poe whimsy aside, how much, Rory and Jenny wondered, did Stevenson intend the vagueness of Jekyll’s record of Hyde’s vices to reflect schizoid ignorance of one’s own actions? A deliberate amnesia. Seminal, according to Tim. Modern horror genre has the staple of a villain without self-knowledge. But we were skirting the real prize of the story, in Malcolm’s opinion. It pre-dated Freud’s publishing history by five years. What you’ve got here is a whole bunch of references to innate psychological disturbance avant la lettre! Ego and Id, all there in embryo. Analyse that. Of course, Stevenson might have to share the honours with Dostoevsky… not to mention Gogol.

It was all on account of the strict upbringing Stevenson had, according to Liz. That and his mother telling him horror stories. Plus, he spent a lot of time in bed, being sickly. Like many great writers (from Tim) – driven to it by immobility. But Stevenson could surprise. And he told a good story. That’s why he went to the South Seas. On account of his health.

Impurity! It was impure drugs that set off the horrible change. Rory thought that might be Stevenson’s point. (In the story, Jekyll concludes that he is unable to recreate his potion for this reason.) Keep your drugs pure and ye shall not shrink, nor become hirsute… something like that. Could be. What Malcolm thought characterised the whole thing, though, was that all of the story’s mechanics, fizzing potion and hairy maniac, could easily be seen as a desperate explanation for the original perception that people often are irrationally split, manic, bi-polar, etc. Another example of genre fiction serving to express what, at the time, was not a thing for polite discussion. QED.

Next up, Arundhati Roy’s The god of small things. We meet 6pm Monday 16 March at Artizan Street Library.

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