Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson, Headline Review, 210 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99. ISBN978-0-7553-3885-6
[NZ agents: Hachette Livre]

Late one accursed night I compounded the elements…and with a strong glow of courage, drank off the potion.” With party pills and P in the headlines, this unknown writer has taken a topical issue and written a remarkably dramatic tale. When Dr Henry Jekyll uses a chemical stimulant, he becomes involved with depravity and murder.
What a wonderfully fresh story this is and what a great film it would make.

Joking aside, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) may be the classic that everyone knows and nobody actually reads. When I studied it, our teacher read us Fanny Stevenson’s account (quoted in this edition) of its genesis. She woke her husband from a nightmare. “He said angrily, ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale’.”

Re-reading this novella, I was struck by the personality of Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer friend whose perception the story follows. Utterson is so clearly a Scottish Presbyterian elder that I was surprised to find the setting was London, with Edward Hyde lodging in ‘the dismal quarter of Soho.’ Wearing my TV critic’s hat, I found that I was right. In a BBC documentary screened in the UK in June, Ian Rankin confirmed that the story’s city is really Edinburgh, where the Royal Mile was flanked by squalid slums. Stevenson chose London in order to give Jekyll the home of John Hunter, ‘the father of modern surgery,’ whose fashionable house had a dissecting theatre at the rear.

While Rankin accepts that Edinburgh’s Deacon William Brodie, who combined piety with burglary, inspired the dual nature of Jekyll and Hyde, he also offers a more alarming story. Stevenson’s nanny, known to him as Cummy, told him bedtime tales of Major Thomas Weir, a preacher burned at the stake in Edinburgh in 1670 for witchcraft and incest. Cursed with the nanny from hell, Stevenson needed no further reason for that creatively profitable nightmare but two years ago, in another BBC documentary, Robert Winston revealed that a fortnight prior to his nightmare, Stevenson had been injected with ergotine (a personality-altering drug) to stop bleeding in his lungs.

This is all dramatic stuff but overlooks the fact that the real strength of the Jekyll and Hyde story is not the inspiration but the quality of Stevenson’s writing. Using the viewpoints of Jekyll’s friends, the narrative is continually moving from one horrifying revelation to another. Jekyll, a sensitive and kindly doctor, appears to be the victim of Hyde, a foul-mouthed, violent brute. Even as the laboratory door is battered down, new mysteries are appearing. Stevenson shrewdly keeps his readers from seeing that there are not two men but one. Someone who had never heard of Jekyll and Hyde would not learn their secret until four-fifths of the way through the story.

The other dazzling aspect is that the potion Jekyll drinks does not actually make him evil.
“The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine.” It does not change him; rather it allows the evil side of his personality to seize control. This is a sophisticated concept, skilfully developed so that this story is still richly rewarding 120 years later.

This paperback has the disadvantage of an awful cover but this is outweighed by the bonus of three short stories by Stevenson: The Body Snatchers (a Cummy inspired tale of grave robbery), Markheim (a story of sin and redemption) and The Bottle Imp (an original and exciting fable).

Trevor Agnew

This review first appeared in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand 25th August 2007. Interestingly this edition was embargoed until 1 August 2007. Some reviews appeared earlier - in 1886.

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