by Robert Louis Stevenson
Penguin Popular Classics
Review by Bill Kirton
As with a couple of my previous choices (Ivanhoe and Jane Eyre), this is part of a determination to read books I should have read decades ago but never did. So I’m reducing (even if only infinitesimally) the number of embarrassing gaps in my education, but I’m also finding that these works are classics for reasons I hadn’t suspected. They’re all great stories, yes, but Scott’s sheer flamboyance and the gothic exuberance of his recreation of the past, and Bronte’s strength of character and advanced attitudes towards female emancipation were revelations. And now the subtlety and narrative brilliance of Stevenson uncover a mystery which is far more gripping than, and different from, any of the movie or other versions I’ve seen and read of the Jekyll and Hyde myth.
In fact, it makes it difficult to write the review because, as with pulp whodunits, I don’t want it to be a spoiler. And that, in itself, hints at why I’m so impressed with this novella. Because the natural reaction of most people would be ‘How can you spoil the story or the ending of Jekyll and Hyde? Everyone knows it.’ Well, yes, but not in the way Stevenson tells it. We know that the nice, ‘good’ Dr Jekyll pours stuff into a glass, it bubbles and froths, he drinks it and then either (in the early versions) falls behind his desk so that the director can cut to a shot of his alter ego Hyde, fanged and furred, rising to scare the crap out of the audience; or (in more modern ones) stands in full view as the special effects people show the hairs growing from him, his features morphing into grotesque deformations as scary music reminds us (as if we didn’t know it), that what’s happening isn’t very nice.
Stevenson’s effects are not only very different from these crude shock tactics, they’re also much scarier. It’s a pity that there isn’t a potion we could take before reading this that would eliminate any preconceptions about the identities of the two eponymous characters. If we didn’t know that they’re two aspects of the same person, this would be one of the best page-turners on the shelves. And, even though we do, it still is. It’s not until quite late in the story that Stevenson refers overtly to the good-evil dichotomy. Before that, it’s a mystery in all the senses of the word – crime, ghost story, supernatural, horror. It’s also a non-preachy reflection on the conflicting impulses within the human psyche.
And it’s written by someone whose control of language is as subtle as his treatment of the subject. ‘Mr Hyde’, for example, ‘was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation’. A doctor who appears briefly in the opening sequence ‘was the usual cut and dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent and about as emotional as a bagpipe’. The lawyer at the centre of the narration is always detained by hosts ‘when the light-hearted and loose-tongued’ are already leaving, because the hosts like ‘to sit a while in his unobtrusive company, practising for solitude, sobering their minds in the man’s rich silence after the expense and strain of gaiety’.
Stevenson’s descriptions of the habitual London fog surpass even those of Dickens and (something which gives me particular pleasure because it probably upsets the ‘show, don’t tell’ fraternity), he’s confident enough in his writing to offer wee gems such as ‘She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy,’ and ‘A flash of odious joy appeared upon the woman’s face’. And his potion is far more sinister than the viscous fluid of the movie versions because it ‘so potently controlled and shook the very fortress of identity’.
The thing is that Stevenson’s original, told from the perspective of ordinariness, truly is a mystery but, unlike the Hammer Horror travesty that it’s become, it’s real. Yes, its aim is allegorical and symbolic, but it’s also a plausible tale of experiment and investigation. The interplay between Jekyll’s two selves isn’t just a crude juxtaposition of black and white. Hyde, having to conceal himself because he’ll be tried for murder if he’s caught, is conflicted – ‘his terror of the gallows drove him continually to commit temporary suicide, and return to his subordinate station of a part instead of a person; but he loathed the necessity, he loathed the despondency into which Jekyll was now fallen, and he resented the dislike with which he was himself regarded’. And Jekyll himself confesses ‘When I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide, I find it in my heart to pity him’ and recognises that, far from being the virtuous entity who is the antithesis of Hyde, he is so used to the torments of his transformation that he feels ‘a certain callousness of soul, a certain acquiescence of despair’.
It’s easy to see why The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and its lessons have endured. What’s needed now is a restoration of the subtlety and shadings that Stevenson gave the original.