The Descent of Man
On the 150th anniversary of its publication, Janet Browne looks at the initial controversy over ...
Literary legend has it that Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde originated, quite appropriately, from his unconscious. He dreamed it. This was during one of many periods when he was confined to bed because of his haemorrhaging lungs, or ‘Bluidy Jack’ as he called it, while he and his new wife were living in a house in Bournemouth his father had given them as a wedding present. He was then thirty-five. As Stevenson’s widow, Fanny, later told his cousin and first biographer, Graham Balfour:
In the small hours of one morning, I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’ I had awakened him at the first transformation scene.
The account is borne out by Stevenson in his essay ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ in Scribner's Magazine (1888), in which he writes about his ‘Brownies’ – ‘actors’ in his dreams that come up with story ideas:
I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature … For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers. All the rest was made awake, and consciously … All that was given me was the matter of three scenes, and the central idea of a voluntary change becoming involuntary.
This is where the legend takes over. Lloyd Osbourne later put it about that after the dream his stepfather banged out the first draft ‘at a red heat’:
I don’t believe that there was ever such a literary feat before as the writing of Dr Jekyll. I remember the first reading as though it were yesterday. Louis came downstairs in a fever; read nearly half the book aloud; and then, while we were still gasping, he was away again, and busy writing. I doubt if the first draft took so long as three days.
But, so the family story went, when he showed it to Fanny, she pronounced it a decent enough horror story but felt that he had ‘missed the allegory’. After a brief reflection, Stevenson threw the manuscript onto the fire and began again, producing a new draft ‘in another three days of feverish industry’. Lloyd was another writer, and like his stepfather his tales could get taller with every telling. Nonetheless, this anecdote is often still reported as fact, but Stevenson’s correspondence shows that Jekyll and Hyde was written over about six weeks in the autumn of 1885 for the publisher Charles Longman, who had asked Stevenson for a ‘ghost story’ for the Christmas edition of Longman’s Magazine. (Two handwritten copies of the original drafts still exist as well, while Stevenson uses the image of ‘burning’ unsatisfactory work so much in his reflective essays I wonder if it was largely metaphorical.) He’d been kicking the idea around for a couple of years by then, as well, if not longer, and his friend Andrew Lang, poet and folklorist, later recalled: ‘He told me once he meant to write a story about a fellow who was two fellows.’ Lang thought it was a terrible idea at the time.
Longman’s published the novella, initially as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the definite article came in a later edition – in January 1886, as paperback costing a shilling in the UK and a penny in the US, putting it in the camp of the ‘shilling shocker’ and ‘penny dreadful’. Because of this, some bookstores wouldn’t stock it until a favourable review appeared in The Times. By the middle of the year, Longman had shifted 40,000-odd copies in the UK alone.
Stevenson had always been fascinated by what Henry Jekyll would go on to describe as the ‘profound duplicity of life’ and the ‘duality of man’. Although he had rejected his Calvinist upbringing, John Calvin’s concept of ‘total depravity’ never really left him, the belief that we are in a perpetually fallen state so that every human action is mixed with evil. As Calvin wrote, ‘To know God is to be struck with horror and amazement, for then and only then does one realise his own character.’ This is why the protagonist of Stevenson’s earlier short story, ‘Markheim’ (1884), recoils in horror when an antique dealer tries to sell him a hand mirror as a present for his fiancé:
Markheim was looking upon him with an indefinable expression. ‘You ask me why not?’ he said. ‘Why, look here – look in it – look at yourself! Do you like to see it? No! nor – nor any man … I ask you for a Christmas present, and you give me this – this damned reminder of years, and sins and follies – this hand-conscience!’
Markheim will go on to murder and rob the dealer.
Calvinism drew heavily on the writings of St. Augustine, and like him Calvinists based their faith around rigorous and daily self-scrutiny before God, who looked on unceasingly, hence the ubiquity of journals, diaries, and autobiographical confessions among literate Puritans, such as John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and the remarkable self-analyses of Pepys, Rousseau and Boswell. This introspective belief is also present in the first-person narratives of Daniel Defoe’s heroes, and many scholars of the evolution of the modern novel cite the connection between Puritan individualism and the epistemology of the Realist narrative. Unlike Roman Catholics, those of the Reformed Faith could not confess and receive absolution. Individual salvation was instead deeply personal. God’s predestination was not ‘impersonal and mechanical’ but was a ‘Covenant of Grace’ entered into through faith. The Calvinist/Puritan/Protestant conscience was therefore an internalised one, constantly observing and evaluating itself. What Stevenson seemed to understand about the theology of the Reformation on which he was raised was its more disturbing implications. As Max Weber wrote, the Calvinist tradition created ‘an unprecedented sense of inner isolation’, an ‘iron cage of the self’. In Grace Abounding, for example, before its author finds his place among God’s elect, the text is awash with intense self-loathing, while the famous autobiographies of Boswell and Rousseau are similarly preoccupied with the horror of their own sin and guilt, documenting, at length, the torments of both body and mind. Secularised, this tradition leads to the mercantile realism of writers like Defoe, establishing the literary dominance of the modern English novel by the late-eighteenth century. But taken to its extreme, it is also the foundation of the nineteenth century gothic tradition, which became increasingly psychological, as ‘horror’ turned inward, away from the external threats of Matthew Lewis’ devils and Mrs. Radcliffe’s brooding aristocratic villains, towards obsession and madness.
You can see this most prominently in the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, in which the true horror of his first-person narrators is not the crimes they commit but the disintegration of their minds. Robert Browning’s poems ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (a dramatic monologue about murder and abnormal psychology) and ‘Johannes Agricola in Meditation’, collectively entitled Madhouse Cells (1842) are another example. The original Johannes Agricola was a friend and follower of Martin Luther, and Browning pursues Agricola’s doctrine of antinomian predestination to its logical conclusion – much as Stevenson does Puritan individualism in Jekyll and Hyde – having Agricola demonstrate that as one of the elect, he can commit any sin without forfeiting his place in heaven, until the point of view ultimately suggests that he has become ‘God’ himself.
Stevenson, then, was acutely aware of the difference between internalised and externalised morality, and the need to behave outwardly as we know we must, while almost animalistic desire is boiling away within and in constant tension with the social self. This is obviously not a million miles away from Freud’s theories of the divide between consciousness and unconsciousness, later refined into id, ego and superego. And this interest in the dramatic possibilities of the double life were far from new. He grew up in the Edinburgh of Burke and Hare, Dr. Knox and Deacon Brodie, and as a teenager he wrote a play about Brodie that he later developed with his friend W.E. Henley (the model for Long John Silver, another protean and amoral Stevenson antihero), called Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life. William Brodie was a master cabinetmaker, Edinburgh city councillor, and deacon (president) of the Incorporation of Wrights guild. He was a highly respected citizen and knew Robert Burns and Henry Raeburn. He also had secret life. Brodie was a housebreaker and used his inside knowledge of their homes to rob his exclusive clientele, being one of the foremost locksmiths in the city. This was to fund his gambling habit and to maintain his two mistresses and five secret children, but also for the thrill. He was finally nabbed when the burglary of an excise office on the Canongate went south and one of his accomplices turned King’s evidence against him. He was hanged in 1788 outside the Old Tolbooth before a crowd of 40,000, from a new scaffold he had had a hand in designing, though he was not its first victim, as often claimed in popular legend. The home where Stevenson grew up contained some Brodie furniture. Even closer to home, Stevenson had been friends of the Edinburgh based French teacher, Eugene Chantrelle, whose outward Victorian propriety hid a life of domestic abuse that culminated in his wife Elizabeth’s murder from opium poisoning. Chantrelle went to the gallows in 1878. As a well-read man with a taste for folklore and scary stories, Stevenson also knew his doppelgängers in mythology and fiction, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixir and ‘The Sandman’, Poe’s ‘William Wilson’, and fellow-Scot James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, all gothic tales of subjective dislocation.
In Jekyll and Hyde, of course, the concept of the supernatural ‘double’ or the split personality is literally realised. Henry Jekyll physically changes into Hyde, sharing memories but with different personalities and bodily appearance; Hyde is younger and much smaller than Jekyll, and almost completely unboundaried. Not that his readers knew this at the time, any more than cinemagoers in 1960 knew that Norman Bates and ‘Mother’ were the same person in Hitchcock’s Psycho. This is worth remembering given the iconic nature of the character(s) and the everyday use of the term ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ to describe people with double lives or simply moods that can turn on a penny. When reading, try to imagine the original revelation of the narrative, which is misdirecting Hyde as an unsavoury character who has something on the apparently virtuous Dr. Jekyll, while dropping hints that there’s something more other about him; although physically unremarkable, his presence triggers inexplicable disgust in anyone who meets him.
And just as Jekyll is fragmented, so is the text, which is comprised of Mr. Utterson’s (third person) narrative, which includes embedded episodes told to him by his cousin, Mr. Enfield, and Jekyll’s manservant, Poole; also ‘Dr. Lanyon’s Narrative’, a written first-person account by an old mutual friend, now dead; and ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case’, the point of view of which elegantly varies. Contemporary reviewers tended to focus on Jekyll’s ‘Statement’, apparently finding the multiple point of view characters quite an alien device. It was, however, common in gothic writing. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, is framed by the Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, in which he reproduces Victor Frankenstein’s confession, which is in turn annexed midway by the story of the creature in his own words. Charles Robert Maturin’s wacky gothic immortal story, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), meanwhile takes place over centuries and is constructed of fragments of found manuscripts around a contemporary frame. There are five inter-related ‘Tales’, often with sections missing (supposedly due to damaged parchment), followed by ‘The Wanderer’s Dream’. Eleven years after Jekyll and Hyde, Bram Stoker would do something similar with the narrative of Dracula, which is an eclectic mix of journals, diaries, letters, newspaper reports and Professor Van Helsing’s notes recorded on a phonograph. The effect of this is akin to hearing competing witness testimonies at a trial, which build up a picture of the whole, often with different explanations and interpretations. (Akira Kurosawa did this beautifully in his 1950 film Rashomon, which includes testimony from the ghost of the murder victim.) This technique builds suspense, but also creates an oscillation of uncertainty between different potential meanings, generating a sense of unease for a reader used to the certainties of the realist novel and the omniscient authorial voice, the ‘God’s eye view’ that guarantees the ‘truth’ of the text. The gothic anti-novel offers no such reassurance, especially not from the protagonist. In Poe’s ‘The Tell-tale Heart’, for example, the more the murderer details his meticulous planning to demonstrate his sanity, the more insane he becomes…
Stevenson begins Henry Jekyll’s ‘Full Statement’ like a Puritan confession:
Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.
What these ‘pleasures’ were is never stated, but as we know Stevenson in his youth hung around the bars and brothels of Edinburgh, we can make a pretty educated guess (and a few uneducated ones as well). As the story of Jekyll’s research unfolds, Stevenson then plays on the pathological implications of the confessional narrative, in which the two selves of the narrator are stable – the younger self experiencing events as they unfold and the older one looking back, now ‘justified’ (in God’s Grace):
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 toward the monstrous. When I would come back from these excursions, I was often plunged into a kind of wonder at my vicarious depravity. This familiar that I called out of my own soul, and sent forth alone to do his good pleasure, was a being inherently malign and villainous; his every act and thought centered on self; drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another; relentless like a man of stone. Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.
‘And thus my conscience slumbered’, surely? The ‘I’ is becoming unstable; Jekyll is starting to refer to himself in the third person. This is different to the subsequent film adaptations, in which we see Jekyll change, and he invariably observes this change in a mirror. He is either Jekyll or he is Hyde. There is no third ‘self’ looking at both. Moreover, Jekyll has already suggested that there may be more: ‘I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth … that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.’ This leads us to the climax of Jekyll’s confession, as Jekyll rushes to complete his letter to Utterson before Hyde overwhelms him again and destroys it:
The hatred of Hyde for Jekyll was of a different order. 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. Hence the ape-like tricks that he would play me, scrawling in my own hand blasphemies on the pages of my books, burning the letters and destroying the portrait of my father; and indeed, had it not been for his fear of death, he would long ago have ruined himself in order to involve me in the ruin. But his love of life is wonderful; I go further: I, who sicken and freeze at the mere thought of him, when I recall the abjection and passion of this attachment, and when I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide, I find it in my heart to pity him.
Once again Jekyll uses the third person before ‘me’, ‘my’, and ‘I’ tragically try to reassert a control he has already lost. His psychological unity, such as it is, can only be maintained by looking at himself from the outside, until the stronger personality, Hyde, forces its way out once more against his will. ‘Ape-like’ appears several times in the text, foregrounding Darwinism and signalling that Hyde on one level represents our howling chimpanzee id.
This is the horror of the story as told by its numerous screen adaptations: the loss of Jekyll’s identity, with Hyde presented simply as a monster, and is likely the plot with which most people are familiar. The root of all these movies is the stage play by the lesser-known American gothic writer, Thomas Russell Sullivan, which opened in Boston in 1887 and went on to tour the UK, playing the Lyceum in London. The D’Oyly Carte actor Richard Mansfield loved the book and had secured the UK and US rights from the publisher. Mansfield wanted to play both Jekyll and Hyde and commissioned Russell to write the role for him. Mansfield’s on-stage transformation mesmerised audiences, but this meant abandoning Stevenson’s description of Hyde as younger and smaller than Jekyll. Using make-up, lighting, posture and Lon Chaney-like facial contortions, Mansfield made Hyde more ‘ape-like’ while his Jekyll was clean-cut and virtuous, with the addition of a pretty fiancé; ‘Agnes Carew’ no less, daughter of the doomed Sir Danvers. The accepted split therefore abandoned Stevenson’s central theme of hypocrisy in favour of a much more black and white interpretation, with Jekyll becoming a saintly doctor and Hyde a pantomime villain.
Because of the disturbing authenticity of his performance at the Lyceum, in the bloody autumn of 1888, more than a few members of the public contacted the police, concerned that Mansfield might be Jack the Ripper, an image quickly picked up and applied by the popular press. Barnstorming journalist W.T. Stead made the connection in the Pall Mall Gazette, writing that:
There certainly seems to be a tolerably realistic impersonification of Mr. Hyde at large in Whitechapel … The nature of the outrages and the calling of the victims suggests that we have to look out for a man who is animated by that mania of bloodthirsty cruelty which sometimes springs from the unbridled indulgence of the worst passions.
The East London Advertiser similarly reported that:
Among the theories as to the Whitechapel murders, which start up one day and vanish the next, the one which is most in favour is the Jekyll and Hyde theory, namely, that the murderer is a man living a dual life, one respectable and even religious, and the other lawless and brutal; that he has two sets of chambers, and is probably a married man, and in every way a person whom you would not for a moment suspect.
Mansfield responded with a special benefit performance of the comedy Prince Karl as a goodwill gesture in aid of the Suffragan Bishop of London’s Home and Refuge Fund, which was raising money to open a laundry for the employment of reformed prostitutes. The publicity proved to be a poison chalice, and his Jekyll and Hyde closed due to the falling box office, although the US run lasted for twenty years, Mansfield playing the lead until his death in 1907.
Stevenson was not impressed. In a private letter to the editor of the New York Sun in 1887, he dismissed Mansfield’s interpretation of his protagonist: ‘Hyde was the younger of the two,’ he complained, continuing that he ‘is no more sexual than another’ whereas the play turned him into ‘a mere voluptuary’. Stevenson added that he saw no harm in being a ‘voluptuary’, personally, but as far as the compromise of his vision was concerned: ‘People are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality.’ But the damage had been done. Sullivan’s plot and Mansfield’s performance set the standard for pretty much all the subsequent stage and then movie versions of the story. Dying tragically young in 1894, Stevenson was fortunate at least in not knowing about most of these. The first film version of Jekyll and Hyde is also one of the first ever horror films, made by the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago and Los Angeles in 1908, this time based on the 1897 play by George F. Fish and Luella Forepaugh that leant heavily on Sullivan, only this time the love interest was ‘Alice’, the vicar’s daughter. The most significant silent version is the 1920 Paramount production starring John Barrymore, remade by the studio with sound in 1931, this time starring Fredrich March and directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Pre-code, the film was drenched in sex, and when it was rereleased five years later, eight minutes were cut, mostly involving Hyde and Ivy the bar singer (the raunchy Miriam Hopkins). March won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde becoming the only horror film to win an Oscar until The Silence of the Lambs sixty years later. Both Barrymore and March played Hyde as physically simian. At time of writing, the story has been filmed just under forty times, with an additional twenty TV adaptations, not counting things like the Tom and Jerry, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny versions. In addition to Mansfield, Barrymore and March, Jekyll/Hyde has been notably played by Spencer Tracey, Boris Karloff (Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Christopher Lee (I, Monster, the closest version to the book), Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates himself, in Edge of Sanity), Jack Palance, Michael Caine, John Malkovich (Mary Reilly), Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor), heavyweight Scottish character actors John Hannah and Dougray Scott, and my personal favourites, Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick in Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. If you listen carefully when you watch one of these things, you can almost hear Stevenson spinning in his grave in Samoa.
Critical interpretations of the original novella, meanwhile, range from your basic Freudian – the monster from the id destroys superego – via allegories of homosexuality, father/son dynamics, Stevenson’s own relationship to his diseased body, the suppression of every vice known to the nineteenth century gentleman and a moral fable that was frequently preached from Victorian pulpits (including a sermon in St. Paul’s Cathedral), to more recent political readings based on Scottish Nationalism.
But none of this is what it meant to its author. As he wrote privately to the editor of the New York Sun, it was Jekyll’s ‘selfishness and cowardice’ that triggered the story: ‘the Hypocrite let out the beast of Hyde, not this poor wish to have a woman.’ Reducing the ‘allegory’ Fanny had talked about to Victorian sexual repression was exactly the kind of cultural practice that Stevenson was interrogating in the book. Jekyll was, to Stevenson, like the majority of the imperial bourgeoise patriarchy, a ‘hypocrite’, projecting a public face that disguised his more natural inclinations, whatever they might be. It’s not what he wanted that was morally bad, rather the social deception. Jekyll had, he admits, led a life ‘of effort, virtue and control’. He was also content in the early stages of his experiment to enjoy Hyde’s transgressions while still taking the moral high ground by distancing himself from his alter-ego: ‘It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered…’
Anticipating Freud, Stevenson was undoubtedly making a point about the psychological dangers of repression, especially the repression of drives that really didn’t need to be repressed, like one’s individual sexuality. Having been raised in a strict Victorian Calvinist family, he also knew how destructive Christian ‘morality’ could be to emotional health and, by extension, human behaviour. There is a suggestion, in fact, and a strong one, in Jekyll’s opening remarks about himself, that the socially agreed moral standards of the day that shaped his professional and social ambitions (and would have been practiced by most of his readers), were a terrible burden. Jekyll writes as if he were in prison, his natural spirit caged, and his research was not to remove the ‘evil’ side of his nature, leaving only the ‘good’, but to separate them so each could act according to their inclinations, rather than be locked in constant battle:
If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil. It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together—that in the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. How, then were they dissociated?
For Jekyll, then, Hyde at least initially represents escape, from the prison of externally imposed and thus by definition artificial morality and the internalised Protestant conscience. And Hyde, of course, proves to be the stronger personality, which brings us back to Calvinism and the belief that evil is more native to the structure of humanity than good. When Utterson and Poole break into Jekyll’s ‘cabinet’ (his laboratory) on ‘The Last Night’, it is themselves they see in his full-length mirror. This is the true horror of the story, just as Shelley’s original Frankenstein was a Miltonic allegory in which mankind is created and then abandoned by God, not the story about the mad scientist and the monster that the movies tell us ad infinitum. The ‘horror’ is more existential, Modernist even.
Perhaps the true moral of Stevenson’s story is that we need a different kind of morality, based on compassion, empathy, and reason; a morality that is individual, and can be flexible and spontaneous. His atheism, the way he lived his life, and many of his other writings would seem to suggest this. You can see it all the way back to the relationship between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in Treasure Island. You can’t reduce everything to good and bad, black and white, saints and sinners, heroes and villains. As he told his friend, the art critic, Sidney Colvin, ‘Everything is true, only the opposite is true too; you must believe both equally or be damned.’ This is as relevant today as it ever was. Humanity needs to dial back the polarity and extremism, all that ‘all or nothing’ thinking, as well as the fake morality, all wrapped in a flag and carrying a bible. Otherwise, Stevenson seems to be saying, Mr. Hyde will get us all.
Image: Playbill for ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ a 1887 stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) Gothic novel the ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ published in 1886. Richard Mansfield (1857-1907) played the dual characters of Jekyll and Hyde. Poster from 1888 performance at Hooley's Theatre, Chicago captioned ‘The transformation. "Great God! Can it be!!"’ showing Dr Hastie Lanyon witnessing the change.
Credit: Universal Art Archive / Alamy Stock Photo