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Jekyll and Hyde: an exploration into Victorian fears

Black and white watercolour portrait of famous Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson..
Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish writer born in 1850. He came from a family of engineers, studying engineering at the University of Edinburgh himself (although he found no interest in it!). He also read Law thereafter his father encouraged him to have something to fall back on if his career in writing was to dwindle. Stevenson’s childhood was more troublesome, though, as he was plagued by illnesses and infections every winter. This led to him looking rather gangly, which alongside his eccentric personality, made him an easy target for bullying at school. However, the periods of homeschooling that he had to endure because of his sickliness enabled him to spend hours writing, often with a nurse as his scribe, and this is undoubtedly where he got his love of writing from, so may not have been all that bad!

Stevenson’s illnesses continued throughout his life. This was not aided by the fact he was constantly unsettled, moving back and forth between France, England, and America, having to take long journeys to get there and back. However, it was during his later years (not that he was old at all, as he died aged 44) that his popular writings began to take shape. When Stevenson lived in Bournemouth – being mostly bedridden – the writing of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, often shortened to just Jekyll and Hyde, began after he dreamt the story. Due to his illness – and in the absence of anything else meaningful to do – Stevenson wrote the first draft of the story in less than a week. This was also helped by his cocaine binge! He had supposedly been prescribed it to treat his haemorrhage, as it tightens blood vessels, but it undoubtedly sped his work rate up a tad! Jekyll and Hyde is a Gothic novella, and arguably his most famous work. It is a large contributor to making Stevenson the 26th most-translated author in history.

The novella is centred around an investigation about the strange and brutal things being done by an evil and unnatural man, including the trampling of a young girl, and the beating of an old man to death. The man investigating – a lawyer named Utterson – gradually begins to uncover confusing things about his good friend Dr Jekyll, who was mysteriously absent from public life for several months. The cornerstone of the story is at the end, though, where it is shockingly revealed that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person, being converted by Dr Jekyll’s potion. They represent the good and evil within human nature respectively. This reflects Stevenson’s belief in the duality of human nature: there is a good and a bad side in everyone. This duality may have come from Stevenson’s own duality in his youth, as despite living a relatively affluent life, he developed a bohemian side, and could often be found in cheap pubs and brothels.

Jekyll and Hyde was published in 1886, and towards the end of the 19th century, the notion of the fin-de-siècle was raging, and the book is very much a product of this time. People believed that the Victorian values that society was supposed to stand for were being threatened. Hyde’s abhorrent behaviour is demonstrative of these ideas, as he became addicted to the evil side of his personality. Moreover, the creation of this potion is emblematic of the rampant scientific development through the 19th century, which scared many people. They thought that technology and science could be threatening for humanity, and even characters in the book express this view. Dr Lanyon and Dr Jekyll disagree over this point, with Lanyon saying that Jekyll’s work is ‘scientific balderdash’, and Jekyll retorting that Lanyon is a ‘pedant’.

The tensions at the end of the 19th century don’t stop there, though, as Darwin’s theory of evolution was also hugely influential. Society’s moral degradation, expressed through this book, also ties in with the idea of evolutionary regress – the reversal of Darwin’s theory. Some scientists in the 19th century believed that humanity was turning back the clock, suggesting we may again become “savages”.

The final scientific theme which influenced Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is physiognomy, theorised by criminologists such as Cesare Lombroso. This theory argues that you can tell a person’s character by their physical appearance. For example, Utterson – the narrator in Jekyll and Hyde – reports that ‘there is something wrong with [Hyde’s] appearance’. Therefore, it’s clear that scientific and social themes in the late 19th century had a huge impact on Robert Louis Stevenson. However, his liking for new theories, and debating ideas stretched a long way back, as during the time of his first degree at Edinburgh University, which he was totally uninterested in, he instead devoted a lot of his time to The Speculative Society. This was a club formed to allow for open discussion and debate of new ideas, showing how Stevenson enjoyed it back then.

However, Jekyll and Hyde could be read more as a warning against unchecked scientific progress. In my article on H.G. Wells, a similar point was explored with the Martians, and in Stevenson’s work, the damage that the ‘potion’ does to just one man is brutally clear. Despite everyone’s valiant efforts, Jekyll is usurped by Hyde. This suggests that Stevenson’s novel warns against many different factors such as moral and social regress, and impetuous scientific progression. Just like Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Gothic nature of Jekyll and Hyde projects the gloom of this eventuality onto its readers. But this warning did not deter its reading; it was hugely popular as soon as it was released. As well as being turned into a play within a year, it was also the subject of church services and religious newspaper articles. This shows the power of the message that Stevenson was sending.

Therefore, it’s clear that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an influential book. It addressed so many contemporary theories about science and humanity; even though they are alien today, it’s still fascinating to discover what was believed then. The obscurity of the story is also interesting, and was undoubtedly fuelled by the strange situation in which the book was written. Nonetheless, this makes the book all the better to read – it’s very short, so there’s no excuse for not giving it a go!

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