The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Extract of a my latest piece for the Wordsworth Editions Blog

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…

To read the full essay, please click here

For details of the Wordsworth edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde please click here

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