Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
In a nutshell: Late Victorian Gothic mystery set in foggy, jack-the-rippery London.
Summary: A Whatsonesque narrator recounts the story of his friend, an affluent and respectable doctor, who appears to be controlled by a strange little man. The man looks are most unsettling, and the narrator learns that the man is involved in criminal activities across the city. Why is the good doctor so obedient to this wicked man?
I have finished the 7th draft of my novel and I’m not afraid anymore of starting to read fiction too close to my story. My novel is so near to its final form that I don’t fear now that I may unconsciously plagiarize something I read.
Therefore I’m going to start by reading five Gothic novels from the Victorian times:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886
The Picture of Dorian Gray 1890
The Great God Pan 1890
The Turn of the Screw 1898
The five of them are Gothic, the five of them are British and the five of them are from the Victorian era. So they will be interesting to read one after another and drew comparisons. I read some of them when I was a child but I hardly remember a thing so I’ll be quite a virgin here.
They will also be useful to polishing my novel’s period atmosphere. It is true that the four of them are late Victorian and my novel is very early Victorian. But both periods are Victorian after all and many things apply to the two of them.
The first one I’ve read is Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (without “The” at the beginning as is often misquoted, which makes it more elegant a title).
I have adored this book.
Stevenson has a non-showy prose that allows you to abandon you to the story and forget about everything else. Actually Stevenson maintained that when somebody reads a book, he enters in a “narrative dream”, the reader lets himself believe for the duration of the reading experience that what he’s reading is real and therefore the writer must use all his art to not disturb this dream. This means that the prose of the writer must never attract attention to itself (showy turns of phrase, complicated sentences, are a no no).
Now, Stevenson practiced what he preached and his style is utterly readable. Despite being from the 19th century you get very quickly into the tale. Actually is quite the opposite to the flowery and intentionally complex style of The Turn of the Screw that is completely off-putting for the majority of modern readers (and I dare think to the majority of the Victorians too).
As with most successful Gothic literature. The charm of this book is 60% about mood and atmosphere. This story takes place in London. And what London! It is the London of the fog, the London of dimly-lighted alleys, the London of Jack the ripper, the London of the well-to-do sheltered in their snug residences and of the working classes roaming the unsafe streets.
He achieves this without being excessive. I’ve been recently reading The Woman in Black by Susan Hill and her use of fog is so excessive that makes you laugh instead of feel foreboding. Stevenson just mentions the fog here and there without overdoing it. And although is not always foggy and is not always night, you feel that the whole time is night and it’s foggy.
I’m in love with the London of Jack the Ripper and this book’s setting and vibe is 100% Jack the Ripper’s London. Actually Mr Hyde, the evil character in the novel, is some sort of psycho very similar to Jack the Ripper. I know that the London of Jack the Ripper is not something that really existed but just something built in our collective imagination by hundreds of novels, films, comicbooks and other tales. Well, this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde novel is one of the best places to be in contact with that fantasy London that never really existed so gloomy and intriguing, here it is.
So what about the other 40% of this book? The problem with this book is that almost anybody out there knows the story. It doesn’t matter because the book is delicious to read, but you can easily imagine how much more exciting it would be without knowing what is going to happen. So much more so because it is narrated in the form of a mystery tale, in which you spend most of the time being offered clues about what is going on with Jekyll and Hyde, and only at the end the truth is revealed.
Some erudites even point at a homosexual suspicion that Stevenson didn’t make explicit, at the time naming the love that cannot be named was out of the question. And I think they are right, both the Victorian reader and the contemporary reader, certainly jump to that suspicion when they read that Hyde visits Jekyll’s house so free as if it was his own house and even enters his chamber when the doctor is sleeping.
Or maybe it’s just me, who jumps to this conclusion because I am a bit queer myself!
So far we have an outstanding atmosphere, and a very intringuing mystery, but there’s something else. There’s a pyscholgical/philosophical message.
In the end, we discover that Hyde and Jekyll were the same person. The respectable Dr. Jekyll transformed into the saddist Hyde by drinking a potion (I know sounds silly but this is so good that you don’t care about that lame potion). If it was only this there wouldn’t be a morally complex message. Just took the potion and got evil.
But instead Stevenson makes the character of respectable Dr. Jekyll much more complex than that. Dr. Jekyll admits having always fostered evil desires himself, not to the degree of Mr. Hyde who is pure evil, but significant and recurrent enough. The potion thus, just unleashed the evil side of Dr. Jekyll, and dissociated it from other good aspects of Dr. Jekyll’s personality.
This is the powerful, and so true, message of this novella: we all have evil within us. Fear of punishment or our good side, can keep this evilness from come out, but the evil is there.
Or maybe I think this is so true a message because I am a bit evil myself !