Faced with a resolutely virginal expanse of white paper,
an author might well envy Stevenson's ability to dream whole chapters of a story.
Whether the screaming nightmares which accompanied the experience were an acceptable
price to pay is another matter. Tuberculosis, that devouring muse of so many
creative artists, dictated the manner of his adult life, driving him to seek
relief in other climates. It was during a long spell of illness that he dreamed
the opening episodes of the most famous tale of addiction since Confessions
of an Opium Eater.
In its present form the story represents Stevenson's
second attempt to translate his nightmare into words. After reacting angrily
to criticism from his wife, he cooled off, agreed that she was right and promptly
burned the original 40,000-word manuscript. It may be that Mrs. Stevenson WAS
right, but it is hard not to deplore that impetuous act. That first version
might have been closer to the raw material of his dreams.
As his friend Henry James remarked, whatever Stevenson
thought of women in his everyday life, he seemed to find them an encumbrance
in his fiction. Anyone coming to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with memories
of numerous film adaptations will be struck by their total absence, save in
minor roles. The doctor is a tall, well-built man of fifty who possesses a "quarter
of a million sterling" and a large, tastefully appointed house, yet there
is no mention of a wife, fiancée, mistress or any other form of female
companionship at any stage of his life. This deficiency applies to every one
of the chief figures. When Jekyll speaks of his secret pleasures, which he describes
as "undignified", we are left to imagine them for ourselves. Mr. Hyde's
unrestrained pursuit of evil is no more specific than "drinking pleasure
any degree of torture to another". Shades of Dorian Gray.
Jekyll's dilemma, as he sees it, is not that his misdeeds
are grievous; he does not find them so. What he cannot bear is that they must
exist in tandem with his loftier aspirations. He dreams of having two identities,
each pursuing its individual bent untroubled by man's duality. Long researches,
condemned by a fellow-doctor, Lanyon, as "unscientific balderdash",
uncover a chemical key to the problem. Drug-induced modifications of personality
are common currency today, but they didn't prove acceptable to some critics
in 1886. Jekyll establishes that the body is a projection of the spirit; separate
out the baser component of the spirit and allow it to become dominant and the
body will reflect the change. After the transformation he is smaller and younger-looking
and feels "a heady recklessness
I knew myself
a slave to my original evil."
Jekyll's servants have instructions to allow Hyde the
run of the house. Stevenson points up the dichotomy in the doctor's character
by situating the house in a row of properties which are going down the social
scale; only his retains its air of dignified prosperity.
Enfield, a friend of Jekyll's lawyer, Utterson, sees
Hyde knock down and trample a young girl who collides with him one night. With
the help of some neighbours, he forces him to agree to compensate her family
for the fright she has received. Hyde leads them to a door in an otherwise featureless
housefront, from which he re-emerges with a cheque in Jekyll's name. Stevenson,
without describing Hyde in physical detail, suggests the abnormality of undiluted
evil through the fear and murderous rage it arouses in the people who apprehend
him. Passing that door sometime later with Mr. Utterson, Enfield tells his story
without mentioning Jekyll's name, only to learn that the lawyer already knows
the connection. The tale unravels to its horrific yet pathetic conclusion.
The impact of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde upon the
Victorians was immediate and lasting. Published in January, it had sold 40,000
copies by July. Several plays were based upon it. It became the subject of sermons.
Queen Victoria may or may not have been amused by it, but she read it. No doubt
there were some who saw, beyond the fascinating struggle between darkness and
light, a wider application to society as a whole. Trampling was one of the lesser
brutalities undergone by London's pre-pubescent girls in return for the gold
of respectable Jekylls.
Stevenson and his family sailed for America in 1887,
unaware of how fame had preceded them. The ship's pilots who came aboard as
they approached New York introduced themselves as Jekyll and Hyde. Reporters
surrounded Stevenson before he could disembark. He was showered with requests
to write articles for what he considered absurdly large fees. Fees he would
probably have described as of Arabian Nights extravagance were to be
spent in putting his nightmare on celluloid. Filmland's interest has flagged
in recent years, but good and evil are still marketable commodities. There will
be a revival.