What could have possessed Dr Jekyll?

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
by R L Stevenson

When I received an email from the publicist for this new series of classic novels in quality pocket hardback format from Whites books, Jekyll and Hyde was the one that leapt out of the list as I’d never read it before.

The book duly arrived – a nicely designed white hardback, the same size as a small paperback, with a great cover, and printed on thick white paper.  It was nice to read, except when I was tired;  then the whiter than white pages and their not quite matt finish made it difficult to concentrate on the text…

…But the extras made up for that.  This edition was prefaced by Ian Rankin in an interesting piece in which he wonders how shocked the novella’s original readers would have been without our foreknowledge of the story’s big twist,  sadly that surprise is lost on us the modern reader.   Better still are two other Stevenson short stories, The Body Snatcher and Markheim, more Gothic horror.

So back to Jekyll and Hyde – and if you don’t know the twist – look away now!

I liked the way that the novel is narrated in the first instance by Mr Utterson, a lawyer and friend of Jekyll, who begins to wonder why he isn’t seeing his friend these days, and why he is changing his will to favour Mr Hyde, a rather disturbing and ill-favoured gentleman who eventually murders another man.  Utterson is increasingly concerned, and becomes even more so when another friend Dr Lanyon becomes ill and dies leaving a letter for Utterson. The story then changes hands to the testimony of Lanyon, and finally to Jekyll who confesses all in his what could be construed as his suicide note.

The novella is strongly Christian in it’s picture of good and evil.  Jekyll starts out as such a good man with not an ounce of evil in his body, but once he makes his potion and discovers the outlet for the repressed darker side of his soul, it quickly starts to take over.  From having taken his drug to let his evil side out, Hyde starts to become the dominant side of him and he has to keep taking the drug to maintain his Jekyll-ness ; in the end the drug runs out and he gets stuck into the worst kind of cold turkey.  Not being an expert in Satan’s fall from Heaven and the original allegorical allusions, it was a modern reading of the perils of drug addiction that came through to me. I can imagine though, if I were a Victorian, being totally shocked that a good man could harbour such depravity inside him! Wikipedia offers even more interpretations and fascinating background to its writing.

The accompanying two short stories in this volume were written in the years immediately preceding Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and both are suitably horrific. In The Body-snatchers, two young doctors become resurrection men themselves and a pact over not asking where the bodies come from becomes their undoing. In Markheim, an antique dealer is stabbed to death in his shop on Christmas Day by Markheim, who then has to investigate noises upstairs. Was there a witness, or is it an apparition of the devil come to take him to hell?

These short stories and novella are all the better for their brevity and the tension was nigh unbearable in Jekyll and Hyde. I enjoyed them very much and should read much more Victorian literature, sensation or otherwise. (8/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.

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