• Straight Talking English

FREE SAMPLE: The Complete Context of Jekyll and Hyde

When asked to write his own biographical note, Robert Louis Stevenson summarised himself as:

‘Born 1850 at Edinburgh.  Pure Scotch Blood, descended from the scotch lighthouse engineers, three generations. Himself educated for the family profession . . . but the marrow of the family was worked out, and he declined into a man of letters’.

Louis, as he was known throughout his life succinctly summarises his situation but doesn’t cover any of the details which make his life story so interesting.

For a start, both he and his parents were extreme hypochondriacs on top of their several legitimate illnesses, so while they were off seeking rest cures for largely imaginary illnesses he was left in the care of his extremely fire-and-brimstone Calvinist nanny, the delightfully nicknamed Cummie.  It was the dramatic bible stories she told him that led him to his first ‘double life’ experience in the form of extreme nightmares.  He later said:

‘I would not only lie awake to weep for Jesus, which I have done many a time, but I would fear to trust myself to slumber lest I was not accepted and slip, ere I woke, into eternal ruin’.

This intense faith wouldn’t last long, and by the time Louis went to university he was in the grip of the sensation he was living two lives once again.  On one side, his father wanted him to join the family business as an engineer and live a decent, respectable life. On the other, his dreams of being a free-spirited writer.  His dad supported him throughout university with an allowance, which was kept as small as possible to try and stop him, as Louis called it in a letter home, ‘going to the devil’.  Unfortunately for poor Mr Stevenson Senior, Louis’ libertine tendencies won out.  

During his time at Edinburgh University he:

  • spent many, many days trying to buy hash with his cousin.  If they couldn’t find a dealer, they sat in Greyfriars Churchyard feeling sad until it was time to go home.

  • went on a work placement wearing a velvet tuxedo. 

  • went into an exam despite not attending a single class.  The examiner refused to hear his presentation. 

  • took a part time job at a carpenters but couldn’t tell the different types of wood apart.

  • attempted to learn how to write French the day before his French exam, as apparently no-one mentioned the exam had a written component until then. Instead of apologising or asking to resit, he strode into the exam room and refused to sit the exam, declaring all the set texts were rubbish. The invigilator found him hilarious and let Louis pass as he was also not a fan of the texts! Louis celebrated by shouting out the window of a moving carriage for hours, waving a jaunty straw hat.

  • forced his friends to listen to him saying grace for a really, really long time before dinner every day as a prank.

  • started a fight with a group of coal miners as they were wearing work boots on a Sunday, telling them in a pious voice they were violating God’s law.  

  • invented a term called ‘Jink’, which meant ‘doing the weirdest things you can possibly think of because you think it’s funny’.  Jink happened very regularly.  Eventually both he and his cousin were banned from many establishments in town due to their antics on ‘Jink Days’.

  • pranked famous Edinburgh citizens by leaving calling cards from a mysterious ‘Mr Libble’, which caused the person to try and find them in their address book and waste their time.

His philosophical view of life developed and emerged fully at this time, based on the duality of Edinburgh and the experiences he sought and found.

‘Man's one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality. . . Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. . . .The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material . . . but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant’.

Needless to say, his parents were not the most impressed with how his twenties were turning out.

Between discovering such great ideas as Darwin’s theory of Evolution, and such terrible ones as shouting out the window of a moving carriage, Louis connected with the great American poet Walt Whitman, calling him:

‘A teacher who at a crucial moment of [my] youthful life had helped [me] to discover the right line of conduct’.

He insisted on his tobacco shop keeping a copy of Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ behind the counter that he could peruse while smoking a pipe.

Strangely, the actions that finally caused a rift within his family were contradicting his father at dinner and declaring that he was now an atheist.  His parents kept him under lock and key, which he hated, until Louis found a doctor willing to say that he had a mysterious illness and the only thing that would cure it was to go on holiday to France alone. 

Ending up in Paris, Louis met the woman who would change his life:  Fanny Osbourne.  An American who was separated from her husband but hadn’t told him that yet (he believed she was on a summer art course), and with two children plus a third who had died only a week previously, Fanny didn’t seem like the biggest catch, but to Louis she was perfect.  She, however, was less impressed with the skinny, wide-eyed and slightly scary Scotsman.  In a letter to her daughter she wrote:

‘[He] is the wittiest man I ever met; only I do wish he wouldn’t burst into tears in such an unexpected way; it is so embarrassing’.

Alas, when Fanny’s husband arrived in France she returned with him to America.  They kept in touch via letter for the rest of the summer, but when nothing arrived in the post for weeks once autumn arrived, Louis fell ill.  He claimed this was due to his lovesickness, but it was more likely to be syphilis: at this point Stevenson was showing most of the symptoms, and taking a lot of what may have been mercury as a potential cure.

Louis successfully avoided his increasingly distressed parents and set sail in August 1879 for America to reclaim his true love.  Arriving in Monterey, California, Fanny was not pleased to see him and hadn’t got divorced as Louis had hoped.  Dejected, he wandered off into the woods, getting around eighteen miles from Monterey before lying down to die dramatically.

A passing goat rancher found the dehydrated Scotsman two days later and tended him for a fortnight before he headed back to town.  Fanny was frantic at Louis’ disappearance and decided that he truly was the man for her.  They married the next year, though Louis had neglected to tell his friends and family where he’d been for all this time, and they were becoming more and more concerned. Once he’d been reminded, and after a honeymoon at a disused mine, the new Stephenson family set sail for Scotland. 

Immediately after getting back, Louis was ill again and the family moved to Davos in Switzerland.  He suspected he had TB, and was very disappointed to find out he didn’t: it was the illness of romantic poets and Louis felt boring as it meant he was not a romantic hero.  He also hated the health spa he was living at because they only let him smoke three pipes a day, and disappointingly was full of sick people who really did have TB.

Louis did make a very good friend while he was staying there.  John Addington Symonds was a famous man of letters undergoing treatment for a chest condition, and as they grew closer he confided in Louis that he was homosexual.  He could never be open about his sexuality and was trying to make his marriage work.  While the later letters between the two men haven’t survived until today, we can be sure that Symonds felt Jekyll was based on himself, saying that the book:

‘can be viewed as an allegory as it touches one so closely’.

Coming back to England, Louis did the one thing that someone as bohemian as him would never be expected to: he bought a nice house by the seaside and settled down into a quiet middle class life.  After the novelty wore off, he absolutely hated it. 

One night, in 1884, a nightmare led his life firmly away from this sensible path. Fanny Stevenson said, several years later:

‘Louis wrote Jekyll and Hyde with great rapidity on the lines of his dream, I was wakened by cries of horror from him.  I, thinking he had a nightmare, waked him.  He said, angrily,

“Why did you awake me?  I was dreaming a fine boguey tale”.

I had waked him at the first transformation scene. He had had in his mind an idea of a double life story, but it was not the same as the dream’.

He wrote on average sixty-four thousand words a day for three days without sleeping, finishing ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ in three days straight, and threatening to burn the first draft if anyone touched it.  

The book was written, edited, published and on bookshelves within ten weeks of the nightmare. 

While this makes a charming anecdote, in reality Louis had been looking for a way to write a double life story for a while. In 1883 he’d said:

‘I had long been trying to write a story on the subject, to find a body, a vehicle for a strong sense of a man’s double life which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature’.

Luckily his sleep habits gave him the plot he’d been waiting for. Despite many booksellers refusing to stock the text as their shelves were already stacked with predicted bestsellers, reviewers were astounded.

Andrew Lang wrote in the Sunday Review:

'[This book is an] excellent and horrific and captivating romance. [Hyde’s] hideous appearance and appalling vitality, and the terrible power of growth and increase, is, to our thinking, a notion as novel as it is terrific. . . we would welcome a spectre, a ghost, a ghoul or even a vampire gladly, rather than meet Mr Edward Hyde . . . every Jekyll among us is haunted by his own Hyde’.

Similarly, Ashcroft Noble in the journal Academy wrote:

‘It is indeed many years since English fiction has been enriched by any work so weirdly imaginative in conception and so faultlessly ingenious in construction as this little tale . . . in spite of the cover and the popular price, Mr Stevenson’s story distances so unmistakably its three-volume and one-volume competitors, that its only fitting place is the place of honour’.

The public in both England and America agreed wholeheartedly. By June 1886, forty thousand copies had been sold in England alone and two million in America. Suddenly, Louis was a very rich man and could live on the royalties from his books alone.

Of course, he wasn’t happy with his success. He wrote to his old friend Symonds, saying:

‘‘Jekyll’ is a dreadful thing, I own it; but the only thing I feel dreadful about is the dreadful thing of the war between the members’.

As mentioned earlier, Symonds was not the most pleased with ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. He agreed with Louis’ defeatist attitude, replying with:

‘At last I have read ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. . . it is indeed a dreadful book because of a certain moral callousness and a want of sympathy, a shutting out of hope…it has left such a painful impression on my heart that I don’t know how I am ever to turn to it again.’

At least he was a good enough friend to give this backhanded compliment in public:

As a piece of literary work it was the best that Stevenson had done.

Lewis’ new-found fame and fortune did not agree with his nomadic tendencies, and soon the family, now with his elderly mother in tow, were back on the road, moving to, among other places, a log cabin in Colorado with no heating, before trying France and Hawaii. Finally, they put down roots in Samoa, in the middle of the beautiful Pacific Ocean. After some help, they cleared a plot in the jungle and built a magnificent house with its own plantation. Despite his glorious tropical isolation, Stevenson still felt dissatisfied.

‘I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen. The prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic—or maenadic—foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me’.

Finally and sadly, after a life of health scares, Louis died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage.

‘On 3 December 1894, Stevenson wrote fiction in the morning, wrote letters in the afternoon, and died in the evening. He was helping Fanny to make mayonnaise dressing, adding the oil drop by drop, when he collapsed. By dawn the following day the Samoans were at work cutting a road up the slopes of Mount Vaca with knives and axes. That afternoon his coffin was carried in relays to the summit’.

Truly, no-one embodied the duality of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ more than Louis himself.

His obituary was moving:

He is gone, our Prince of storytellers – such a Prince, indeed, as his own Florizel of Bohemia, with the insatiable taste for weird adventure, for diablerie, for a strange mixture of metaphysics and romance'.

Yet, for a time, it became fashionable to disparage Louis.

Stevenson quickly became a target for other leading writers. Joseph Conrad denounced him, declaring to his agent, JB Pinker: “I am no sort of airy RL Stevenson, who considered his art a prostitute and the artist no better than one”. The American writer Stephen Crane was particularly disparaging, claiming: “That man put back the clock of English fiction fifty years”’.

It might have been professional jealousy, or just a desire to get away from Victorian stereotypes, but Louis was largely forgotten or ignored as being that guy who wrote the pirate book. This issue was that until the 1990s it was a common academic belief that popular literature wasn’t ‘good’ literature. Since Jekyll and Hyde was a bestseller, it must therefore be bad. Now, with greater distance, we are seeing an appreciation for Louis’ skill as a writer.

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