61. On that ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

illustration (c) Cam Kennedy

Early on in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest a police detective named Bill Hagen, who has been handed the case file on the disappearance of the eminent cosmetic surgeon, makes the following observations on the evidence:

“The photos we obtained show a fellow very presentable for his age, if somewhat saturnine in looks. Physically he was in decent shape though a habitual drinker, and partial to some soft drug use. ‘A man of night and day’ is how his friend [Dr Grey] Lochran describes him, albeit fondly, attributing this to what he calls ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ inherent in the surgical profession. That is to say, the incredible rigour of the work produces a commensurate need for a private cutting-loose, what in Forrest’s case Lochran quaintly calls ‘carousing.’ (Mr Hyde can take other forms too, I would say: Lochran, initially open and affable, can switch to a very stern and short-tempered force coming down the phone-line)…”

Now, I appreciate that a reader coming to Doctor Forrest with a basic sense of the scenario might consider the foregoing just a little too ‘on-the-nose.’ Must the immortal Henry Jekyll, and his equally deathless shadow Edward Hyde, be invoked in a modern story that would seem already to owe no small debt, both structurally and in smaller ‘touches’, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous creation(s)?
I can see that argument. My defence is only that the idea of ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ being ‘inherent in the surgical profession’ is not one I invented myself but rather a theory that was expounded to me by a surgeon with whom I spoke when I was first researching the general terrain of the novel. But maybe I’m making too much of a minor coincidence? Given the enduring force of Stevenson’s allegory, might it not be that many more professions could be characterized by that touch? Politicans, schoolmasters, bus drivers, oral hygienists…?
Moreover: the sense in which that surgeon meant when I spoke to him was that ‘Hyde’ is the professional steeliness of the surgical practitioner, such that when Jekyll is at home or otherwise supposedly at leisure, with partner or family or whoever, still the phone call from the hospital might come, and ‘Hyde’ might have to start dispensing swift and hard-edged wisdom down the line on an emergency matter, having moments before been playing catch-ball with his toddler or whatever.
So the Mr Hyde in every surgeon (contra moi) is not some dissolute, depraved wraith. But then precisely what was the depravity of Stevenson’s Hyde? Just how dreadful are his crimes? The reader is not really to know, for Stevenson gives us only glimpses – the brutal trampling upon a girl-child, the killing of Sir Danvers Carew. The mystery of what Jekyll-as-Hyde really desires or is driven by, precisely what evil force in himself Jekyll unleashed, is a quite considerably thick fog. The moviemakers, with an eye on the contemporaneous Whitechapel ‘Ripper’, nearly always interpret the force as repressed lust – a respectable cloak of Victorian hypocrisy shrugged off by the pursuit of lustmord. (Perhaps this is why Vladimir Nabokov in his celebrated lecture on the work urges his students to forget, ‘obliterate’ in their minds all staged or cinematic adaptations of it.) But the dramatists were onto this angle immediately after the book’s appearance in 1886. Recently I was interested to learn that Stevenson complained about a stage version of Jekyll to the editor of the New York Sun in 1887. “… [P]eople are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality”, he wrote, insisting that it was Jekyll’s “selfishness and cowardice” that let out the beast Hyde, “not this poor wish to have a woman”.
How about that perhaps equally poor wish to have a man? Nabokov was keen to tease out the shade of the homoerotic in Jekyll: the absence of women from the story, the intriguing coincidence that 1885 saw the criminalization by parliament of homosexual acts between men. I’m not persuaded, but perhaps it’s better to say I am in (at least) two minds. The gothic mode always exhibits some interest in the taboo or the ostensibly perverse – ‘the unspeakable’, stuff that dare not speak its name – and I’m happy for the mist of ambiguity to remain around Jekyll and Hyde.
A word on the structure of the story, and Forrest’s debt to same: Ian Rankin, a celebrated and most perspicacious admirer of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, wrote a fine foreword to a re-issue of the text, extracted in the Guardian. Stevenson fans will find much to celebrate in Rankin’s piece – in particular, perhaps, his stress on the story’s ‘complex narrative’, which is much more tricksy than those umpteen film versions that doggedly take Jekyll’s point of view from inside his laboratory as he struggles to perfect his ‘transcendental medicine’. Whereas in Stevenson, as Rankin points out, “Jekyll himself figures only as a friend of the other characters and narrators – right up until the revelation provided by his “confession”. We start the book in the company of two gentlemen called Utterson and Enfield…”
Can readers who encountered the films before the original take the same pleasure, the proper pleasure, in the story’s unfolding? “Sadly,” Rankin writes, “we’ll never know the thrill experienced by this explosive book’s original audience. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a work of suspense, but we all know the twist these days, don’t we?”
All I can say is that while still a schoolboy I’d seen about a zillion adaptations of Jekyll without having savoured the ur-text, but only once I had Stevenson did everything become clear, gloriously so. For me much the best film of Stevenson’s tale is actually the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton version of Valerie Martin’s hommage/rewrite Mary Reilly, but it was a picture that thrill-seeking audiences didn’t warm up to. It looks better every year, though – like its inspiration.

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