Transcripts below for Episode 35: Jekyll & Hyde. Full show notes are on the main page here. You can listen below or on your favourite podcast app.
I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect.
Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture.
In the summer of 1888, in the Lyceum Theatre in London, a stage adaptation appeared of the celebrated Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Just two years after the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s best-selling novella, the actor Richard Mansfield had been quick to realise the potential of a theatre adaption, and of a single actor playing the shocking double persona on stage.
His transformation from the respectable Dr Jekyll to the depraved Mr Hyde was, for contemporary audiences, breathtaking to behold. With a combination of judicious lighting and makeup and, mostly really, just Mansfield’s great acting skills, Jekyll was altered entirely in front of audience member’s eyes.
A few days after the performance began, the first in a series of gruesome murders took place across town in Whitechapel, in east London. As the murders were linked together by police and an increasingly fascinated media and public, the hunt began for the Whitechapel Murderer, or Jack the Ripper as he later came to be known. Numerous suspects and theories were put forward, and it was frequently suggested that the murderer was a professional, perhaps a doctor, and someone who was hiding in plain sight, living a respectable double life.
One suspect was Richard Mansfield. After all, here was a man who could present himself as a upstanding professional doctor before transforming into an almost unrecognisable murderer.
Now Mansfield was never really a strongly-considered suspect, but you can imagine any implication of being the most notorious and depraved murderer of the age is not something anyone would welcome.
Already, the story of Jekyll and Hyde, was taking on its own popular culture associations, its own simplifications, retellings and alterations (and in fact the stage play was quite different from the original novella, including the significant addition of a fiancée for Jekyll, an addition which would then be carried over into other stage and screen versions).
Stevenson’s novella was taking on its own double life, increasingly removed from the original tale.
I think it’s fair to say that for most people today, the story has been reduced to a fairly straightforward allegory of the potential dark side within us all. But if you read Stevenson’s original tale, a short 80-odd page novella, you immediately realise there is so much to this masterpiece of 19th century fiction. And there are so many reasons the story has become embedded in popular culture. I mean it has everything:
Dreams and reality, psychology and medicine, good and evil, degeneracy and criminality, sexuality and self-identity, blackmail, murder, addiction, religion, am I missing anything?
Probably. So I made a call to St Louis, Missouri:
My name is Anne Stiles and I teach English literature and medical humanities at St Louis University in St Louis, Missouri
Professor Stiles has published widely in the area literature and medicine and her students at St Louis University include pre-medical students. As we’ll see later, it turns out there are some important medical contexts to the story of Jekyll and Hyde.
So, Jekyll and Hyde is one of those popular tales that has largely been disconnected from its source material, and its author. A bit like Frankenstein, or Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula.
Fun fact: The Lyceum Theatre, where Richard Mansfield played Jekyll and Hyde, was managed by the renowned Victorian actor Henry Irving. His business manager was Bram Stoker. So, a decade after Jekyll & Hyde was performed in the theatre, Stoker was writing Dracula there.
And, just as Dracula has long eclipsed Stoker, Stevenson has been overshadowed by his most famous creation.
Now he is still well known as an author, particularly because of his other novel Treasure Island, a staple of children’s literature. (and a book which, incidentally, is going to make an appearance later in this season)
But Stevenson’s literary reputation has fluctuated a lot over the last century. He was hugely successful in his time – both critically and commercially, for his short stories, poetry, essays and novels like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow and many others.
But, after his death, at only 44, and with the advent of modernism, his reputation plummeted, and it’s only really in recent decades that he has been reconsidered critically.
His route to becoming a world-renowned author was an unusual one too.
Stevenson was born into a family of prominent Scottish lighthouse engineers, which sounds like a very specific profession and I guess it was, I mean that was all they did. They just designed Scottish lighthouses. So Stevenson was expected to become a lighthouse engineer, like his father and his grandfather and his uncles. And he, he had some health problems though, like from childhood on. He was confined to his bed a lot of the time because he had like breathing problems, lung problems.
It’s kinda hard to know what, but maybe there was some tuberculosis or something like that. So he was listening to a lot of scary stories that his nurse told him. They were very, you know, Calvinist stories, very biblical, good and evil, lot of devils and hell and stuff like that. So he was imbibing this really scary material as a child. And then growing up he started out studying engineering, you know, to be a lighthouse engineer, like everyone in his family, but it just didn’t really take, I mean I think he was good at it, but he didn’t really like it. So then he told his parents, you know, I want to be a lawyer. And he went to law school at the university of Edinburgh, but then he didn’t like that either. So then he told his parents, you know, I want to be a novelist and you can imagine how thrilled they were about that is really kind of the black sheep of a distinguished lighthouse engineering family, I guess you could say.
So, the world could have had some no doubt very well-designed lighthouses, but instead we got Jekyll and Hyde. I think he made the right choice.
Fittingly, the origins of Jekyll and Hyde itself are in a mixture of nightmare images and frenzied composition.
He actually wanted to produce a shilling shocker for the Christmas season. Cause then the Victorian period that was Christmas was when you read horror stories to each other. I don’t really know why, but ever since a Christmas Carol by Dickens, which was a ghost story of Christmas, there was, kind Victorian fad for telling ghost stories around Christmas time.
A Victorian fad you’ll know all about, of course, because you’ve heard the Episode 13, on MR James.
So Stevenson’s publisher wanted him to do this. He had to get cracking on some sort of horror story. And he had this dream that sort of like Frankenstein, you know, where Mary Shelley had a dream and that became the origin of Frankenstein. Well, Stevenson had a dream about, I think it was about a man drinking a potion and changing into something more horrible, you know, so sort of the central conceit of the tale. And then his wife, Fanny Osbourne Stevenson woke him up because he was like shrieking in his sleep and he was really mad.
And he said, why did you wake me up? I was dreaming up a fine bogey tail, you know, so he set to work writing down as much as he could remember and then kind of elaborating on it. And I think he wrote the first draft in three days, or at least that’s how the story goes.
And he read it to his wife and she was, she was very opinionated. They sometimes wrote together. So she was by no means just a passive participant in his literary career. She was sometimes a co-author, sometimes a critic of his writing. She said, well, I don’t think you really play up enough the central metaphor of the duality of man, like you kind of just, you know, it’s a good horror story, but you need to play out that central metaphor. So, she really understood the importance of the concept of duality to the story. And so Stevenson, I guess, you know, never one for half measures. He just threw the first draft in the fire and then he started over again. And the second version apparently is a lot less explicit about what bad deeds Hyde actually does, which I think is really interesting
Doubles are, of course, everywhere in Jekyll and Hyde. And even the story itself also has a double, a more lurid version that was never allowed to see the light of day. The Hyde of the final version tramples a girl and murders Sir Danvers Carew. It’s intriguing to think what the original Hyde’s terrible deeds were?
So the story was published, in January 1886. And it was a huge success.
it really was kind of just a real great popular success story and kind of a thriller and people loved it and it was kind of a sleeper hit, I guess you could say because it was supposed to be written for the Christmas season, but then the editor didn’t think it was going to do well enough to sell over the Christmas season. So, they actually bumped it to January and this was thought to be like the death knell of the tale. You know, if your book, if your horror story was being sold in January instead of at Christmas time, it wasn’t going to sell that well. But despite that it sold 40,000 copies immediately and Queen Victoria read it and immediately like people were making dramatic versions of it, which vastly sympathize, simplified the moral complications of the story, but which were nonetheless hugely popular.
It was a massive success in the US as well, partly because it wasn’t protected by copyright laws at that time so people just started knocking off copies as fast as they could. Not great for Stevenson’s royalties but fantastic for the spread of his story.
Now, one of the things to remember in all this is that we, today, can’t really read the original story as it was meant to be read. Everyone already knows that Jekyll is Hyde.
I mentioned Dracula earlier and it’s kind of the same. If you are reading the book when it’s first published you are in the same position as Jonathan Harker. thinking: “oh a Count by the name of Dracula has invited me to his castle. Well, that all sounds fine.”
With Jekyll and Hyde, the revelation is a shocking twist at the end. The novella is actually kind of a detective story. It’s written mostly from the perspective of Mr Utterson, who is trying to work out how this mysterious Mr Hyde is manipulating and controlling Dr Jekyll.
But, even though it must have been great to read the original story or see an early stage version where you didn’t know the twist, that’s not the where the true strength of the story lies.
The power of the story is, as Fanny Stevenson recognised, in the dualities and the numerous possible interpretations. The story itself is quite structurally complicated, with tales within tales, and alternative perspectives circling around a central mystery, with two characters who turn out to be an increasingly unstable one.
And the story lends itself to all sorts of different readings, some of which were immediately proposed, some suggested much later.
There is, of course, no definitive answer. And Stevenson was more than happy to let people speculate:
His tack was basically to refuse to answer over and over or to say like, I’ve heard of that theory, but that’s not what I meant. And I think maybe he did, maybe he was being just a little bit coy because he realized that the power of his tale is just sort of the multiplicity of interpretations you can put on it. And the fact that there isn’t really just one thing that it necessarily has to mean.
Does Hyde represent a degeneration to a savage state, a hot topic at that time. He is described on a number of occasions as having hairy hands, being ape-like and as a monkey.
What about contemporary theories of criminality and criminal man (oh, check out episode 11 for more on that one)
One explanation for Hyde’s control of Jekyll is blackmail. At a time when homosexuality was illegal a man’s private life could become a dangerous liability.
Wives or female love interests are nowhere to be found in the story (unlike later adaptations). And what is Danvers Carew looking for, on a backstreet, at night, approaching to a youthful-looking Hyde?
Is it a story about addiction? There’s an obsession with obtaining the purest drugs to make up the transformative potion. “The moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr Hyde”, states the addict-like Jekyll early on in the ta… [cut off]
Scream / sound effect
I think you know who I am.
As much as it loathes me to admit this, I need Conor to continue doing whatever it is he does so that I can continue with my, shall we say, activities.
And if he’s to continue podcasting well I guess he needs your support.
Apparently, you can do this on something called Patreon at patreon.com/wtte. I don’t know, just sign up and you get rewards and bonus episodes and things like that and I, indirectly, get your money to spend on…well, that’s none of your business.
Alternatively you can see him…me…him in person, live at the Dublin Podcast Festival this November the 15th. It’s a joint show with Caroline Crampton of the podcast Shedunnit and it will, I’m glad to see, be all about murder and crime. Tickets are on ticketmaster and links are on the website.
Finally I feel I should say… [interruption] …
And then there are all the dualities. The story is set in London but a London which looks and feels like Edinburgh. A house which fronts onto a well-to-do square but backs onto a far more disreputable area.
And, most centrally, the duality within. Most of us are familiar with the what has been called of dual or multiple personality disorder, what is now called classed as a dissociative identity disorder. When Stevenson was publishing his Strange Case – and it is structured very much as a case, like something you might find in a medical journal – a number of new theories around dual personalities had just emerged.
Both in scientific journals at the time. And even in popular journals at the time, you were seeing a lot of accounts of what they called dual personality. And this was kind of the forerunner of multiple personality disorder, which is now called dissociative identity disorder. And dual personalities stipulated that basically, you know, each of us has two brain hemispheres and each hemisphere is capable of developing a separate personality. And when that becomes a problem is when you have unbalanced hemispheres, like when one hemisphere gets bigger than the other. And basically they thought it was a problem of brain hemisphere imbalance. And so there were some famous cases that were being discussed in the same periodicals that Stevenson was writing for in the 1870s and 1880s.
Like the Cornhill magazine in particular had some articles in it about these patients, Felida X was one of them .And Sergeant F was another. And they were both patients who were, who had dual personalities, even though some of them, I think Felida exhibited up to five different personalities. But because the clinical model was just the dual personalities, this, the doctors treating her only recognized two. And her personalities kind of resembled Jekyll’s in a way or Jekyll and Hyde’s because her first personality was really docile and religious and boring and kinda got depressed a lot like a good person, very moral but not very interesting. And then her second personality was much more mischievous, much, much more. You know, she misbehaved a lot and she even actually got pregnant when she was in her second condition, her second personality. But then she didn’t remember when she was in her first personality that she had slept with this man. So she told him off and like, I guess she got engaged to him while she was in her second personality state.
And then she switched back and then she said, I don’t know you, you know, get out of my face. I just feel sorry for this guy. Because he did end up marrying her and her whole life she would go back and forth between these two personalities, one of whom refused to acknowledge him and the other one was in love with him. So you can imagine what a complicated, yeah, what a complicated life this, this man must’ve had. But I mean, she was a very ill woman. She would sometimes bleed from the nose and mouth for no reason. I guess she was technically classified as a hysteric as well as a person with dual personalities.
And the way they understood these two cases, if you’re reading the articles in the Corn Hill or there’s also French articles about these two characters and about other cases of dual personalities and Stevenson could read French very well. So he could have had access to those two. But even if he was just looking at his own country and the periodicals there, he could have found these case studies and decided like, I want to write a story about you know, a character who has brain hemisphere imbalance and this causes them to have a good personality and a bad personality.
There was also another famous case in France, just after Stevenson had written Jekyll and Hyde so probably too late to influence him, but this was the first case of multiple personalities, a diagnosis that exists today as dissociative identity disorder. Although I should point out that it is an extremely controversial topic among psychiatrists, many of whom don’t recognise it as a diagnosable condition at all. In 1885, though, this was all just emerging:
This was a man called Louis Vivet and he was a Frenchman who had a lot of mental problems and a lot of different personalities, States, although some of them would only emerge when doctors applied different magnets and things to his body, which I don’t know why they did that, but they thought that, you know, they could elicit these different personality States by applying magnets to him. So yeah, so this was the first case in multiple personality and they, yeah, this was the first time people ever thought really beyond dual personality. And I think he was a bit of a medical mystery because you couldn’t just attribute each personality to a brain hemisphere. You had to start thinking about other potential causes for the disease.
And this was the case that a Frederick W H Myers, the psychical researcher actually wrote to Stephenson about right after Jekyll and Hyde came out and he said, were you talking about Louis Vivet? Like, is this what the story is about? And Stevenson as usual said, I, I’ve heard of Louis Vivet but that was not what I was writing about. He just kept it very you know, saying this was not my topic, but I have heard of it.
So it seems very likely that Stevenson was influenced, among many other things, by contemporary medical research in psychiatry.
And so Jekyll and Hyde becomes the first in a long line of stories using dual or multiple personalities for all sorts of fictional reasons. From Psycho to Fight Club to M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. Not to mention the hundreds of remakes of the Jekyll & Hyde story itself.
I actually like to show students the 1920 silent film adaptation with John Barrymore as Jekyll slash Hyde, it’s just a very, it’s a very good movie actually, which kind of is surprising given that they didn’t have the use of, you know, I mean they didn’t, there’s music, there’s no talking, but they’re able to get a lot across just through the images. And John Barrymore is an amazing actor. Like for the first two thirds of the transformation scenes where he’s changing from J into H or vice versa. They didn’t even use any makeup on him. It’s just him flailing around and kind of convulsing and you know, he does a very good job of that.
And then the last third of it, they put all this makeup on him and then he looks really ghoulish and grotesque. And the makeup artists were very, very good for their time too. But it’s also interesting cause they didn’t have a rating system at this time. This was all pre-code. So the reviewers had to take it into their own hands to say like, if you’re a nervous person or a pregnant woman or a child, you should not see this movie. You should not go to the theatre. And that had the effect, of course, of making everyone want to see the movie and like storm the theatres on the day it opened because they were just like, oh, if it’s going to give me a heart attack then I’m going to go watch it.
Just as the various characters in Stevenson’s story fail to recognise that there is far more to the unassuming Dr Jekyll, we too, need to look beyond the overly simplified versions of the story. Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece is an endlessly fascinating, terrifying, and brilliantly written tale of the dualities in the world around us.
That’s it. Episode 35 and the beginning of Season 4. It’s great to be back. Thanks for bearing with me during the break. I’ve got lots of new episodes lined up for the coming months so stick around and subscribe if you haven’t already.
In other news you can come see the show live, in a collaboration with the podcast Shedunnit. We’ve got live shows at the Dublin Podcast Festival on Nov 15th and Birmingham at PodUK next February. It’s in Dublin’s brand new venue, The Podcast Studios, and tickets are an outrageously reasonable €15.
Details are on the website, wttepodcast.com
A huge thank you to my guest this week, Professor Anne Stiles. She has written lots of great stuff about brain science and 19th century literature and I have put links to her work on the website.
Don’t forget you can support the show on patreon. And thank you all of my current patrons – Jarlath Frederik, Richard, Carol, Ruth, Maureen, Emma, Bernadette, Meg, Harry, Dixon, John, and Tim – I hope you enjoyed the bonus episode. There will be more of these and you too can have a listen to that lovely bonus episode if you become a patron at patreon.com/wtte
Music this week Paddy Mulcahy and Philip Coleman
And I think that’s it. Thanks so much for listening and I’ll see you in two weeks.