Vintage Reads #15 – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Jekyll_and_Hyde_TitleThis is one of those stories that really doesn’t need an introduction as so many are familiar with the basic premise of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic – so familiar in fact, that ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has entered the popular lexicon for any person displaying mood swings or dramatic personality shifts.

Purportedly written in a matter of days while Stevenson was feverishly ill in Bournemouth, this slim 1886 novella has had a huge effect on the horror genre and gothic literature. It’s the tale of lawyer John Utterson and his increasing concern for the welfare of his friend Dr. Henry Jekyll who has let a dwarfish and hideously ugly little man called Hyde into his close confidence. Hyde appears to be living with Jekyll and has the use of his cheque book; an arrangement made even more alarming by Jekyll’s new will which makes Hyde the sole beneficiary should Jekyll vanish for a period of more than three months. Utterson is convinced that Hyde is blackmailing his friend over some youthful escapade which could prove scandalous but when Hyde is accused of murdering prominent MP Danvers Carew, the situation is revealed to be something much more sinister.

Jekyll and Hyde is a vastly important book of the Victorian era and much has been made of its allegorical content and social commentary. In the days before the psychoanalysis and personality structures of Sigmund Freud, it’s an interesting take on Dissociative Identity Disorder before such a disorder was identified and Hyde perfectly encapsulates Freud’s ‘id’; a selfish inner personality seeking instant gratification. The story is also seen as a critique on Victorian social standards and the repression of innate lusts by outward respectability. Also, Mr. Hyde seems to represent our less-civilised ancestors. He is described as ‘troglodytic’ and ‘ape-like’ suggesting that he is the Neanderthal still present in all of us no matter how civilised we pretend to be.

Jekyll-mansfield

A double exposure of Richard Mansfield in both of his roles.

The novella was famously adapted for the stage in 1887 by Thomas Russell Sulivan and Richard Mansfield who played both Jekyll and Hyde. Mansfied was an English actor who worked extensively in America and it was in Boston that the play first opened, moving to London’s Lyceum Theater (managed by Bram Stoker) in August of 1888. Mansfield’s performance as Hyde was apparently so shocking that it had ladies fainting in the audience. His transformation was achieved without technical means and relied only on makeup, lighting and facial contortions. The play was so shocking that parallels began to be drawn between Mansfield’s Hyde and the homicidal maniac who was ripping open prostitutes in Whitechapel at the time.

The connection between R. L. Stevenson’s story and Jack the Ripper has been made again and again in popular culture and it’s not hard to see why. The general assumption made about the Whitechapel killer at the time was that he was a respected member of London’s upper class who allowed his evil alter ego to run riot at night. His knowledge of anatomy may very well have meant that he was a doctor with a sick perversion hidden deep down under a layer of respectability. Among accusations that the 1887 play was encouraging violence and corrupting the morals of its audience (the blaming of society’s problems on popular culture being nothing new) there was even an accusation leveled against Mansfield that he himself was the Ripper! This seems to have come from a single audience member who was convinced that nobody could give such a frightening performance and possibly be sane. There is no evidence to suggest that the police ever considered Mansfield a serious suspect but the idea has taken root along with some of the more outlandish Ripper theories.

The Hyde/Ripper connection has continued in popular culture with the Hammer Horror film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Richard Mansfield (played by Armand Assante) appearing the the BBC’s 1988 two-parter entitled Jack the Ripper. I made use of the connection in my own take on the Ripper case in the upcoming Onyx City, the third in the Lazarus Longman Chronicles in which Richard Mansfield plays a significant part.

 

 

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