One of my favourite works of Victorian fiction – possibly my favourite, in fact – is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s a story that everyone knows. Jekyll invents this potion, drinks it, becomes Mr Hyde and generally makes a nuisance of himself. Jekyll tops himself at the end.
Except it’s not quite like that in the book. In the book, Jekyll turning into Hyde is actually a twist at the end. The reader, in theory, has no idea that Hyde and Jekyll are the same man until, a few pages from the end, Hyde meets with Jekyll’s friend Dr Lanyon and transforms in front of him. Until that point, Hyde is this awful man who appears to be blackmailing Jekyll into doing his bidding. It must be the most spoilered ending in history – if people know one thing about the story, it’s that Hyde is Jekyll.
In a documentary broadcast a couple of years ago, the author Ian Rankin identified Jekyll’s house. He suggests that it was, in fact, based on the pioneering surgeon Joseph Hunter’s house in Leicester Square.
The house was a typical property such as might be owned by a well-to-do London gent. However, Hunter also owned the house behind, which backed on to what is now Charing Cross Road, but then was a much narrower, more crowded street. Between the two he built his dissecting rooms, receiving corpses through the rear property. Rankin’s argument was that this house represented the double life of Jekyll – respectable Jekyll uses the front door, vile Hyde uses the back.
In the book, Stevenson isn’t hugely specific about where the house is. It is described as having been purchased “from the heirs of a celebrated surgeon” and located on “some square.” The street where Mr Hyde is first sighted, and the property into which he enters, is simply described as “a by street in a busy corner of London.” Hyde’s address is given in no greater detail than “in Soho.”
Soho’s borders are a little uncertain, and before the Tube was there to tell us which part of London we were in, they were even more so. One could, I suppose, call Leicester Square part of Soho. Rankin’s theory would seem to make sense, but at the same time I don’t think Stevenson really intended his fog-bound version of the West End to be too specific.
Whether you go with Rankin’s suggestion or not, the West End is a pretty appropriate setting for the story. For as long as the West End has been there, it’s led a dual existence. For the most part, it’s been a wealthy place, but with little sinful pockets dotted around. Soho, Covent Garden and Haymarket have traditionally been the worst fleshpots of the West End, although the latter two are now rather upmarket for that sort of thing. Jekyll is a single gent, and it’s not too unreasonable to assume that “the ghost of some old sin” that Mr Utterson believes to be the reason for Hyde’s “blackmail” may have come from trips into the back streets of Soho.
Of course, there are lots of interpretations of what Hyde represents. The story is one of a number of Victorian tales that use Gothic supernatural elements to darkly hint that actually, maybe Victorian England wasn’t all crinoline and Sunday prayers. Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray are two others that spring to mind. Of course, if you really want to see the seamy side of Victorian society in the late 19th century, you can do little better than the anonymously-written and eye-blisteringly pornographic My Secret Life, a supposedly autobiographical account of a gentleman’s sexual adventures in Victorian England. It’s disputed as to what extent the work is genuine autobiography, but fiction or reality, it does at least show that actually, sex wasn’t invented some time around 1963.
Basically, what I’m saying is that what underground texts like My Secret Life could say explicitly, mainstream authors could only hint at. A lot of critics have suggested that Hyde represents repressed sexuality, or even repressed homosexuality – there are no women in Jekyll’s social circle. Ian Rankin even goes so far as to suggest that Sir Danvers Carew’s fatal meeting with Hyde reads like “a pick-up gone horribly wrong,” representing the fears of the by-necessity-closeted gay community of the day.
One can also read the potion as a representation of addiction. Jekyll initially requires the potion to turn into Hyde, but then requires it to stop himself from being Hyde. In other words, at first he takes the drug to feel good, then he needs it just to feel normal.
I should probably end this entry soon, as it’s past my bedtime and I’m not making much sense any more. So anyway, in conclusion, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde = messed-up Victorians.