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NA0024 - STEVENSON, R.L.: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (The) (Unabridged)
Robert Louis Stevenson 1850–1894)
Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. His father was an engineer, his mother from a family of lawyers and ministers—all professions and callings that Robert would eventually renounce in favour of a vocation far less secure: that of a storyteller. It is just plausible, if hardly provable, that he was from early childhood aware of the very delicate hold he had on life; he yearned profoundly for romance and adventure and wanted to make the very most of what little there might be, rather than swathe himself in secure and solid respectability.
Physically, emotionally, intellectually and constitutionally he was in any case unsuited to such professional restraints. He suffered from a tubercular disorder which, if it did not directly kill him, wore him down throughout his life. He could not start school until he was seven, and even then could attend only for a limited time because of his weakness. A career dealing with the lighthouses around the northern coasts of Scotland was never likely, although he wrote with some pride of the work which his forebears had done (and which their descendants would continue to do). Similarly the law, for all its intellectual appeal and the fact that many a lawyer had been a writer, did not suit. He was too inventive (or fanciful), too restless, too intrigued by human nature. He was keen to travel, to taste life in a freer fashion, to step away from the sedate, possibly smug, establishment of conformable Edinburgh. Convinced of his atheism by the time he was 22, he was also a world away from observing the established beliefs, a matter which wounded his parents deeply.
But for all his avowedly Bohemian ways, his anti-establishment leanings and his non-conformist attitudes, he was generous, dutiful, caring, faithful and funny; and even if he did fall into somewhat dangerous company while at university, it was as much a part of his research (into himself as well as others) as youthful rebellion. He started off studying engineering before he switched to a law degree, but even as he was studying, he knew that he wanted to live as a writer, and he had already cultivated the company of other artists when he began to travel in France during the holidays. He had also changed his middle name from the traditional ‘Lewis’ to the more cosmopolitan ‘Louis’, though he kept the original pronunciation. He dropped the ‘Balfour’ a few years later. All these acts suggest the shedding of skins, peeling back layers of impositions until he felt capable of freeing himself; but one cannot remove the past entirely, and he did not necessarily wish to. He felt a great and genuine affection for his parents, and they eventually promised him £250 a year once he was definitely set on his career. However, the conflict between what was expected of a dutiful son and what the son himself preferred was to be a feature of many of his later writings, as was the issue of doubles, or second selves.
Meanwhile he had to get on with travelling and writing. His health was a good enough excuse to send him south while he was still studying law (and publishing his first professional piece of writing) but once he graduated in 1875 he was rarely still: he visited Holland, Scotland, London, Paris and many different areas of France. In France, only a year or so after he graduated, he met Fanny Osbourne, an American who was separated from her husband and had two children. A tortuous, transcontinental romance ensued, one that very nearly killed Stevenson as he travelled across America in poor health and with no money. But they married in 1880, and her strength of character, wit and devotion upheld him and helped reconcile him to his family.
Most of the next decade was spent partly searching for somewhere to live (Scotland, England, America) but also producing some of the most enchanting, thrilling and haunting fiction ever written: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Body Snatcher, The Wrong Box, The Master of Ballantrae. Both The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Markheim belong to this period, and both are concerned with the notion of the duality of human nature. The conflict between the imperative to do good and the temptation of evil is common enough (Lucifer, after all, was an angel) but in mid-Victorian Britain there was a powerful tension between the need to be seen as morally upstanding and the unacceptable desires that had therefore to be repressed. The external equivalents of this were, for example, in the slums and poorhouses of the wealthiest cities; and the psychological ones were just as stark and all the more intriguing.
Successive schools of critics have argued over the precise allegory in Jekyll and Hyde, some believing that the story refers to repressed homosexuality specifically, sexual desire generally, Edinburgh’s genteel New Town in contrast to its seamy old one, the Scottish character as a whole, and much more besides. Stevenson was more than aware of the allegory but he comprehensively eschewed any single reading, and that is why the story is so good. It is clearly about the conflict between good and evil, and the danger of conscienceless action, but it is so mesmerising because it is not limited to one area of this conflict. We are not excused our own possible culpability by deciding that it’s not about us: it could be.
Markheim was written a year or so earlier. It is concerned more specifically with a choice between right and wrong action but it presents the choice through a conversation with a troubled Everyman and an unnamed stranger. He is calm, knowing and persuasive—but who is he? His conscience? The Devil? It is a less complex fable, but told with typical and absorbing ease.
Stevenson ended his life in the South Pacific. He finally settled on a Samoan island where, although the climate seemed to aid his general health, he died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage at just 44. The range of his writings is huge—novels, fantasies, short stories, fables, travel, anthropological studies, verse, letters, journalism, memoirs—but they seem to be extensions of his broad, inclusive, gregarious and adventurous personality rather than professional obligations. He had a heart as wide as the open seas he loved, and in his escape from the grey confinements of respectable professionalism he takes his readers as joyful passengers.
Notes by Roy McMillan
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