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Adventures in Bookland: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson


Son number 1 is doing his GCSEs and, for their set text, they are reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Lucky boy – it could have been Bleak House! Much though I love Bleak House, trying to plough through 800 pages of Dickens, searching for ten or fifteen suitable quotes, is really not something you want to be doing in the midst of revising for ten other exams. Instead, they’ve got 65 pages of Stevenson and, to help him, I reread the book myself. It’s been years since I read it and the first thing that surprised me is just how short the story is. It looms much larger in memory than its 65 pages warrant. In part, that is probably because of the place the story has taken in our culture, with the title becoming an adjective for a double-sided individual (so long as one of those sides is dark). But it’s also because the story is so good. On a purely technical level, the way Stevenson switches viewpoints and voices to pull the reader into the story is extraordinary.

Reading the story, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to read it before Jekyll and Hyde had entered everyday vocabularly. In this imagined ignorance, the story’s impact is quite overwhelming – particularly since Stevenson sows the story with so many hints that Hyde is the product not of scientific experiments gone wrong but sexual escapades gone even wronger. For the Victorian, until the final denouement, the story must have seemed to be driving towards Hyde’s unveiling as Jekyll’s illegitimate son, blackmailing his father into accepting him as his heir. Only at the end is all made clear, and the full extent of the darkness in Hyde’s soul made clear.

Having reread the story, I came to the conclusion that it more than deserves its place in the dark places of our dreams and imaginings.

 

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