While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jekyll and Hyde: First Digestion

Today I read the actual story (see yesterday for the prelims). As I’ve mentioned before, Marisa actually read it before me, but, sadly, I could not entice her to write a guest review. But, cunning so-and-so that I am, I asked her what she thought of the book and will now share her thoughts with the world (at least those lost souls who pass through this word vacuum).

I might feel a twinge of “Bad Craig” for doing this if it didn’t transpire that all her thoughts matched mine. So rather than a He Said, She Said, this post comprising thoughts upon a first digestion of Jekyll and Hyde is a We Said.

Reading the novella, we were both reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. There are several reasons for this.

  • Jekyll and Hyde was published in 1886; Sherlock Holmes first appeared in A Study in Scarlet published in 1887.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson were both from Edinburgh, but set these particular stories in London. So there's similarities in setting and language.
  • The authors both have three names—this is normally the sign of an assassin, but I don’t think it has bearing on their writing (DISREGARD).
  • The stories are essentially mysteries, and rely on distancing devices to create mystery and tension. More on this later.

On a personal note, we both read a lot of Sherlock Holmes in September last year (like: all of the short stories between the two of us) when I was asked to write a treatment for a Sherlock Holmes PC game (which stalled through no fault of my own, or so they tell me). So old Sherlock is still fresh in our minds and it’s also something we are both familiar with: hence the shared reaction.

The thing about reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories in a compressed time is you start to not like them. You have to respect ACD for the laying some crucial groundwork for the crime genre and creating an immortal character (who 58% of Britons believe actually lived), but the stories aren’t action packed and rely too often on Holmes’ higher intellect to act as Deus Ex Machina and make it all work.

Reading Jekyll and Hyde for a first time, we got that same Not Liking It feeling. This may have a lot to do with the fact that we already know the twist, and to attack RLS from this vantage is unfair. But, the reader (modern or contemporary) is placed at such a distance from Jekyll/Hyde for two-thirds of the story (most of which is from the perspective of the lawyer, Mr Utterson, who would never get his own story) that Jekyll and Hyde isn't exactly gripping. The reading notes at the back of the One Book One Edinburgh edition invoke Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a “very great” book which uses similar distancing techniques. And yes, Kurtz and Hyde are the hearts of darkness - the things we are reading in order to arrive at - the difference is that Marlow, the primary narrator of Heart of Darkness, is an interesting character. We follow him around for most of the book (and observe him out of Africa in the captain's frame narration), and it isn’t a chore. Following Utterson around, however, is.

I might return to this point, but I’m drifting away from the We Said stuff (I don’t think Marisa has read Heart of Darkness, though she has seen Apocalypse Now)

The part we enjoyed the most was when we finally get to hear from Henry Jekyll. This takes the form of a letter written in Jekyll’s last throes before giving over completely to Hyde. The first half of the letter goes into all the things a reader has been dying to know. Why he would transform himself into the amoral Hyde, how he arrived at a process, how he managed to keep it a secret etc. But the letter also maintains a level of vagueness which ensures there are mysteries which survive the end of the book (such as the actual science behind his concoction).

This wasn’t a case of the final third saving the book, however, as the letter went on too long in our opinion.

We were not amazed. We could see glimpses of a fascinating story, but, perhaps because there have been so many subsequent takes on the duality of man (and woman), this early bird looked thin and quaint.

This was just out views on a first digestion.

Tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever I feel like it actually, I will stare into the heart of darkness of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella and see if I can’t salvage a masterpiece.

1 comment:

petrenkov said...

It is certainly interesting for me to read this article. Thank you for it. I like such themes and anything connected to them. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

Best wishes
Alice Tudes