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Jekyll or Hyde: The True Face of Robert Louis Stevenson

Marc McEntegart By Marc McEntegart Published on November 24, 2016
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Given the popularity of Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson is easy to take for granted as part of the English canon. The strange thing is that, while he was remarkably popular in his own lifetime, Stevenson was almost entirely elided over the course of the 20th century, thanks in no small part to a number of literary figures who railed against him, not least of whom Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.

In what could be the most comprehensive criticism of a writer’s style ever penned, Forster wrote of Stevenson and Charles Lamb,

“Here are two gifted, sensitive, fanciful, tolerant, humorous fellows, but they always write with their surface-personalities and never let down buckets into their underworld. Lamb did not try [...] Stevenson was always trying oh ever so hard, but the bucket either stuck or else came up again full of the R.L.S. who let it down, full of the mannerisms, the self-consciousness, the sentimentality, the quaintness which he was hoping to avoid. He and Lamb append their names in full to every sentence they write.”

We'll refrain from quoting them at length here, but if you’d like to delve deeper into the world of staggering criticisms of Stevenson, you can find a great deal of it in Richard Drury’s article on the subject. Be warned that some of it contains such a weight of historico-literary bitterness that reading it aloud could curdle milk.

What is perhaps most spectacular about all of this criticism of Stevenson is that it fails entirely to take into account the influence he had over the proceeding generation of writers, not least of whom Joseph Conrad, on whom Stevenson was a tremendous influence. That might not initially be clear if all you’ve read of Stevenson is the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island (despite both taking place largely on boats), but Conrad drew his influence instead from Stevenson's writing of the South Pacific, the the South Sea Tales

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Even now, the South Sea Tales is an eminently readable collection of short stories, but it pales in comparison to the real jewel of Stevenson’s work from the Pacific. Stevenson documented his time on the islands in a book titled, In the South Seas: Being an account of experiences and observations in the Marquesas, Paumotus and Gilbert Islands in the course of two cruises on the schooner "Equator.” 

Obviously the full title is a bit of a mouthful, but In the South Seas offers a fantastic insight into the kind of person Stevenson was outside his fiction-writing, as well as being presented in an immediate and personal style that draws the reader in. 

Among the most interesting things about In the South Seas is the extent to which Stevenson comes across as a man who could identify the humanity in people who were at the time often dismissed as “savages” and “barbarians” (even by Stevenson himself). Considering Conrad's by-now-notorious treatment of race in Heart of Darkness, it seems laudable that Stevenson's own work often reads as far more even-handed.

Where Heart of Darkness seems almost to reduce the natives of the Congo to humanoid extensions of the environment, Stevenson is guilty of the same.

“It was longer ere we spied the native village, standing (in the universal fashion) close upon a curve of beach, close under a grove of palms; the sea in front growling and whitening on a concave arc of reef. For the cocoa-tree and the island man are both lovers and neighbours of the surf.”

However, as the book progresses In the South Seas includes a number of meditations on his interactions with the islanders and his insights into their culture, leading to Stevenson's realisation that,

“When I desired any detail of savage custom, or of superstitious belief, I cast back in the story of my fathers, and fished for what I wanted with some trait of equal barbarism: Michael Scott, Lord Derwentwater’s head, the second-sight, the Water Kelpie,—each of these I have found to be a killing bait; the black bull’s head of Stirling procured me the legend of Rahero; and what I knew of the Cluny Macphersons, or the Appin Stewarts, enabled me to learn, and helped me to understand, about the Tevas of Tahiti.”

That Stevenson recognised the “equal barbarism” of his own upbringing offers a fascinating insight into his character, particularly considering the time in which it was written. The view is markedly different from the general attitudes toward race at the time, especially given the fact that Stevenson was himself British and had spent so long in London. 

This observation only serves to enrich our appreciation for Stevenson's fiction if it is considered in the context of his earlier work. Take, for example, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At its core, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a novel documenting the story of a gentleman-scientist living in London. Educated and enlightened, Henry Jekyll is a man of science at the very heart of the British empire. It is hard to think of a more 'civilised' individual. Moreover, he is a man of sufficient conscience to recognise in himself “base passions” that “raged within him like a tempest.” 

In a very meaningful respect, his monstrous alter ego Edward Hyde comes to represent the collection of all of the things most uncivilised about Jekyll. Hyde is savage, sly, and brutish. Stevenson never quite calls him barbaric, but it's no great stretch to attribute that quality to him.

It seems fitting that Stevenson, who made his name writing about the fundamental and apparently inalienable savagery of an educated man living in the colonial metropole, should later write about identifying the “equal barbarism” of his own past while spending time with the “savages” of the South Seas. 

What is most curious is that his awareness of the similarities between him and the natives is communicated to the landscape of the South Pacific islands. Where once he had commented on the strangeness of the place, we are later introduced to moments in which he sees the beauty of the landscape not in terms of its alienness but in its similarity to his home. 

Describing the moment of feeling suddenly at home, he wrote,

“And then I turned shoreward, and high squalls were overhead; the mountains loomed up black; and I could have fancied I had slipped ten thousand miles away and was anchored in a Highland loch; that when the day came, it would show pine, and heather, and green fern, and roofs of turf sending up the smoke of peats; and the alien speech that should next greet my ears must be Gaelic, not Kanaka.”

In this, as well as in his approach to the islanders, Stevenson feels less and less like someone writing a journal about their time in a particular time and place, and increasingly like a novelist who has for some reason undertaken an ethnography. Never is this more true than in his examinations of the language and accents of the islanders, where again he begins to ascribe them qualities familiar to him from home,

“Stranger still, that prevalent Polynesian sound, the so-called catch, written with an apostrophe, and often or always the gravestone of a perished consonant, is to be heard in Scotland to this day.  When a Scot pronounces water, better, or bottle—wa’er, be’er, or bo’le—the sound is precisely that of the catch…”

In this as in many other things, his tone in the text of In the South Seas is more often reminiscent of Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific than it is of anything else.

Stevenson’s style remains entirely his own though, and there are few things so wonderful as turning a page to find a new chapter opening with a sentence as simple as, 

“Of the beauties of Anaho books might be written.”

The above is delivered apparently without any understanding of the fact that the books might not “be written,” but may already be “being written” by Stevenson himself. Indeed, large swathes of the book are taken up with descriptions of the beauty of the place in which Stevenson finds himself spending what would become the last years of his life. He even goes so far as to meditate on the fact that he doubts he will ever find it in himself to return home in his lifetime, despite his best intentions.

Of all the (manifold) criticisms of Robert Louis Stevenson, H. L. Mencken's may have been among the most comprehensive and accidentally illuminating. In 1924, Mencken wrote,

“His whole life was a series of flights from reality – first from Presbyterianism, then from the sordid mountbankery of the law, and then from the shackles of his own wrecked and tortured body… Doomed to spend half his life in bed, beset endlessly by pain, brought often to death’s door by hemorrhages, and sometimes forbidden for days on end to work or even to speak, he found release and consolation in gaudy visions of gallant encounters, sinister crimes, and heroic loves. He was the plow-boy dreaming in the hay-loft, the flapper tossing on her finishing-school bed. It was at once a grotesque tragedy and a pathetic farce, but it wrung out of him the best that was in him. What man ever paid more bitterly for the inestimable privilege of work?”

All of this may be true, but to leave it at this description would be to do Stevenson a profound disservice. Even at his worst, there is a subtle undercurrent of humour undercutting what might seem like racist observations, and indeed which seems to underpin much of his writing. We find that we’re smiling in spite of ourselves at sentences like,

“The eyes of all Polynesians are large, luminous, and melting; they are like the eyes of animals and some Italians. ”

Obviously, Stevenson was a man of his time, and perhaps Mencken was right in saying that his work is just a series of flights of fancy, but there is an indication that in those flights of fancy Stevenson may have momentarily alighted on something that was good and wholesome, a realisation of not only of the common humour and nobility of man in all races and locales, but also of the innate “savagery” and “barbarism” of the so-called civilised man. If his “flights from reality” were from the base passions that he had seen in men like Dr. Henry Jekyll, then they are flights into an idealism we could ourselves embrace.

Irish writer, editor, and capoeirista. Passionate about folklore, videogames, and communication. Editorial content writer at Bookwitty.

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